This material originally appeared on Kim Weissman's
Congress Action Newsletter

The Founders' Documents
(and more)
on the Right to Keep and Bear Arms

Political Philosophers on The Right To Bear Arms
and Self Defense


CATO’S LETTERS were a series of articles written by Englishmen JOHN TRENCHARD and THOMAS GORDON, which were originally published weekly in The London Journal between 1720 and 1723. They expounded extreme libertarianism, and were very influential on American pre-revolutionary thought; they were widely quoted and often reprinted in England and in the American colonies; and were viewed by the founding generation of America as among the most authoritative statements on the nature of political liberty, and on the threats such liberty faced.

“The exercise of despotic power is the unrelenting war of an armed tyrant upon his unarmed subjects.” – Cato’s Letters # 25 (April 15, 1721)

“The two great laws of human society, from whence all the rest derive their course and obligation, are those of equity and self preservation. By the first all men are bound alike not to hurt one another, by the second all men have a right alike to defend themselves.” – Cato’s Letters # 42 (August 26, 1721)

“It is a maxim of the law that whatever we do in the way and for the ends of self defense, we lawfully do. It is wickedness not to destroy a destroyer, and all the ill consequences of self defense are chargeable upon him who occasioned them.” – Cato’s Letters # 42 (August 26, 1721)

“Those governments which are founded upon oppression, always find it necessary to engage interests enough in their tyranny to overcome all opposition from those who are tyrannized over, by giving separate and unequal privileges to the instruments and accomplices of their oppression, by letting them share the advantages of it, by putting arms in their hands, and by taking away all the means of self defense from those who have more right to use them.” – Cato’s Letters # 97 (October 6, 1722)

JUSTINIAN (“Digest of Roman Law”, 529 A.D.):

“That which someone does for the safety of his body, let it be regarded as having been done legally.”

SIR EDWARD COKE (“Institutes of the Laws of England”, 1628):

“And yet in some cases a man may not only use force and arms, but assem­ble company also. As any may assemble his friends and neighbors, to keep his house against those that come to rob, or kill him, or to offer him violence in it, and is by construction excepted out of this Act; and Sheriff, etc., ought not to deal with him upon this Act; for a man’s house is his Castle, and a per­son’s own house is his ultimate refuge; for where shall a man be safe, if it be not in his house. And in this sense it truly said, and the laws permit the taking up of arms against armed persons.”

THOMAS HOBBES (“Leviathan”, 1651):

“A Law of Nature is a precept, or general rule, found out by reason, by which a man is forbidden to do that which destructive of his life, or take away the means of preserving the same; and to omit that by which he thinks it may be best preserved. … Consequently it is a precept, or general rule of reason, that every man ought to endeavor peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek, and use, all helps and advantages of war.”

“…a man cannot lay down the right of resisting them that assault him by force, to take away his life…”.

“A covenant not to defend myself from force, by force, is always void. For no man can transfer, or lay down his right, to save himself from death, wounds, and imprisonment.”

“The right men have by Nature to protect themselves, when none else can protect them, can by no Covenant [the agreement between individuals to form a government, and the laws enacted thereby] be relinquished.”

JOHN LOCKE (“Two Treatises of Government”, 1689):

“Must men alone be debarred the common privilege of opposing force with force, which nature allows so freely to all other creatures for their preservation from injury? I answer: self defense is a part of the law of nature, nor can it be denied the community, even against the king himself...”.

JOHN LOCKE (“Two Treatises of Government”, 1689):

“And hence it is, that he who attempts to get another man into his absolute power, does thereby put himself into a state of war with him; it being to be understood as a declaration of a design upon his life. This makes it lawful for a man to kill a thief, who has not in the least hurt him, nor declared any design upon his life, any further than by the use of force, so to get him in his power, as to take away his money, or what he pleases from him: because using force, where he has no right, to get me into his power, let his pretense be what it will, I have no reason to suppose that he, who would take away my liberty, would not when he had me in his power, take away everything else. And therefore it is lawful for me to treat him as one who has put himself into a state of war with me, i.e. kill him if I can; for to that hazard does he justly expose himself, whoever introduces a state of war, and is aggressor in it.”

ALGERNON SIDNEY (“Discourses Concerning Civil Government”, 1698):

“Swords were given to men, that none might be Slaves, but such as know not how to use them.”

BARON de MONTESQUIEU (“The Spirit of the Laws”, 1748):

“Who does not see that self-defense is a duty superior to every precept?”

