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Gun Control: The Second Amendment

The Second Amendment of the Constitution is often seen as a gun-rights activist’s best friend. Its words even serve as the background of the National Rifle Association’s website. Consequently, the national discourse on gun control centers on how exactly the amendment should be interpreted. Supporters of lax gun control laws argue that the Bill of Rights is sacred; it is the one thing that must be preserved above all else. If the founders believed the people had a right to bear arms, that right should be safeguarded with the same vigor that preserves free speech and prevents cruel and unusual punishment. Gun control advocates claim that the amendment is outdated, reflective of an era in which it was almost impossible to perpetrate mass-killings using a gun. For example, the nine-millimeter Glock did not exist in 1787. This type of gun is capable of holding thirty bullets at once and is the kind Jared Loughner used in his attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

In the battle over gun rights, the first four words of the amendment are too often forgotten. The framers of the Constitution believed gun rights must be protected for “a well-regulated militia.” A strict interpretation of those words would seem to prevent Loughner (and most private citizens) from owning a firearm. However in 2008’s District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court interpreted the amendment to give citizens who were not part of a militia the right to own guns, as long as the weapons were used for otherwise lawful purposes. Ironically, this reinterpretation of the Constitution, something condemned by gun-rights activists, actually means that more people have the right to keep and bear arms than the Founders intended. The left condemned the ruling, and the right applauded it, showing that both sides seem willing to accept or reject reinterpretations of the Constitution as it suits them.

Even with the broadening of the definition of “militia,” the words “well regulated” cannot be ignored. In Federalist Paper No. 29, Alexander Hamilton wrote that the militia “ought certainly to be under the regulation and at the disposal of that body which is constituted the guardian of national security . . . confiding the regulation of the militia to the direction of national authority.” It seems that despite the guns of Hamilton’s day being less dangerous than the weapons we face, he still saw the need for regulation of firearms. The debate over gun control will certainly continue, and in the meantime guns will kill 80 Americans each day. Some of these will be purchased by seemingly moral and peaceful citizens, but some will be purchased by the Jared Loughner’s and Seung-Hui Cho’s of the world. If we restrict the access that such people have to guns, we will undoubtedly make it harder for them to harm themselves or others. This seems like the type of regulation Hamilton had in mind.

3 Comments on Gun Control: The Second Amendment

  1. Joe Burwell '82 // February 3, 2011 at 8:01 am //

    The author states that the words “a well-regulated militia” “are too often forgotten”; on the contrary, the author will learn, over time, that most gun-rights advocates are well-aware of the presence of those words.

    The author’s use of “reinterpretation” is a misnomer; DC v. Heller was a case of first impression for the U.S. Supreme Court and, therefore, an initial interpretation.

    The author states that the result in DC v. Heller “means that more people have the right to keep and bear arms than the Founders intended”. Assuming that the majority opinion is at least partially correct, then the author’s statement is completely incorrect; the determination of the set of persons who have the right (as the Founders intended) was a central issue in the decision.

    The author states that “the Supreme Court interpreted the amendment to give citizens who were not part of a militia the right to own guns”. Again, the author is completely wrong; the determination of the meaning of “militia” was a central issue. As the court stated: “the conception of the militia at the time of the Second Amendment’s ratification was the body of all citizens capable of military service”, which is quite broad. The author may be surprised to learn that the federal statutes define “[t]he militia of the United States consists of all able-bodied males at least 17 years of age and …”. Surprise! A significant portion of Deerfield seniors are members of a militia!

  2. Leif Rakur // February 3, 2011 at 1:07 pm //

    The Second Amendment was written about a free state’s need for the security of a well regulated militia, and about the right of the people to keep and bear arms to meet that need. There’s nothing in the amendment about arms for personal missions.

    If the Framers had intended the amendment to declare a personal right to arms, they would have inserted the word “personal,” and the amendment would have read:

    “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the PERSONAL right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

    But then, of course, the incompatibility of the two clauses in one sentence would have been even more obvious than it already is when the attempt is made to parse the amendment as a personal right.

  3. Leif Rakur // February 3, 2011 at 1:55 pm //

    The Second Amendment is about the need of a free state for a “well rgulated” militia. A well regulated militia was one that was governed by what George Washington called “a well regulated Militia Law.” Militiamen in such a militia were those persons who were qualified physically and by age for service, who were enrolled in a company for training, and who were liable to bear arms when required.

    Pennsylvania’s militia act of 1777 is an example of what Washington called “a well regulated Militia Law.” Its title is “An Act to Rugulate the Milita of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.” It is 19 pages long and is full of militia rules and regulations.

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