Influence of the English Bill of Rights of 1689
The right to have arms in English history is believed to have been regarded as a long-established natural right in English law, auxiliary to the natural and legally defensible rights to life. The English Bill of Rights of 1689 emerged from a tempestuous period in English politics during which two issues were major sources of conflict: the authority of the King to govern without the consent of Parliament and the role of Catholics in a country that was becoming ever more Protestant. Ultimately, the Catholic James II was overthrown in theGlorious Revolution, and his successors, the Protestants William III and Mary II, accepted the conditions that were codified in the Bill. One of the issues the Bill resolved was the authority of the King to disarm its subjects, after James II had attempted to disarm many Protestants, and had argued with Parliament over his desire to maintain a standing (or permanent) army. The bill states that it is acting to restore “ancient rights” trampled upon by James II, though some have argued that the English Bill of Rights created a new right to have arms, which developed out of a duty to have arms. In District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), the Supreme Court did not accept this view, remarking that the English right at the time of the passing of the English Bill of Rights was “clearly an individual right, having nothing whatsoever to do with service in the militia” and that it was a right not to be disarmed by the Crown and was not the granting of a new right to have arms.
The text of the English Bill of Rights of 1689 includes language protecting the right of Protestants against disarmament by the Crown. This document states: “That the Subjects which are Protestants may have Arms for their Defence suitable to their Conditions and as allowed by Law.” It also contained text that aspired to bind future Parliaments, though under English constitutional law no Parliament can bind any later Parliament. Nevertheless, the English Bill of Rights remains an important constitutional document, more for enumerating the rights of Parliament over the monarchy than for its clause concerning a right to have arms.
The statement in the English Bill of Rights concerning the right to bear arms is often quoted only in the passage where it is written as above and not in its full context. In its full context it is clear that the bill was asserting the right of Protestant citizens not to be disarmed by the King without the consent of Parliament and was merely restoring rights to Protestants that the previous King briefly and unlawfully had removed. In its full context it reads:
Whereas the late King James the Second by the Assistance of diverse evill Councellors Judges and Ministers imployed by him did endeavour to subvert and extirpate the Protestant Religion and the Lawes and Liberties of this Kingdome (list of grievances including) … by causing severall good Subjects being Protestants to be disarmed at the same time when Papists were both Armed and Imployed contrary to Law, (Recital regarding the change of monarch) … thereupon the said Lords Spirituall and Temporall and Commons pursuant to their respective Letters and Elections being now assembled in a full and free Representative of this Nation takeing into their most serious Consideration the best meanes for attaining the Ends aforesaid Doe in the first place (as their Auncestors in like Case have usually done) for the Vindicating and Asserting their ancient Rights and Liberties, Declare (list of rights including) … That the Subjects which are Protestants may have Arms for their Defence suitable to their Conditions and as allowed by Law.
The historical link between the English Bill of Rights and the Second Amendment, which both codify an existing right and do not create a new one, has been acknowledged by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The English Bill of Rights includes the proviso that arms must be as “allowed by law.” This has been the case before and after the passage of the Bill. While it did not override earlier restrictions on the ownership of guns for hunting, it was written to preserve the hunting rights of the landed aristocracy and is subject to the parliamentary right to implicitly or explicitly repeal earlier enactments. There is some difference of opinion as to how revolutionary the events of 1688–89 actually were, and several commentators make the point that the provisions of the English Bill of Rights did not represent new laws, but rather stated existing rights. Mark Thompson wrote that, apart from determining the succession, the English Bill of Rights did “little more than set forth certain points of existing laws and simply secured to Englishmen the rights of which they were already posessed [sic].” Before and after the English Bill of Rights, the government could always disarm any individual or class of individuals it considered dangerous to the peace of the realm. In 1765, William Blackstonewrote the Commentaries on the Laws of England describing the right to have arms in England during the 18th century as a natural right of the subject that was “also declared” in the English Bill of Rights.
The fifth and last auxiliary right of the subject, that I shall at present mention, is that of having arms for their defence, suitable to their condition and degree, and such as are allowed by law. Which is also declared by the same statute I W. & M. st.2. c.2. and is indeed a public allowance, under due restrictions, of the natural right of resistance and self-preservation, when the sanctions of society and laws are found insufficient to restrain the violence of oppression.
Although there is little doubt that the writers of the Second Amendment were heavily influenced by the English Bill of Rights, it is a matter of interpretation as to whether they were intent on preserving the power to regulate arms to the states over the federal government (as the English Parliament had reserved for itself against the monarch) or whether it was intent on creating a new right akin to the right of others written into the Constitution (as the Supreme Court decided in Heller). Some in the U.S. have preferred the “rights” argument arguing that the English Bill of Rights had granted a right. The need to have arms for self-defence was not really in question. Peoples all around the world since time immemorial had armed themselves for the protection of themselves and others, and as organized nations began to appear these arrangements had been extended to the protection of the state. Without a regular army and police force (which in England was not established until 1829), it had been the duty of certain men to keep watch and ward at night and to confront and capture suspicious persons. Every subject had an obligation to protect the king’s peace and assist in the suppression of riots.
