Recently, I have been reading up on the current debate over gun control. As with most issues nowadays, I saw one word in particular get thrown around a lot--“rights.” This is a word that, in my opinion, has become hackneyed. I feel as if people throw it around haphazardly, using it in order to feel empowered and justified— a certain sense of American Revolution-esque, gung-ho euphoria and resolve— without really knowing where it comes from and what it really means.
A YouTube comment responding to someone claiming that nobody wants to take away your guns-- "You know as well as I do that they can and will use any excuse or label to restrict your right to own guns. They're on record as saying that their goal is to ban guns."
Or this page on Ted Cruz’s campaign website:
Or this recent statement by the NRA on Obama's executive actions: "The NRA will continue to fight to protect the fundamental, individual Right to Keep and Bear Arms as guaranteed under our Constitution. We will not allow law-abiding gun owners to be harassed or intimidated for engaging in lawful, constitutionally protected activity – nor will we allow them to become scapegoats for President Obama's failed policies."
And so, I think there is a need to understand the Second Amendment to the Constitution quite simply because I am not entirely sure if people and organizations such as these know what they are talking about. The reason I think they might not know what they are talking about is that I don’t know what they are talking about. Very few people explain what the amendment says, where it comes from, and how it is and should be interpreted.
And so, for my sake and theirs, here is a brief history of the Second Amendment.
Where It Came from and What It Says
After the Declaration of Independence from the British Empire, the newly formed United States government operated under the Articles of Confederation. The national governing body established under this document proved ineffective in many ways after the American Revolution ended, and so in 1787, after much deliberation amongst delegates from each state, the Constitution was drafted. Anti-federalists, those who were against a strong central government and in favor of more powerful state governments, were reluctant to ratify the Constitution because they feared that if the federal government was given so much power, it would only come to oppress the states and their peoples the same way the recent British oppressors had.
In order to allay these concerns, after the states ratified the Constitution, the Federalist James Madison drafted a dozen amendments, of which 10 were ratified, that guaranteed the rights of the citizens and states within this new “more perfect union.”
The Bill of Rights is made up of these amendments, the second of which states that, "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.”
More broadly, the use of the word “rights,” can be traced back to the Enlightenment, mainly from the philosopher John Locke, who, according to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, believed that “the state of nature was apolitical in the sense that there were no governments and each individual retained all of his or her natural rights. People possessed these natural rights (including the right to attempt to preserve one’s life, to seize unclaimed valuables, and so forth) because they were given by God to all of his people.”
This philosophy was one the Framers were well-versed in, and it is exhibited in Thomas Jefferson’s famed “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” statement in the Declaration of Independence.
How the Second Amendment Has Been Interpreted
Understanding the intentions of those who drafted and ratified the amendment has proved to be a complicated business. Over the course of American history, there have been essentially two interpretations: the first stating that the Second Amendment protects individuals’ rights to bear firearms, known as “individual right theory,” and the second stating that the amendment only serves to prohibit legislation that takes away a state’s right to protect itself, known as “collective rights theory.”
In the 1939 Supreme Court case United States v. Miller, the Court declared that Congress could regulate any weapon that does not have a "reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia.” In so doing, Congress took a collective rights theory approach.
In the 2008 and 2010 Supreme Court cases of The District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago, respectively, the Supreme Court went against the Miller precedent in the first case and "proclaimed that the Second Amendment established an individual right for U.S. citizens to possess firearms and struck down the D.C. handgun ban as violative of that right,” and in the second case they stated that this ruling extends to the states as well as the federal governments.
From all this, one can conclude that when one says or gives the impression that their right to bear arms comes from the Second Amendment, they are making a fundamental error. The Second Amendment guarantees their right. It does not provide it.
Furthermore, it can be seen that growing need to highlight who is taking this right away instead of highlighting where the right comes from in the first place is evidence of the fact that people do not want to keep their guns because it is their right, but more so because they like it.
One can also conclude that regardless of ignorance such as this, according to the Supreme Court, the Constitution allows for the possession of firearms whether or not one is aware of the origins of their rights.
In other words, you can still buy a gun without really knowing why you are allowed to have one.
This way of thinking can be summed up quite well in something the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov once said: “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'”