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 Gun control advocates claim that the amendment is outdated, reflective of an era in which it was almost impossible to perpetrate mass-killings using a gun.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.