The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the right to keep and bear arms.
The Second Amendment, a provision of the U.S. Constitution, was ratified on December 15, 1791, forming what is known as the Bill of Rights. The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads:
The subject matter and unusual phrasing of this amendment led to much controversy and analysis, especially in the last half of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, the meaning and scope of the amendment have long been decided by the Supreme Court.
Firearms played an important part in the colonization of America. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, European colonists relied heavily on firearms to take land away from Native Americans and repel attacks by Native Americans and Europeans. Around the time of the Revolutionary War, male citizens were required to own firearms for fighting against the British forces. Firearms were also used in hunting.
In June 1776, one month before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Virginia became the first colony to adopt a state constitution. In this document, the state of Virginia pronounced that “a well regulated Militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defence of a free State.” After the colonies declared their independence from England, other states began to include the right to bear arms in their constitution. Pennsylvania, for example, declared that
The wording of clauses about bearing arms in late-eighteenth-century state constitutions varied. Some states asserted that bearing arms was a “right” of the people, whereas others called it a “duty” of every able-bodied man in the defense of society.
Pennsylvania was not alone in its express discouragement of a standing (professional) army. Many of the Framers of the U.S. Constitution rejected standing armies, preferring instead the model of a citizen army, equipped with weapons and prepared for defense. According to Framers such as Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts and George Mason of Virginia a standing army was susceptible to tyrannical use by a power-hungry government.
At the first session of Congress in March 1789, the Second Amendment was submitted as a counterweight to the federal powers of Congress and the president. According to constitutional theorists, the Framers who feared a central government extracted the amendment as a compromise from those in favor of centralized authority over the states. The Revolutionary War had, after all, been fought in large part by a citizen army against the standing armies of England.
The precise wording of the amendment was changed two times before the U.S. Senate finally cast it in its present form. As with many of the amendments, the exact wording proved critical to its interpretation.
In 1791 a majority of states ratified the Bill of Rights, which included the Second Amendment. In its final form, the amendment presented a challenge to interpreters. It was the only amendment with an opening clause that appeared to state its purpose. The amendment even had defective punctuation; the comma before shall seemed grammatically unnecessary.
Legal scholars do not agree about this comma. Some have argued that it was intentional and that it was intended to make militia the subject of the sentence. According to these theorists, the operative words of the amendment are “[a] well regulated Militia shall not be infringed.” Others have argued that the comma was a mistake, and that the operative words of the sentence are “the right of the people to bear arms shall not be infringed.” Under this reading, the first part of the sentence is the rationale for the absolute, personal right of the people to own firearms. Indeed, the historical backdrophighlighted by a general disdain for professional armieswould seem to support this theory.
Some observers argue further that the Second Amendment grants the right of insurrection. According to these theorists, the Second Amendment was designed to allow citizens to rebel against the government. Thomas Jefferson is quoted as saying that “a little rebellion every now and then is a good thing.”
Prior to the courts ruling in Heller v. District of Columbia, 128 S. Ct. 2783 (2008)(see infra), the Supreme Court had made the ultimate determination of the Constitution’s meaning, and it defined the amendment as simply granting to the states the right to maintain a militia separate from federally controlled militias. This interpretation first came in United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542, 23 L. Ed. 588 (1875). In Cruikshank, approximately one hundred persons were tried jointly in a Louisiana federal court with felonies in connection with an April 13, 1873, assault on two AfricanAmerican men. One of the criminal counts charged that the mob intended to hinder the right of the two men to bear arms. The defendants were convicted by a jury, but the circuit court arrested the judgment, effectively overturning the verdict. In affirming that decision, the Supreme Court declared that “the second amendment means no more than that [the right to bear arms] shall not be infringed by Congress, and has no other effect than to restrict the powers of the national government.”
In Presser v. Illinois, 116 U.S. 252, 6 S. Ct. 580, 29 L. Ed. 615 (1886), Herman Presser was charged in Illinois state court with parading and drilling an unauthorized militia in the streets of Chicago in December 1879, in violation of certain sections of the Illinois Military Code. One of the sections in question prohibited the organization, drilling, operation, and parading of militias other than U.S. troops or the regular organized volunteer militia of the state. Presser was tried by the judge, convicted, and ordered to pay a fine of $10.
On appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Presser argued, in part, that the charges violated his Second Amendment right to bear arms. The Court disagreed and upheld Presser’s conviction. The Court cited Cruikshank for the proposition that the Second Amendment means only that the federal government may not infringe on the right of states to form their own militias. This meant that the Illinois state law forbidding citizen militias was not unconstitutional. However, in its opinion, the Court in Presser delivered a reading of the Second Amendment that seemed to suggest an absolute right of persons to bear arms: “It is undoubtedly true that all citizens capable of bearing arms constitute the reserved military force or reserve militia of the United States,” and “states cannot prohibit the people from keeping and bearing arms.”
Despite this generous language, the Court refused to incorporate the Second Amendment into the Fourteenth Amendment. Under the first section of the Fourteenth Amendment, passed in 1868, states may not abridge the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States. The privileges and immunities of citizens are listed in the Bill of Rights, of which the Second Amendment is part. Presser had argued that states may not, by virtue of the Fourteenth Amendment, abridge the right to bear arms. The Court refused to accept the argument that the right to bear arms is a personal right of the people. According to the Court, “The right to drill or parade with arms, without, and independent of, an act of congress or law of the state authorizing the same, is not an attribute of national citizenship.”