- Blackstone’s Commentaries Book 1 Ch 1 – “The fifth and last auxiliary right of the subject … is that of having arms for their defence”.
- From the English civil war until the Glorious Revolution, militias occasionally disarmed Catholics, and the King, without Parliament’s consent, likewise occasionally disarmed Protestants. Malcolm, “The Role of the Militia,” pp. 139–51.
- Joyce Lee Malcolm, To Keep and Bear Arms.
- “They accordingly obtained an assurance from William and Mary, in the…(Bill of Rights), that Protestants would never be disarmed:..This right has long been understood to be the predecessor to our Second Amendment…. It was clearly an individual right, having nothing whatever to do with service in a militia. To be sure, it was an individual right not available to the whole population, given that it was restricted to Protestants, and like all written English rights it was held only against the Crown, not Parliament.” Opinion of the Court in Heller
- a b “1688 c.2 1 Will. and Mar. Sess. 2”. Statutelaw.gov.uk. Retrieved August 30, 2010.
- Barnett, Law, p. 172.
- “This meaning is strongly confirmed by the historical background of the Second Amendment. We look to this because it has always been widely understood that the Second Amendment, like the First and Fourth Amendments, codified a pre-existing right. The very text of the Second Amendment implicitly recognizes the pre-existence of the right and declares only that it “shall not be infringed.” As we (the United States Supreme Court) said in United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U. S. 542, 553 (1876), “[t]his is not a right granted by the Constitution. Neither is it in any manner dependent upon that instrument for its existence. The Second amendment declares that it shall not be infringed ..”. Between the Restoration and the Glorious Revolution, the Stuart Kings Charles II and James II succeeded in using select militias loyal to them to suppress political dissidents, in part by disarming their opponents. See J. Malcolm, To Keep and Bear Arms 31–53 (1994) (hereinafter Malcolm); L. Schwoerer, The Declaration of Rights, 1689, p. 76 (1981). Under the auspices of the 1671 Game Act, for example, the Catholic James II had ordered general disarmaments of regions home to his Protestant enemies. See Malcolm 103–106. These experiences caused Englishmen to be extremely wary of concentrated military forces run by the state and to be jealous of their arms. They accordingly obtained an assurance from William and Mary, in the Declaration of Right (which was codified as the English Bill of Rights), that Protestants would never be disarmed: “That the subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defense suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law.” 1 W. & M., c. 2, §7, in 3 Eng. Stat. at Large 441 (1689). This right has long been understood to be the predecessor to our Second Amendment. See E. Dumbauld, The Bill of Rights and What It Means Today 51 (1957); W. Rawle, A View of the Constitution of the United States of America 122 (1825) (hereinafter Rawle).” From the Opinion of the Court in District of Coöimbia versus Hellerhttp://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/07pdf/07-290.pdf
- Justice Antonin Scalia, wrote that “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed” was a just a controlling one and referred to it as a pre-existing right of individuals to possess and carry personal weapons for self-defense and intrinsically for defense against tyranny. As with the English law “like most rights, the Second Amendment is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.” District of Columbia v Heller
- “Where a later enactment does not expressly repeal an earlier enactment which it has power to override, but the provisions of the later enactment are contrary to those of the earlier, the latter by implication repeals the earlier.” R v. Burke,  EWHC Admin 913; “[T]he Bill of Rights…was declaratory of the common law. It contained in it its own words of limitation, namely that the right to have arms for self-defence is limited by the words ‘and as allowed by Law’. The law is a changing thing. Parliament by statute can repeal the common law…Where the Bill of Rights says that ‘the Subjects may have arms for their defence suitable for their condition and as allowed by law’, ‘and as allowed by law’ means ‘and as allowed by law for the time being'[.]” R v. Burke,  EWCA Civ 923.
- Thompson, Mark (1938). Constitutional History of England. qtd. in Maer and Gay, p. 4.
- Malcolm, To Keep and Bear Arms, p. 51.
- a b Ely and Bodenhamer, pp. 89–91.
- Heyman, pp. 253–9. “Finally, we should note that (contrary to Kates’s assertion), Blackstone nowhere suggests that the right to arms derives from “the common law.” Instead, this is a right that is secured by “the constitution,” and in particular by the Bill of Rights.”
- “English Bill of Rights, 1689, “An Act Declaring the Rights and Liberties of the Subject and Settling the Succession of the Crown””. The Avalon Project. Yale Law School. 2008. Retrieved December 26, 2012.
- e.g., King Henry II’s Assize of Arms and the Statute of Winchester of 1285. See “The history of policing in the West, Collective responsibility in early Anglo-Saxon times”, Encyclopædia Britannica online.
- Levy, pp. 136–7.
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