The U.S. Supreme Court will soon decide in McDonald v. Chicago whether the Second Amendment right to bear arms applies against the states. The case underwent oral argument on March 2. Attorneys for Otis McDonald, seeking to overturn Chicago’s ban on handguns, have argued that the Court should not use research based on digital searches and should rely solely on established secondary histories. Virtuous history, however, should always check its prior conclusions against the surviving evidence from the adoption of the Constitution. The new digital searches allow us to collect a very large sample of the original evidence in a very short period of time.

The digital searches lend support to Chicago, which is defending its handgun ban. The issue at stake in the constitutional debates was preservation of the state power by preserving the militias. The Supreme Court has held that the Second Amendment serves individual rights, but the Second Amendment also serves states’ rights. The word “militia,” the digital searches show, meant the state army. To the extent that it is a state’s right that is being served by the amendment, it is a state decision, for example, whether the militia may take home their muskets after a muster or must leave them in the armory. To the extent that preservation of the state militia is an important historical purpose, the Second Amendment has no power to tell Virginia, Georgia, or Chicago (an entity within Illinois) what to do.

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