To analyze what "the right of the people" means, look elsewhere within the Bill of Rights for guidance. The First Amendment speaks of "the right of the people peaceably to assemble . . ." No one seriously argues that the right to assemble or associate with your fellow citizens is predicated on the number of citizens or the assent of a government. It is an individual right.
The Fourth Amendment says, "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated . . ." The "people" here does not refer to a collectivity, either.
The rights guaranteed in the Bill of Right are individual. The Third and Fifth Amendments protect individual property owners; the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Eighth Amendments protect potential individual criminal defendants from unreasonable searches, involuntary incrimination, appearing in court without an attorney, excessive bail, and cruel and unusual punishments.
The Ninth Amendment protects individual rights not otherwise enumerated in the Bill of Rights. The 10th Amendment states, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people." Here, "the people" are separate from "the states"; thus, the Second Amendment must be about more than simply a "state" militia when it uses the term "the people."
Consider the grammar. The Second Amendment is about the right to "keep and bear arms." Before the conjunction "and" there is a right to "keep," meaning to possess. This word would be superfluous if the Second Amendment were only about bearing arms as part of the state militia. Reading these words to restrict the right to possess arms strains common rules of composition.
Colonial history and politics are also instructive. James Madison wrote the Bill of Rights to provide a political compromise between the Federalists, who favored a strong central government, and the Anti-Federalists, who feared a strong central government as an inherent danger to individual rights. In June 1789, then-Rep. Madison introduced 12 amendments, a "bill of rights," to the Constitution to convince the remaining two of the original 13 colonies to ratify the document.
Madison's draft borrowed liberally from the English Bill of Rights of 1689 and Virginia's Declaration of Rights. Both granted individual rights, not collective rights. As a result, Madison proposed a bill of rights that reflected, as Stanford University historian Jack Rakove notes, his belief that the "greatest dangers to liberty would continue to arise within the states, rather than from a reconstituted national government." Accordingly, Mr. Rakove writes that "Madison justified all of these proposals (Bill of Rights) in terms of the protection they would extend to individual and minority rights."
One of the earliest scholars of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, Justice Joseph Story, confirmed this focus on individuals in his famous "Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States" in 1833. "The right of the citizens to keep and bear arms," Story wrote, "has justly been considered, as the palladium of the liberties of republics, since it offers a strong moral check against the usurpation and arbitrary power of rulers . . ."
Except for using Jack Rakove's own words against his position (which is surprisingly easy to do, since Rakove's position about the Second Amendment is contrary to much of his published work about the rest of the Bill of Rights), there's nothing here that is really new. But it is still welcome.