- Second Amendment affirms significance of militia, guarantees right to bear arms
- Precise meaning of Second Amendment has been controversial for more than 100 years
The Second Amendment to the Constitution guarantees some sort of right to keep and bear arms, but the extent of that right has been hotly debated for over a century. Within this debate, essentially four positions have been advanced.
- One group has argued that the Second Amendment protects only the states' right to maintain an organized militia.
- A second group has argued that this right to maintain an armed militia belongs to more than just the state governments; it belongs to "the people" more generally. Towns, and even smaller collections of citizens, have a right to maintain a militia to defend their collective rights against unlawful challenges to those rights.
- A third group has argued that individuals possess an even more fundamental set of gun rights—a right to arm themselves for self-defense, and a right to own guns for the purpose of hunting and sport.
- Most recently, a fourth group consisting mainly of scholars has argued that that the Second Amendment protects a "civic" right. Individuals have a right to keep guns, they suggest, but that right is linked to communal obligations including service in the militia. And the states have a right to ensure that the militias they maintain and the citizens who serve in them are "well-regulated."
Until recently—and perhaps surprisingly, considering the state of public debate over gun rights—the United States Supreme Court consistently held that the Second Amendment did not
protect a fundamental individual right to bear arms. Instead, in a series of decisions dating back to the late nineteenth century, the Court ruled that the Second Amendment protected either the states' right to maintain militias or the individual's right to bear arms in the service of the military
. But in 2008, the Court reversed course, holding that the amendment does
protect a basic individual right to own and use guns for lawful purposes including self-defense. Supporters of gun rights and advocates of gun control will surely continue to debate the true meaning of the Second Amendment long into the future.
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Why Should I Care?
It's only 27 words, two clauses connected by a comma. But few phrases in the United States Constitution have generated so much heated debate.
On one side, you have a large group of people concerned with gun violence and advocating for much stricter control over firearms in this country. In asserting that such gun control is constitutional, these folks tend to argue that the Second Amendment does little more than guarantee the right of states to maintain militias. The amendment really has nothing to do with individual rights, they claim, and since the state militias were replaced by the National Guard in the early twentieth century, the Second Amendment has virtually no contemporary significance.
On the other side, you have another huge group of people convinced that the Second Amendment does protect an individual's right to "keep and bear arms." The guarantee is grounded, they claim, in a natural and historically protected right to self-defense. The government can no more take away your gun than it can encroach on other personal rights such as speech and the free exercise of religion. The Second Amendment, these folks argue, is the cornerstone of individual liberty and security in America.
So much certainty and conviction—on both sides. They both can't be right, can they?
Well, before examining the history of the question, why don't you decide for yourself? Forget what you think you know about the Second Amendment, and look closely at the amendment's exact words:
A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
Now consider a few questions.
- Why are there two clauses?
- What happens if you change the sequence?
- What happens if you replace the comma after "state" with a semi-colon?
- If you were writing this amendment and wanted to guarantee an individual right to keep guns for self-defense, what would you have written?
- If you were writing this amendment and wanted to guarantee to the states the right to keep militias, what would you have written?
- What is a militia? Who are its members?
- What is a "well regulated" militia?
- Who are "the people?"
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