UPDATED Monday, April 13, 2009
As a result of Second Amendment dispute, it has been suggested that to infringe relative to the fundamental right to keep and bear arms means only to completely destroy the right, and that extensive "reasonable" regulations are legitimate and do not infringe the right. As an example, it has been claimed that a complete ban on certain types of firearms is a “reasonable” regulation and would not violate the "shall not be infringed" restrictive language. A contrary understanding is that infringe means to encroach upon or narrow the right in any way and that the purpose for the "shall not be infringed" language was to prevent regulation of the right.
An excellent method for determining how extensive the Bill of Rights protection based on the verb "infringe" was intended to be in the Founders' view is to rely on historical examples. What can be gleaned from their own use of this term in relation to other Bill of Rights proposals? Here are some of them.
James Madison's Usage
The Second Amendment's "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed" language is exactly what was proposed as the first clause of the amendment by James Madison on June 8, 1789. In addition to that "infringe" based language, Madison also included this freedom of religion related protection in his Bill of Rights proposals to Congress: “nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, infringed.” [The Origin of the Second Amendment p.654] Assuming that Madison's intention in preventing religious liberty from being “infringed” was to allow for considerable "reasonable" regulation by the federal government is illogical. In fact, it is clear that the intent of such language was to prevent any interference whatsoever by the government in such matters. The later change to “Congress shall make no laws” language buttresses this period understanding of "infringe" based protection.
Samuel Adams' Usage
Another person who used "infringe" in bill of rights proposals for the Constitution was Samuel Adams in the Massachusetts Ratifying Convention. He attempted to protect freedom of the press and religion with this proposal: “that the said Constitution be never construed to authorize Congress to infringe the just liberty of the press, or the rights of conscience”. [OSA p.260] It is unthinkable that such usage by Adams indicated an intention to allow extensive reasonable regulations of freedom of the press and religious beliefs. Instead, such language was certainly intended as the strongest of limits upon government actions, just as in Madison's case with his infringe based restrictive proposals to Congress regarding freedom of religion and the right of the people to keep and bear arms.
Congressional Amendments Committee Usage
There is other informative period Bill of Rights related use of "shall not be infringed" language often overlooked today due to gun control advocates' historical arguments diverting away from the Second Amendment's actual Bill of Rights history. The Committee of Eleven, to which Madison's proposals were submitted by Congress, accepted his original use of "infringed" relative to freedom of religion as well as his "shall not be infringed" language relative to the right of the people to keep and bear arms. The Committee also added Madison's original Second Amendment restrictive language ("shall not be infringed") to other First Amendment rights – freedom of speech - freedom of the press - the right of peaceable assembly - the right to apply for redress of grievances. All of these, including Madison's “inviolable” freedom of the press and his right of the people to speak, of which they “shall not be deprived or abridged” [OSA p.654], were re-stated by the Committee as rights that “shall not be infringed”. [OSA p.680] Once again, it does not appear that such period usage indicated the Committee members understood that religious beliefs could be subjected to extensive reasonable regulations, or that they used "shall not be infringed" with the intention that it would condone extensive and reasonable regulation of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right of peaceable assembly, the right to apply for redress of grievances, or the right to keep and bear arms.
Interpreting this restrictive "infringe" based language in the manner that some advocates of gun control do for Second Amendment usage removes all meaning of the terminology and completely destroys any protective intent of the provision. Such interpretations leave the intended protected rights to be regulated exactly like any other subject placed under the government's power. Such views of the language completely ignore the developmental history of the Bill of Rights, a history that is remarkably well documented because the need for a U.S. Bill of Rights was publicly and privately discussed for more than two full years prior to Congress' proposal of the U.S. Bill of Rights amendments.
Shall Not Be Infringed - Shall Make No Laws
Another interesting period fact is that the style of restrictive language ultimately used in the First Amendment – "Congress shall make no laws" - was previously found mostly in Second Amendment related proposals.
The Pennsylvania Minority supported a proposal that: “no law shall be passed for disarming the people, or any of them, unless for crimes committed, or real danger of public injury from individuals". [OSA, p.151]
The New Hampshire Ratifying Convention adopted proposals related to the subsequently adopted First and Second Amendments that stated:
"XI. Congress shall make no laws touching religion, or to infringe the rights of conscience.
XII. Congress shall never disarm any citizen, unless such as are or have been in actual rebellion". [OSA, p.446]
The restrictive language of New Hampshire's amendment protecting religious freedom contains not only the very words later used as restrictive language in the First Amendment but also the very strongest of restrictions that is based on the verb "infringe". It is inconceivable that infringe was intended in New Hampshire's religious freedom amendment as intended to allow any regulation whatever.
The Strongest Possible Restrictive Language
First and Second Amendment protections were always given the very strongest possible restrictive language – no law shall be passed – shall make no law – inviolable – not be deprived or abridged – not be restrained - shall not be infringed - nor shall the right be infringed - shall make no laws touching - shall make no laws to infringe. The Second Amendment's “right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed" language was clearly not intended to allow for extensive reasonable regulation. Rather, it was intended to prevent all laws and regulations that would result in the people being deprived, abridged, restrained, narrowed, or restricted in the exercise of their fundamental right to keep and bear arms.