Study Guide

Right to Bear Arms

Right to Bear Arms Introduction

  • 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.

  1. One group has argued that the Second Amendment protects only the states' right to maintain an organized militia.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

What is Right to Bear Arms About and 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?"

Right to Bear Arms Trivia

In 1992, Charlton Heston condemned the Board of Time-Warner for releasing a CD by the rapper Ice-T that included a song called "Cop Killer." In 1998, he assumed the presidency of the National Rifle Association, in part to help restore its public image… which had been damaged by its vigorous opposition to congressional efforts to ban armor-piercing bullets, also known as "cop killers."

Harlon Carter, the National Rifle Association leader who campaigned for an unrestricted individual right to keep and bear arms, was convicted of murder when he was sixteen after shooting a fifteen-year old boy. His conviction was later overturned by a higher court on the grounds that original jury had not been properly instructed on the laws regarding self-defense.

Right to Bear Arms Resources

Books

Saul Cornell, A Well-Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control in America (2006)
Cornell argues that the current debate between those seeing either an individual or a collective right in the Second Amendment are missing the real intention of the framers—to protect a "civic" right to "keep and bear arms." His readable and authoritative review of the amendment's history adds an interesting and balanced new approach to the old debate.

Robert Spitzer, The Politics of Gun Control (1995)
Spitzer advances the collective right interpretation of the Second Amendment in this solid exploration of the constitutional question and American gun culture.

Joyce Malcolm, To Keep and Bear Arms: The Origin of an Anglo-American Right (1996)
Malcolm traces American ideas about gun rights and liberty into seventeenth-century England in arguing that the framers of the Second Amendment intended to guarantee an individual right to keep and bear arms.

Emilie Raymond, From My Cold, Dead Hands: Charlton Heston and American Politics (2006)
Raymond's account of Heston's evolution from 60s liberal to 90s neoconservative has drawn criticism from conservatives. But her account of Heston's interest in, and use by, the guns rights movement is provocative.

Images

Minuteman
Daniel Chester French's minuteman statue at Concord, Massachusetts

Well Regulated Militia
George Washington inspects the militia before marching off to quell the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794

Not a Well Regulated Militia
This 1841 James Clonney painting offers a less inspiring representation of the militia

American Religion
Many struggle to understand Americans' fascination with guns

Political Firepower
The NRA boasts a large and politically vigilant membership

Everybody Duck!
Former Vice-President Dick Cheney and two guys who don't read the newspaper.

From My Cold, Dead Hands
Charlton Heston making a pledge to the members of the NRA

Gun Show
Gun-control advocates argue that guns show sales need tighter regulation

Movies & TV

Bowling for Columbine (2002)
Filmmaker Michael Moore is an essayist, not a reporter. This film offers his take on guns and violence in America. Whether you love it or hate it, the film will leave you mad.

The Omega Man (1971)
There are hundreds of movies that celebrate, condemn, and/or explore the impact of guns on American history—so why should you watch this one? In this life-imitates-art classic Charlton Heston plays the last human on earth after an apocalyptic biochemical war. But he is not completely alone—a "family" of nocturnal mutants roam the streets attempting to destroy Heston and the technologically-mad society he represents. Equipped with a Smith & Wesson submachine gun and a Browning Automatic Rifle, Heston fends them off. If those d--n mutants want his guns, they will have to pry them from his cold, dead hands.

Websites

Second Amendment Scholarship
The Second Amendment Research Center of The Ohio State University is building a website to advance the study and discussion of the Second Amendment. Included, under "The Debate" tab, is an excellent discussion among scholars from varying perspectives of the historical and legal meaning of the Second Amendment.

State Gun Laws
About.com provides a useful list of state gun laws.

NRA-ILA
The Institute for Legislative Action is the political lobbying arm of the National Rifle Association. Its take on the current issues, pending legislation, and guns laws is available here.

Brady Center
The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence is the largest gun-regulation advocacy and lobbying group. Its take on the current issues, pending legislation, and guns laws is available here.

Video & Audio

My Cold, Dead Hands
Charlton Heston's appearance at the 2003 NRA Convention

Want to Apologize?
Filmmaker Michael Moore interviews Charlton Heston in 2001

Why We Need Tougher Gun Laws
Cows with Guns by Dana Lyons

Primary Sources

Historical and Legal Documents
This handy little site provides dozens of documents useful to an analysis of the Second Amendment. Relevant calls from state ratifying conventions, arms related provisions in state constitutions, and excerpts from important court cases and federal arms and militia statutes are available here.