There are two ways to interpret this question, beyond the metaphysical one. The first is, what do the courts have to say about it, and what was the content of the historical debate at the time of the formation of the U.S. Constitution.
As to the first question, the US Supreme Court, in District of Columbia v Heller (2008), settled the issue by declaring that the amendment did indeed guarantee individuals the right to private ownership of guns. However, Justice Scalia noted that this right did not preclude regulation. I would note, for example, that there have been no attempts since DC v Heller to strike down federal laws banning the owning by individuals of machine guns ( laws which have been in effect since the 1930s), by citing the decision.
Although it seems obvious to many Second Amendment absolutists that the right to bear arms individually is clearly stated (“What part of ‘shall not be infringed’?don’t you understand” is a common right-wing refrain since attempts to introduce sensible, minimalist, gun legislation following the Sandy Hook massacre), many legal observers were surprised at the ruling. This is because American jurisprudence (as it is based on Anglo-Saxon common law) builds upon established precedent (stare decisis). For decades, going back to Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Supreme Court had consistently avoided the question of individual rights to gun ownership by ruling that the Amendment was in fact concerned with militia rights — i.e., that the individual states have a right to their own armed forces, separate and distinct from the federal government — and that the existence of state police forces and the National Guard (which, for our non-US readers, are nominally under the authority of each governor, not the President) satisfied that requirement.
For those of us who support the militia interpretation, DC v Heller smacked of politics (because the Supreme Court rarely overrules its own precedents), but the Supremes have spoken, so legally, Americans have an individual right to keep and bear arms, and you may ignore the part about the well-regulated militia being necessary for the security of a free state.
Which brings us back to the historical debate at the time of the ratification of the Constitution and the adoption of the Bill of Rights.
As a historian of the British empire, and a specialist in revolutions, I have long maintained that the context for this debate was never over individuals owning weapons separate from their obligations to the militia. There are commentators in America today, mostly on the right but not exclusively, who simply discount the argument because they believe that the concept of the militia as being composed of all able bodied men between certain ages, was clearly established at all times throughout the colonial period. That’s convenient, but it overlooks how people in the 18th century conceived of the actual functioning of the militia, what it meant in the context of the formation of the Constitution, and whether or not individuals did indeed arm themselves to fulfill militia service.
In many instances in the history of colonial America, most citizens did not take militia service seriously, and why should they? They were protected by regular troops of the British Army, and in times of strife it was relatively easy to increase the militia levies and to train people to fight with the primitive firearms of the time. Regardless, it is not clear that Americans largely maintained private ownership of firearms, militia service or not. More Americans did so in areas where slave owning was widespread, for obvious reasons of repression and fear of slave revolt. But it is not clear that ownership of firearms were as widespread as many advocates of an individual right to ownership today believe.
That is because these weapons were all hand made individually, and hence difficult to mass produce and thus expensive; there were not that many gunsmiths in colonial America (the best firearms were imported); the weapons were more fragile than people today understand (the British army cycled through its entire Brown Bess inventory every eight years over the hundred-year history of the weapon’s use); and they were not particularly suited for individual self defense. A musket is very long and cumbersome to use, contemporary rifles even more cumbersome and slow to fire. Black powder weapons were difficult to carry loaded for long periods of time (which would be necessary for self defense), because the packed powder will eventually loosen, and the mechanism was vulnerable to the elements. Should you be caught in the rain with a loaded black-powder weapon it was unlikely to fire reliably.
Additionally, most people who made a living hunting did not do so with black powder weapons, certainly not muskets. Rifles could be used, but they were rarer than imagined. If you made a living hunting in the 18th century, you trapped.
So what did the militia look like? Again, the common, simplistic view (see some posts on this page), was that all able bodied males between a certain age were in the militia. Not exactly. That may have been the ideal, and the intent of the legislation, but it ignores the reality of colonial life. For decades people throughout the colonies lived without fear of foreign conflict, they saw themselves as loyal subjects of the crown, and they were protected from civil disturbance by their own colonial magistrates who could call on regular troops if necessary. The militia in many regions was seen over the course of the 18th century as a social organization just as much as a potential military organization.
The militia certainly came in handy in times of slave unrest, but let’s ignore those right now because we are clearly not talking about the use of a militia to guarantee individual liberties in these cases. No point confusing the issue with the militia as oppressor, right?
