The First Amendment protects religious liberty, freedom of speech, of the press, of peaceable assembly, and the right to petition the government for redress of grievances. Most would agree that these rights are the most critical in a free society. Hence, their premiere status as the First Amendment.
What protection immediately follows these? The right of the people to keep and bear Arms.
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed. [United States Constitution, Amendment II]
The British knew this, so when revolution appeared imminent, they first attempted to disarm the Colonists. British Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith was passing through Lexington on his way to Concord to seize and destroy armaments stored there when the “shot heard round the world” was fired [ref].
Thomas Jefferson said:
When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny. The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government. [ref]
Jefferson was joined in his pro-Arms views by thousands of patriots, including by most of the Founding Fathers of our nation. Following are a few examples:
“[It is] a chimerical idea to suppose that a country like this could ever be enslaved … Is it possible … that an army could be raised for the purpose of enslaving themselves or their brethren? or, if raised whether they could subdue a nation of freemen, who know how to prize liberty and who have arms in their hands?” [ref]
— Theodore Sedgwick (May 9, 1746 – January 24, 1813, an American attorney, politician and jurist; served in elected state government and as a Delegate to the Continental Congress, as a US Representative, and as United States Senator from Massachusetts. He served as the fifth Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. He was appointed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1802 and served there the rest of his life)
“Before a standing army can rule the people must be disarmed; as they are in almost every kingdom in Europe. The supreme power in America cannot enforce unjust laws by the sword; because the whole body of the people are armed, and constitute a force superior to any band of regular troops that can be, on any pretence, raised in the United States.” [ref]
— Noah Webster (October 16, 1758 – May 28, 1843, a lexicographer, textbook pioneer, English spelling reformer, political writer, editor, and prolific author. Called the “Father of American Scholarship and Education”, his blue-backed speller books taught five generations of American children how to spell and read, and his name became synonymous with “dictionary”, especially the modern Merriam-Webster dictionary that was first published in 1828 as An American Dictionary of the English Language.
“Guard with jealous attention the public liberty. Suspect everyone who approaches that jewel. Unfortunately, nothing will preserve it but downright force. Whenever you give up that force, you are inevitably ruined.” [ref]
— Patrick Henry (May 29, 1736 – June 6, 1799, an attorney, planter and politician; became known as an orator during the movement for independence in Virginia in the 1770s. A Founding Father, he served as the first and sixth post-colonial Governor of Virginia, from 1776 to 1779 and from 1784 to 1786.)
“[The Constitution should] be never construed to authorize Congress to infringe the just liberty of the press, or the rights of conscience; or to prevent the people of the United States, who are peaceable citizens, from keeping their own arms.” [ref]
— Samuel Adams (September 27, 1722 – October 2, 1803, an American statesman, political philosopher, and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. As a politician in colonial Massachusetts, Adams was a leader of the movement that became the American Revolution, and was one of the architects of the principles of American republicanism that shaped the political culture of the United States. He was a second cousin to President John Adams.)
“Besides the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation, the existence of subordinate governments, to which the people are attached, and by which the militia officers are appointed, forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition, more insurmountable than any which a simple government of any form can admit of.” [ref]
— James Madison (March 16, 1751 – June 28, 1836, an American statesman and political theorist, the fourth President of the United States (1809–1817). Hailed as the “Father of the Constitution” for being instrumental in the drafting of the United States Constitution and the key champion and author of the United States Bill of Rights. He served as a politician much of his adult life.)
“To disarm the people; that it was the best and most effectual way to enslave them.” [ref]
— George Mason (December 11, 1725 – October 7, 1792, an American Patriot, statesman and a delegate from Virginia to the U.S. Constitutional Convention. Along with James Madison, he is called the “Father of the United States Bill of Rights.” For these reasons he is considered one of the “Founding Fathers” of the United States.)
“The supposed quietude of a good man allures the ruffian; while on the other hand arms, like laws, discourage and keep the invader and plunderer in awe, and preserve order in the world as property. The same balance would be preserved were all the world destitute of arms, for all would be alike; but since some will not, others dare not lay them aside … Horrid mischief would ensue were the law-abiding deprived of the use of them.” [ref]
— Thomas Paine (January 29, 1737 – June 8, 1809, an English-American political activist, author, political theorist and revolutionary. As the author of two highly influential pamphlets at the start of the American Revolution, he inspired the American Patriots in 1776 to declare independence from Britain. His ideas reflected Enlightenment era rhetoric of transnational human rights.)
“To preserve liberty, it is essential that the whole body of the people always possess arms and be taught alike, especially when young, how to use them.” [ref]
— Richard Henry Lee (January 20, 1732 – June 19, 1794, an American statesman from Virginia best known for the motion in the Second Continental Congress calling for the colonies’ independence from Great Britain. He was a signatory to the Articles of Confederation and his famous resolution of June 1776 led to the United States Declaration of Independence, which Lee signed. He also served a one-year term as the President of the United States in Congress Assembled (USCA), and was a U.S. Senator from Virginia from 1789 to 1792, serving during part of that time as one of the first Presidents pro tempore of the United States Senate.)
“If the representatives of the people betray their constituents, there is then no recourse left but in the exertion of that original right of self-defense which is paramount to all positive forms of government.” [ref]
— Alexander Hamilton (January 11, 1755 or 1757 – July 12, 1804, a Founding Father, soldier, economist, political philosopher, one of America’s first constitutional lawyers and the first United States Secretary of the Treasury.)
That Madison envisioned a personal right to bear arms, rather than merely a right for the states to organize militias, is evident from his desired placement of the right in the Constitution. Madison’s original plan was to designate the amendments as inserts between specific sections of the existing Constitution, rather than as separate amendments added to the end of the document.50 Madison did not designate the right to keep and bear arms as a limitation of the militia clause of Section 8 of Article I. Rather, he placed it as part of a group of provisions (with freedom of speech and the press) to be inserted in “Article 1st, Section 9, between Clauses 3 and 4.” Such a designation would have placed this right immediately following the few individual rights protected in the original Constitution, dealing with the suspension of bills of attainder, habeas corpus, and ex post facto laws. Thus Madison aligned the right to bear arms along with the other individual rights of freedom of religion and the press, rather than with congressional power to regulate the militia.52 This suggested placement of the Second Amendment reflected recognition of an individual right, rather than a right dependent upon the existence of the militia. [ref]