John Adams and the right to arms
I've previously suggested that the most interesting and informative approach to the framing of the Second Amendment is to assume that each Framer meant what he said, and to seek explanations of why their wording differed. This is at once more challenging, and more productive, than assuming that a Framer who said the militia was essential was really saying that everyone had a right to arms, or that a Framer who said that the people have a right to keep and bear arms was really saying that militia duty (and it was a duty, not a right) is important to a republic.
So let's try that with John Adams, principal drafter of the 1780 Massachusetts Bill of Rights, which recognized that "The people have a right to keep and to bear arms for the common defense." It has two innovations: (1) for the first time, "to keep" as well as to bear, and (2) the "for the common defense" limitaton. Let's look at Adams and see why he might have added the latter provision.... [UPDATE ADDED under "read more"]
Adams had a first-rate legal mind. A reading of his "Defense of the Constitutions of the United States" (not a typo--the "United States" was then a plural, and he largely discusses State constitutions) will show him a more precise writer, and a far deeper historian, than Jefferson (although he lacks the latter's style). Unlike Jefferson, who wrote casually of revolutions every 25 years to fertilize the tree of liberty, Adams feared mobs and popular uprisings.
He was also a strong Classical Republican. The 1780 constitution limited membership in the lower house of the legislature to persons owning 100 pounds value in realty, and the upper house to persons owning 300 pounds. Holding office was not a right of every free man -- it was reserved to major landowners, in accord with Classical Republican beliefs.
A precise thinker who was concerned about mobs would worry that a broad statement of a right to keep and bear arms would protect an armed mob. After all, they are "keeping" and "bearing" arms. Adam's Defense of the Constitutions indicates he was alert to this concern:
To suppose arms in the hands of citizens, to be used at individual discretion, except in private self-defense, or by partial orders of towns, counties or districts of a state, is to demolish every constitution, and lay the laws prostrate, so that liberty can be enjoyed by no man; it is a dissolution of the government.
Adams doesn't want a right to arms for just any purpose: he wants one for self-defense, for militia-type service, and not for anarchy. Thus, I believe, his drafting.
Three things bear emphasis here. First, that does not mean that Adams wanted a select militia, where only a part of the citizenry was armed. As Halbrook points out in The Right to Bear Arms, Adams also proclaimed that "A select militia will soon become a standing army." Second, Adams was by no means hostile to widespread armament as such. After all, he inserted the words "to keep" for the first time in a State constitution; the right now clearly pointed to private arms ownership, not just bearing arms. Third, as I note elsewhere, the first Senate voted down a proposal to insert "for the common defense" in the federal Bill of Rights. Apparently Congress did not share his worries, or else was alert to the fact that the 1780 constitution's reference to common defense had stirred protests and petitions from Massachusett's towns (See my Historiography article in the sidebar for details, p. 42).
UPDATE in light of comments:
1. I regard militia service as primarily duty rather than right, since the core of the legal arrangement was to require people to perform a service rather than give them an option. I haven't read Gerry and the debates in the first House in a while, but as I recollect one big concern over Madison's conscientious object clause was that it would allow people to wiggle out of militia duty and thus undermine the system (I recollect that some critics scoffed that the entire American people were unlikely to turn Quaker just to get out of serving). Militia duty meant travel, muster, drill, and risk of court martial and fine for failure to arrive, or having a nonfunctioning or nonstandard gun. (Norman Heath's study of appeals from militia court martials shows this was not a small risk). Americans seemed to have had a sort of love-hate relationship here. All agreed that a militia was necessary -- but that if that were left to choice, individually many if not most people wouldn't show up. As I see it, the right to arms clause guarantees that Americans could decide the question of whether to be armed, and the militia clause suggests that "no" was the wrong answer to that question. Perhaps we should analogize it to the jury? A person has a right to jury trial. You or I would probably be offended if we were singled out as unworthy to be a juror (as a generality), and might thus regard it as something like a right. But, all in all, we're not calling up the clerk of the court to demand a jury summons ASAP.
2. The 1684 statute in comments is interesting. The "impressment" of arms at militia musters at first glance suggests the government was doing the seizing, but the later reference to seizure under attachment, execution, etc. puts it in a different light. If you had a judgment against a debtor, he lives far out in the country and has little personal property, how do you collect? Well, you know he has to show up for militia muster, and then he'll be bringing one valuable item of personal property -- his musket. So send the sheriff out to the muster to execute the judgment by seizing and selling his musket! Apparently that was happening frequently enough to where the King and Parliament had to forbid the practice because it was discouraging attendance at musters.