The militia around Boston was called out in 1775 as resistance to the crown blundered into revolution. Modern day commentators point to the muster at Lexington and the fighting following the British withdrawal from Concord as proof that all able bodied men were in the militia (the Minute Men), and that they had their weapons in their homes ready for use. Well, yes and no. Pointing to one historical incident does not prove the rule across the decades. In this case, the militia was essentially mobilized in that they were preparing, after months of increasing tension, for some type of hostile action by the army.
Keep in mind as well, that the British were marching on Concord because that was the site of the local militia’s arsenal. If everyone kept their weapons at home, maintained privately and outside the militia organization, there would have been no centralized arsenal for the British to seize.
The militia at Lexington and Concord were also not fighting as individuals, but as part of a command structure, drilled and organized for 18th century battle, firing by volleys at Lexington (where the British forced them to withdraw), and then in skirmishing on the road back from Concord.
It’s the command structure that is the most important point. Because, you see, when the constitutional debate was under way, and the Anti-Federalists were concerned that a standing army under federal control might be a source of future tyranny, they envisioned the militia as a bulwark of the people’s freedom. But the verbiage they chose to define the right to bear arms is extremely important, because they conceived of a well-regulated militia to defend the states — that is, the separate, long-existing local governments from which they believed the federal government derived its authority (and which in fact, constitutionally, it does). Again, others on this post have gone through verbal gymnastics to show that the use of well-regulated is not a “limiting phrase”, but in fact it was exactly that. Kris Rosvold on this post notes in defense of this view that one definition of “regulated” is “to control or direct by a rule, principle, method, etc.” And that’s exactly right. A well-regulated militia was controlled or directed by state authority (and during the imperial period, by colonial authority), and subject to rules and principles.
It was completely alien to 18th-century commentators to conceive of an armed body of men outside the authority of either the crown, the state, or the federal government as a militia. The term for this type of body in 18th-century jurisprudence was a mob, and it was conceived as an illegal assembly. Without the authority of the state, without a clearly defined command structure and the legal basis for its existence, there was no concept of “militia”.
There is no doubt that 18th-century commentators conceived of the militia, in the abstract, as the underlying protector of the rights of the people, and that therefore all people should be part of it. That did not mean that in practice that was the case, of course. It also doesn’t mean that, if the expectation was that every member of the militia should keep weapons at home that that was also the case, because it wasn’t (please note that one of the reasons a French alliance was sought was because the Continental Army needed weapons from France). But it’s also irrelevant. The pro-individual rights argument dismisses the idea of militia membership as a qualifier for having the right to keep and bear arms, and the pro-militia argument dismisses that people had that right.
So which is it? The answer, as in most extremely complicated and emotional issues, is both, and neither. That there were arguments in the 18th and early 19th century, such as those made today, that people had the right to arm themselves for self defense (as opposed to militia service) is undeniable, but they occurred on the state level, and were not part of the discourse on the adoption of the Second Amendment. That there was an assumption that the militia was the primary check on the abuse of federal power is also not in doubt, and that was the issue in the ratification debates. But the primary problem comes in interpreting where the individual right belongs.
The historian Saul Cornell has probably come closest to fusing the two sides in this debate into the most coherent understanding of how the framers saw the place of the militia and the role of the militiamen and their rights to bear arms. Cornell notes that in fact the framers were not focusing on either the individual right to bear arms, or the collective right through the militia, but as on the civic rights associated with the necessity of maintaining quality militias and in the ability of its members to make sure that they had the weapons they needed to adequately fulfill their duties in a conflict. If you think this is slicing hairs and that it is still supporting the “well-regulated militia” argument, in that the Amendment only makes sense in the context of the militia, you are correct. Ironically, supporters of an individual right implicitly acknowledge that when they declare without substance that “all able body men” were members of the militia, as if the concept and the reality was the same, and therefore justifies them owning weapons individually.
It is also true, however, that if you were an active member of the militia, theoretically you were assumed to have your firearm in your possession and serviceable. Most important, you were expected to train with your militia unit in the intricacies of black-powder warfare; i.e., maneuver drill and volley fire in ranks, under the command of your officers and noncommissioned officers.
Now, having gone through all that, if you are interested in citations there is an entire historiography of the American Revolution and the development of the US Constitution, the ratification, and its Amendments. Feel free to look it up. Professor Cornell’s book is “A Well-Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control in America”. Like any good piece of scholarship it is packed with relevant footnotes.
But like I say, whatever the historical evidence says regarding the intent of the framers, the Supremes have spoken. Per District of Columbia v Heller, you have an individual right to own a weapon, and you don’t have to be in the National Guard to do so.
But per DC v Heller, we also have the right, collectively, to regulate your ownership.