The Presser opinion is best understood in its historical context. The Northern states and the federal government had just fought the Civil War against Southern militias unauthorized by the federal government. After this ordeal, the Supreme Court was in no mood to accept an expansive right to bear arms. At the same time, the Court was sensitive to the subject of federal encroachment on states’ rights.
Several decades later, the Supreme Court ignored the contradictory language in Presser and cemented a limited reading of the Second Amendment. In United States v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174, 59 S. Ct. 816, 83 L. Ed. 1206 (1939), defendants Jack Miller and Frank Layton were charged in federal court with unlawful transportation of firearms in violation of certain sections of the National Firearms Act of June 26, 1934 (ch. 757, 48 Stat. 12361240 [26 U.S.C.A. 1132 et seq.]). Specifically, Miller and Layton had transported shotguns with barrels less than 18 inches long, without the registration required under the act.
The district court dismissed the indictment, holding that the act violated the Second Amendment. The United States appealed. The Supreme Court reversed the decision and sent the case back to the trial court. The Supreme Court stated that the Second Amendment was fashioned “to assure the continuation and render possible the effectiveness of militia forces.”
The Miller opinion confirmed the restrictive language of Presser and solidified a narrow reading of the Second Amendment. According to the Court in Miller, the Second Amendment does not guarantee the right to own a firearm unless the possession or use of the firearm has “a reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia.”
However, in Heller v. District of Columbia, 128 S. Ct. 2783 (2008), the Supreme Court reviewed a case where D.C. residents challenged an ordinace which banned the possession of handguns. The Supreme Court held that the constitution protects the right of individuals to possess a firearm.
The legislative measures that inspire most Second Amendment discussions are gun control laws. Since the mid-nineteenth century, state legislatures have been passing laws that infringe a perceived right to bear arms. Congress has also asserted the power to regulate firearms. No law regulating firearms has ever been struck down by the Supreme Court as a violation of the Second Amendment.
Historically, the academic community has largely ignored the Second Amendment. However, gun control laws have turned many laypersons into scholars of the Second Amendment’s history. The arguments for a broader interpretation are many and varied. Most center on the original intent of the Framers. Some emphasize that the Second Amendment should be interpreted as granting an unconditional personal right to bear arms for defensive and sporting purposes. Others adhere to an insurrection theory, under which the Second Amendment not only grants the personal right to bear arms, it gives citizens the right to rebel against a government perceived as tyrannical.
In response to these arguments, supporters of the prevailing Second Amendment interpretation maintain that any right to bear arms should be secondary to concerns for public safety. They also point out that other provisions in the Constitution grant power to Congress to quell insurrections, thus contradicting the insurrection theory. Lastly, they argue that the Constitution should be interpreted in accordance with a changing society and that the destructive capability of semiautomatic and automatic firearms was not envisioned by the Framers.
In response to the last argument, critics maintain that because such firearms exist, it should be legal to use them against violent criminals who are themselves wielding such weapons.
In the 2000s, federal courts continue to revisit the scope and detail of the Second Amendment right to bear arms. In particular federal courts have recast much of the debate as one over whether the Second Amendment protects a “collective” right or an “individual” right to bear arms. If the Second Amendment protects only a collective right, then only states would have the power to bring a legal action to enforce it and only for the purpose of maintaining a “well-regulated militia.” If the Second Amendment protects only an individual right to bear arms, then only individuals could bring suit to challenge gun-control laws that curb their liberty to buy, sell, own, or possess firearms and other guns.
Not surprisingly, courts are conflicted over how to resolve this debate. In United States v. Emerson, 270 F.3d 203 (5th Cir. 2001), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit found that the original intent of the Founding Fathers supported an individual-rights interpretation of the Second Amendment, while the Ninth Circuit came to the opposite conclusion in Nordyke v. King, 319 F.3d 1185 (9th Cir. 2003). Although no court has concluded that the original intent underlying the Second Amendment supports a claim for both an individual- and a collective rights based interpretation of the right to bear arms, the compelling historical arguments marshaled on both sides of the debate would suggest that another court faced with the same debate may reach such a conclusion.
Becker, Edward R. 1997. “The Second Amendment and Other Federal Constitutional Rights of the Private Militia.” Montana Law Review 58 (winter).
Bogus, Carl T., ed. 2000. The Second Amendment in Law and History: Historians and Constitutional Scholars on the Right to Bear Arms. New York: New Press.
Dolan, Edward F., and Margaret M. Scariano. 1994. Guns in the United States. New York: Watts.
Dunlap, Charles J., Jr. 1995. “Revolt of the Masses: Armed Civilians and the Insurrectionary Theory of the Second Amendment.” Tennessee Law Review 62 (spring).
Hanson, Freya Ottem. 1998. The Second Amendment: The Right to Own Guns. Springfield, N.J.: Enslow.
Hook, Donald D. 1992. Gun Control: The Continuing Debate. Washington, D.C.: Second Amendment Foundation.
Hoppin, Jason. 2003. “Ninth Circuit Upholds Controversial Ruling on Second Amendment.” Legal Intelligencer (May 8).
. 2003. “Second Amendment Fight Steals Show in Gun Ban Case: Panel Enters Fray over Individual Rights.” San Francisco Recorder (February 19).
McAffee, Thomas B. 1997. “Constitutional Limits on Regulating Private Militia Groups.” Montana Law Review 58 (winter).
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