Yet, the revisionists who have transformed the meaning of the Second Amendment love to cite provocative comments by Jefferson, such as a quote from a 1787 letter criticizing the Constitution for its commander-in-chief provisions. Jefferson argued that violence, like Shays's Rebellion, was to be welcomed. He declared that "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it's [sic] natural manure."
It is ironic, however, that Jefferson was never willing to risk his own blood as that "natural manure." During the Revolutionary War when traitor Benedict Arnold led a force of Loyalists against Richmond, Jefferson, who was then Virginia's governor, declined to rally the state militia in defense of the capital but rather fled for his life. Later, when British cavalry approached Charlottesville and his home of Monticello, Gov. Jefferson again took flight.
However, Jefferson was eager for Virginia to have a state militia of armed whites to crush possible black slave rebellions, another prospect that terrified him. As a slaveholder and a pseudo-scientific racist, Jefferson surely did not envision blacks as having any individual right to own guns themselves or to fight for their own liberty. Reflecting on blacks who fought bravely in the Revolution, Jefferson concluded that their courage was an illusion resulting from their intellectual inability to recognize danger.
Yet, whatever one thinks of Jefferson's racism and cowardice, it's a historical error to cite Jefferson in any way as speaking definitively about what the Framers intended with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. He was not directly involved in either.
A Collective Right
The real history of the Second Amendment was well understood both by citizens and courts in the generations after the Constitution and Bill of Rights were enacted. For most of the years of the Republic, the U.S. Supreme Court interpreted the Second Amendment as a collective right, allowing Americans to participate in a "well-regulated Militia," not an individual right to buy the latest weaponry at a gun show or stockpile a military-style arsenal in the basement.
It's true that many Americans owned a musket or rifle in those early years especially on the frontier, but regulations on munitions were still common in cities where storing of gunpowder, for instance, represented a threat to the public safety. As the nation spread westward, so did common-sense restrictions on gun violence. Sheriffs in some of the wildest of Wild West towns enforced gun bans that today would prompt a recall election financed by the National Rifle Association.
However, in recent decades -- understanding the power of narrative on the human imagination -- a resurgent American Right (and some on the Left) rewrote the history of the Founding era, dispatching "researchers" to cherry-pick or fabricate quotes from Revolutionary War leaders to create politically convenient illusions. [See, for instance, Steven Krulik's compilation of apocryphal or out-of-context gun quotes.]
That bogus history gave rise to the image of the Framers being wild-eyed radicals encouraging armed rebellion against the Republic. Rather than people who believed in the rule of law and social order, the Framers were contorted into crazies who wanted citizens to be empowered to shoot police, soldiers, elected representatives and government officials.
This false history was advanced particularly by the American Right in the last half of the Twentieth Century as a kind of neo-Confederate call to arms, with the goal of rallying whites into a near-insurrectionary fury particularly in the South but also in rural areas of the North and West. Many fancied themselves an armed resistance against the tyrannical federal government.
Southern whites brandished guns and engaged in violence to resist the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, when the federal government finally stepped in to end Jim Crow laws and racial segregation. In the 1990s, "citizens militias" began to pop up in reaction to the election of Democrat Bill Clinton, culminating in the Oklahoma City bombing of 1994.
While designed primarily for the weak-minded, the Right's faux Founding history also had an impact on right-wing "intellectuals" including Republican lawyers who worked their way up through the federal judiciary under Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.
By 2008, these right-wing jurists held a majority on the U.S. Supreme Court and could thus overturn generations of legal precedents and declare that the Second Amendment established an individual right for Americans to own guns. Though even these five right-wing justices accepted society's right to protect the general welfare of the population through some gun control, the Supreme Court's ruling effectively "validated" the Right's made-up history.
The ruling created a political dynamic in which even liberals in national politics, the likes of Barack Obama and Joe Biden, had to genuflect to the supposed Second Amendment right of Americans to parade around in public with guns on their hips and high-powered semi-automatic rifles slung over their shoulders.
What the Framers Wanted?
As guns-right activists struck down gun regulations in Congress and in statehouses across the nation, their dominant argument was that the Second Amendment offered no leeway for restrictions on gun ownership; it's what the Framers wanted.