A Well-Outfitted Militia: German Translation of the Second Amendment Offers Insight

There’s a perennial debate in gun politics in the United States. The gun control side makes various specious arguments claiming that the Second Amendment protects muskets and not modern arms, that the right to keep and bear arms belongs to a select militia like the National Guard, not We the People, and that “well-regulated” authorizes the de facto destruction of our rights via regulation.

Those of us who have studied the copious scholarly research on the text and history of the Second Amendment know that those arguments are bunk. We know that the right to keep and bear arms is not dependent on militia service. We know that the right extends to modern arms, much like the First Amendment is applicable to modern forms of communication. We know that “well-regulated” means in proper working order, not choking off that right while pretending to nurture it.

To further support the originalist interpretation of the Second Amendment, there’s insight offered from an uncommon source: the re-translation into English of founding era documents originally translated into German. The following is the abstract from an academic paper published in the American Journal of Legal History:

A Well-Outfitted Militia: German–American Translations of the Second Amendment and Original Public Meaning
By Brandon Kinney

This article seeks to uncover the original public meaning of the Second Amendment by scrutinizing unusual and previously unexamined sources: German–American translations of the Bill of Rights during the Founding Era. Translations offer a unique perspective of political culture, because they served as thoughtful analysis and contextual commentary on the source text.

Using six German–American translations in the Founding Era, this article argues that the public understanding of the Second Amendment during the Founding Era was one that recognized the individual right to own firearms for individual use unconnected to militia service as well as a constitutional endorsement of an armed population as the best bulwark to preserve the liberty of the national people.

Though the exact text of the translations differ across publishers and states, they retain thematic and syntactic similarities that suggest a public consensus over the meaning of the text. The notion that the Second Amendment protects an individual right rather than a collective one is borne out by additional translations well into the mid-nineteenth century.

Printers adjusted their translations of the amendment after the militia as a military institution had fallen into disuse but preserved or strengthened the clause protecting the individual right to arms rather than letting it ‘fall silent’.

Further down, the full paper (which you can purchase online) explains the German words used:

A comparison of the translations reveals three striking similarities. First, each utilizes the word Volk for ‘People’, which by the Enlightenment had come to imply nationalist or political categories in secular documents.

Second, each introduces a conjunction to the beginning of each clause, which taken together push the rhetorical emphasis to the second clause (the Rights Clause).

Third, the majority of the texts translate ‘well regulated’ as wohl or gut eingerichtete, meaning that the militia is well-furnished, well-outfitted, or well-equipped rather than being subjected to government oversight (or disciplined, in the contemporaneous nomenclature).

Given the numerous alternatives to translating the English text, the fact that these translations independently embraced these major elements suggests a consensus understanding of the amendment’s context and meaning.

The paper states the following:

After analyzing these interpretive similarities, this research makes the following contentions: the original public meaning of the Second Amendment indicated an understanding of both an individual right to keep and bear arms as well as a declarative statement on the militia that had no limiting effect on the individual right.

Put another way, the first clause (the Militia Clause) does not create a condition for the second clause. Instead, it declares an axiom as understood by the framers: a well-established and well-outfitted militia (broadly defined as the entirety of the national populace) is necessary to securing a free nation.

To support this dictum, the amendment subsequently recognizes the individual right to keep and bear private arms, because the militia is made possible by private arms rather than the other way around.

With the publication of the Bill of Rights, the Constitution endorsed an armed citizenry as the best possible defense of a nation’s liberties rather than making the individual ownership contingent on the continued use of a militia.

Gun controllers like to repeat this quote from former Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger in support of their cute, creative collective rights theory:

“The gun lobby’s interpretation of the Second Amendment is one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word fraud, on the American people by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”

Burger’s claim is nothing but an argument by assertion. Repeating it doesn’t make it right.

Brandon Kinney’s paper is very insightful and supports the voluminous existing evidence of the standard individual rights interpretation. Its unique perspective will help further the intellectual defense of our right to keep and bear arms. Hats off to Mr. Kinney for his work.