George Mason, the principal architect of Virginia's declaration of rights, was also very wealthy and one of Virginia's largest slave-holders. He was a vocal advocate of colonial independence, and he was clear about his support of the state militia. By January, 1775, he had composed a "resolve" for the Fairfax County Committee of Safety, one of the overseeing institutions in charge of the colony's military activities. Here is part of what he wrote:
Resolved, that this committee do concur in opinion with the Provincial Committee of the Province of Maryland, that a well regulated Militia, composed of gentlemen freeholders, and other freemen, is the natural strength and only stable security of a free Government.
The militia, according to Mason, was open only to property holders, and preferably "gentlemen freeholders"—a loaded phrase, indeed. As Saul Cornell wrote in his authoritative history of the Second Amendment:
Mason's emphasis on the need for the militia to be composed of property holders reflected a view common among members of Virginia's gentry elite that it was dangerous to arm the 'rabble.' Without the guidance of gentlemen, an armed population might easily become a mob, not a well-regulated militia (pp.18-19).
Funny thing about the founders of our country—they don't often conform to our hopes, dreams, and agendas.
Mason wouldn't have had much sympathy with many of the radical gun-groups who want to tote their firearms into the local grocery store. They aren't wealthy enough, first of all, and they haven't read enough English jurisprudence to have an opinion on the subject. So how could they be trusted to carry in public without the supervision of a well-regulated militia or a committee of "gentlemen freeholders?"
Mason, of course, stands very early in our history, and as the new Republic grew, different opinions about gun ownership surfaced. But it is always dangerous to look back on these "gentlemen freeholders" as paragons of egalitarian liberty.
They had specific notions about who would manage this liberty, and while we are familiar with the racial element of their management schemes, we should also remember that class and education—another kind of segregation—played a very prominent role in their vision as well.
And by that standard, many of today's gun-radicals, with their rattlesnake flags, or those on the far left who wish to repeal the Second Amendment, simply wouldn't make the cut according to Mason.
Note: the language in the "resolve" was ultimately challenged and changed to include the notion of a more broad-based "people," which tallies with some of the current ideas about the individual right to own firearms. The point is that the Bill of Rights itself, and the Second Amendment especially, arose both out of a spirit of compromise and the common goal of finding a better governing document than the Articles of Confederation had offered the colonists. This spirit of compromise took root at the state level, and was later reflected both in the diversity of those state documents and in the final draft of the Constitution that arose out of those diverse documents.
Sadly, that spirit of compromise—the one thing that all of us could take from the Founders—is lacking in our current discourse on gun violence. And we are the worse for it.