CESARE BECCARIA (“On Crimes and Punishment”, Chapter XL: “False Ideas of Utility”; 1764):

“It is a false idea of utility to sacrifice a thousand real advantages for the sake of one disadvantage which is either imaginary or of little consequence; this would take fire away from men because it burns and water because it drowns people; this is to have no remedy for evils except destruction. Laws forbidding people to bear arms are of this nature; they only disarm those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes. On the other hand, how can someone who has the courage to violate the most sacred laws of humanity and the most important ones in the statute books be expected to respect the most trifling and purely arbitrary regulations that can be broken with ease and impunity and that,

were they enforced, would put an end to personal liberty -- so dear to each man, so dear to the enlightened legislator -- and subject the innocent to all the vexations that the guilty deserve? Such laws place the assaulted at a disadvantage and the assailant at an advantage, and they multiply rather than decrease the number of murders, since an unarmed person may be attacked with greater confidence than someone who is armed. These laws should not be deemed preventive, but rather inspired by a fear of crime. They originate with the tumultuous impact of a few isolated facts, not with a rational consideration of the drawbacks and advantages of a universal decree.”

SIR WILLIAM BLACKSTONE (“Commentaries on the Laws of England”, 1765):

“Self defense is justly called the primary law of nature, so it is not, neither can it be in fact, taken away by the laws of society.”

SIR WILLIAM BLACKSTONE (“Commentaries on the Laws of England”, 1765):

“In these several articles consist the rights, or, as they are frequently termed, the liberties of Englishmen. . . . So long as these remain in­violate, the subject is perfectly free; for every species of compulsive tyranny and oppression must act in opposition to one or other of these rights, having no other object upon which it can possibly be employed. . . . And, lastly, to vindicate these rights, when actually violated or attacked, the subjects of England are entitled, in the first place, to the regular administration and free course of justice in the courts of law; next, to the right of petitioning the king and parliament for redress of grievances; and, lastly, to the right of having and using arms for self-

preservation and defense.”

SIR WILLIAM BLACKSTONE (“Commentaries on the Laws of England”, 1765):

“In the three preceding articles we have taken a short view of the principal absolute rights [personal security, personal liberty, private property] which appertain to every Englishman. But in vain would these rights be declared, ascertained, and protected by the dead letter of the laws, if the constitution had provided no other method to secure their actual enjoyment. It has therefore established certain other auxiliary subordinate rights of the subject, which serve principally as outworks or barriers to protect and maintain inviolate the three great and primary rights, of personal security, personal liberty, and private property:

1. The constitution, powers, and privileges of parliament . . . .

2. The limitation of the king’s prerogative . . . .

3. . . . [A]pplying to the courts of justice for redress of injuries.

4. . . . [T]he right of petitioning the king, or either house of parliament, for the redress of grievances.

5. The fifth and last auxiliary right of the subject, that I shall at present mention, is that of having arms for their defense, suitable to their condition and degree, and such as are allowed by law. Which is also declared by the same statute . . . 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.

To vindicate the three primary rights, when actually violated or attacked, the subjects of England are entitled, in the first place, to the regular administration and free course of justice in the courts of law; next, to the right of petitioning the king and parliament for redress of grievances; and, lastly, to the right of having and using arms for self-preservation and defence.”

ST. GEORGE TUCKER (Annotation to Blackstone’s “Commentaries on the Laws of England”; 1803):

“The right of self defense is the first law of nature: in most governments it has been the study of rulers to confine this right within the narrowest limits possible. Wherever standing armies are kept up, and the right of the people to keep and bear arms, is under any colour or pretext whatsoever, prohibited, liberty, if not already annihilated, is on the brink of destruction.”


“God grants liberty only to those who love it, and are always ready to guard and defend it.”

PRESIDENT THEODORE ROOSEVELT: (Sixth State of the Union Address, December 3, 1906)

“Our Regular Army is so small that in any great war we should have to trust mainly to volunteers; and in such event these volunteers should already know how to shoot; for if a soldier has the fighting edge, and ability to take care of himself in the open, his efficiency on the line of battle is almost directly Proportionate to excellence in marksmanship. We should establish shooting galleries in all the large public and military schools, should maintain national target ranges in different parts of the country, and should in every way encourage the formation of rifle clubs throughout all parts of the land. The little Republic of Switzerland offers us an excellent example in all matters connected with building up an efficient citizen soldiery.”


