Almost immediately after the the Newtown massacre, National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke mounted a vigorous defense of gun rights. “American liberties, including the right to bear arms, pre-exist the federal government, and are defined and protected in the same document from which the state derives its authority and its structure,” he wrote. “In a free republic, the people cannot be disarmed by the government, for they are its employers, and they did not give up their individual rights when they consented to its creation.”

With a renewed push for gun control on the top of Washington’s mind this week, I thought it’d be worthwhile to recall historian Garry Wills’s perhaps idiosyncratic view of the Second Amendment. In short, he is inclined to agree with the first half of Cooke’s apologia—individuals have a right to own a gun that pre-exists the Federal Constitution—but disagrees that this right is specifically enumerated in the Bill of Rights.

Wills departs from the standard liberal hedging on this question. Jeffrey Toobin, for example, reads the language of the Second Amendment in two distinct clauses—one having to do with the regulation of militias and the other with the individual’s right to “bear arms”:

The text of the amendment is divided into two clauses and is, as a whole, ungrammatical: “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.” The courts had found that the first part, the “militia clause,” trumped the second part, the “bear arms” clause. In other words, according to the Supreme Court, and the lower courts as well, the amendment conferred on state militias a right to bear arms—but did not give individuals a right to own or carry a weapon.

Wills interprets the language of the amendment quite differently (and I believe more persuasively); he sees it as a coherent whole that is entirely in reference to the regulation of militias. Wills developed this argument most fully in a long 1995 essay for the New York Review of Books, and later included a condensed version of it in his 1999 book A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government.

Here he is on the meaning of the phrase “bear arms”:

To bear arms is, in itself, a military term. One does not bear arms against a rabbit. The phrase simply translates the Latin arma ferre. The infinitive ferre, to bear, comes from the verb fero. The plural noun arma explains the plural usage in English (“arms”). One does not “bear arm.” Latin arma is, etymologically, war “equipment,” and it has no singular forms. By legal and other channels, arma ferre entered deeply into the European language of war. To bear arms is such a synonym for waging war that Shakespeare can call a just war “just-borne arms” and a civil war “self-borne arms.” Even outside the phrase “bear arms,” much of the noun’s use alone echoes Latin phrases: to be under arms (sub armis), the call to arms (ad arma), to follow arms (arma sequi), to take arms (arma capere), to lay down arms (arma ponere). “Arms” is a profession that one brother chooses as another chooses law or the church. An issue undergoes the arbitrament of arms. In the singular, English “arm” often means a component of military force (the artillery arm, the cavalry arm).

Thus “arms” in English, as in Latin, is not restricted to the meaning “guns.” The Romans had no guns; and they did not limit arma to projectile weapons (spears, arrows). It meant weaponry in general, everything from swords to siege instruments—but especially shields. That is why the heraldic use of “arms” in English (the very case Stephen Halbrook invokes) refers to shields “coated” (covered) with blazonry.

And here he is on the verb “to keep”:

Gun advocates read “to keep and bear” disjunctively, and think the verbs refer to entirely separate activities. “Keep,” for them, means “possess personally at home”—a lot to load into one word. To support this entirely fanciful construction, they have to neglect the vast literature on militias. It is precisely in that literature that to-keep-and-bear is a description of one connected process. To understand what “keep” means in a military context, we must recognize how the description of a local militia‘s function was always read in contrast to the role of a standing army. Armies, in the ideology of the time, should not be allowed to keep their equipment in readiness.

“History, philology, and logic furnish no solid basis for thinking the Second Amendment has anything to do with the private ownership of guns,” Wills wrote in A Necessary Evil. But hold on, he continues: this hardly means federal or state governments are therefore justified in confiscating all privately owned guns. The Constitution is not the summa of individual rights. The Ninth Amendment helpfully reminds us of this fact. One may reasonably argue, as Cooke does, that we have a natural right to own a gun, to defend our selves and our property, by lethal force if necessary. Indeed, this right may have seemed so self-evidently obvious that Madison did not deem it necessary to explicitly guarantee (enumerate) its protection in the Constitution.

Wills:

Why, then, did Madison propose the Second Amendment? For the same reason that he proposed the Third, against quartering troops on the civilian population. That was a remnant of old royal attempts to create a standing army by requisition of civilian facilities. It had no real meaning in a government that is authorized to build barracks, forts, and camps. But it was part of the anti-royal rhetoric of freedom that had shown up, like the militia language, in state requests for amendments to the Constitution.

If Wills is right, it means that conservatives may debate the gun issue on the basis of reason, custom, and commonsense—but without dispositive recourse to the verbiage of the Second Amendment.