“Among the many misdeeds of the British rule in India, history will look upon the Act depriving a whole nation of arms as the blackest. If we want the Arms Act to be repealed, if we want to learn the use of arms, here is a golden opportunity. If the middle classes render voluntary help to Government in the hour of its trial, distrust will disappear, and the ban on possessing arms will be withdrawn.” – Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth (1948)


“Finally, I contended that the debate over the question of self-defense was unnecessary since few people suggested that Negroes should not defend themselves as individuals when attacked. The question was not whether one should use his gun when his home was attacked, but whether it was tactically wise to use a gun while participating in an organized demonstration.” – Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (Chapter II, Black Power”)

“As we have seen, the first public expression of disenchantment with nonviolence arose around the question of “self-defense.” In a sense this is a false issue, for the right to defend one’s home and one’s person when attacked has been guaranteed through the ages by common law.” – Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (Chapter II, Black Power)


“Certainly one of the chief guarantees of freedom under any government, no matter how popular and respected, is the right of citizens to keep and bear arms. This is not to say that firearms should not be very carefully used, and that definite safety rules of precaution should not be taught and enforced. But the right of citizens to bear arms is just one more guarantee against arbitrary government, and one more safeguard against a tyranny which now appears remote in America, but which historically has proved to be always possible.” – Know Your Lawmakers; Guns Magazine, February, 1960

SENATOR ORRIN HATCH: Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on the Constitution, 97th Congress, 2d Session:

“What the Subcommittee on the Constitution uncovered was clear – and long-lost – proof that the second amendment to our Constitution was intended as an individual right of the American citizen to keep and carry arms in a peaceful manner, for protection of himself, his family, and his freedoms.” – The Right to Keep and Bear Arms; U.S. Senate report (February, 1982)

“If gun laws in fact worked, the sponsors of this type of legislation should have no difficulty drawing upon long lists of examples of crime rates reduced by such legislation. That they cannot do so after a century and a half of trying – that they must sweep under the rug the southern attempts at gun control in the 1870-1910 period, the northeastern attempts in the 1920-1939 period, the attempts at both Federal and State levels in 1965-1976 – establishes the repeated, complete and inevitable failure of gun laws to control serious crime.” – The Right to Keep and Bear Arms; U.S. Senate report (February, 1982)

“I have spent a great deal of time exploring the meaning of the 2nd Amendment, its historic derivation, as well as its modern importance. Let me tell you that I easily concluded that the 2nd Amendment includes an individual as well as a collective right to bear arms. Beyond the plain language of the Constitution, I see the guarantee of the individual right to bear arms as necessary to give any meaningful guarantee to the purpose and spirit of the 2nd Amendment – the protection against oppression.” – Senator Russell Feingold (D-WI); Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing; September 23, 1998


“…let me state unequivocally my view that the text and the original intent of the Second Amendment clearly protect the right of individuals to keep and bear firearms. … In light of this vast body of evidence, I believe it is clear that the Constitution protects the private ownership of firearms for lawful purposes. As l was reminded during my confirmation hearing, some hold a different view and would, in effect, read the Second Amendment out of the Constitution. I must respectfully disagree with this view, for when I was sworn as Attorney General of the United States, I took an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution. That responsibility applies to all parts of the Constitution, including the Second Amendment.” – letter to National Rifle Association, Institute for Legislative Action (May 17, 2001)


“As the chief law enforcement officers of our respective states, we wish to make one final point that is outside the scope of constitutional analysis. Simply put, your position on the Second Amendment is a sound public policy decision. There is an increasing amount of data available to support the claim that private gun ownership deters crime. That evidence comes both from the United States (particularly as highlighted in the empirical research of John Lott) and from abroad. To the extent that a society’s laws make it more difficult for law-abiding private citizens to buy and keep firearms, that society is more subject to the destructive behavior of those who do not follow any law. This fact is increasingly clear for those who will look at the evidence. It is, in a way, a twenty-first century vindication of the wisdom of our eighteenth century Founders in securing our right to bear arms.” – letter from 18 States’ Attorneys General in support of U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft’s determination that the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals to keep and bear firearms

Table of Contents

Massachusetts' attorney Kim Weissman closed his website, Congress Action Newsletter, and has graciously selected TYSK as the repository for his very popular Second Amendment Information. Mr. Weissman and TYSK both hope that you will find what is contained here informative and enlightening and useful in refuting the claims, falsehoods, and distortions offered by those that want to restrict or eliminate the one pillar of the Bill of Rights which protects all others.

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jan 2006