AS school shootings erupt with sickening regularity, Americans once again are debating gun laws. Quickly talk turns to the Second Amendment as Washington state considers two gun initiatives in the Nov. 4 ballot.
But what does it mean? History offers some surprises: It turns out in each era, the meaning is set not by some pristine constitutional text, but by the push and pull, the rough and tumble of public debate and political activism. And gun rights have always coexisted with responsibility.
At 27 words long, the provision is the shortest sentence in the U.S. Constitution. It reads: “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.”
Modern readers squint at its stray commas and confusing wording. The framers believed in freedom to punctuate.
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It turns out that to the framers, the amendment principally focused on those “well regulated militias.” These militias were not like anything we know now: Every adult man (eventually, every white man) served through their entire lifetime. They were actually required to own a gun, and bring it from home.
Think of the minutemen at Lexington and Concord, who did battle with the British army. These squads of citizen soldiers were seen as a bulwark against tyranny. When the Constitution was being debated, many Americans feared the new central government could crush the 13 state militias. Hence, the Second Amendment. It protected an individual right — to fulfill the public responsibility of militia service.
What about today’s gun-rights debates? Surprisingly, there is not a single word about an individual right to a gun for self-defense in the notes from the Constitutional Convention; nor with scattered exceptions in the transcripts of the ratification debates in the states; nor on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives as it marked up the Second Amendment, where every single speaker talked about the militia. James Madison’s original proposal even included a conscientious objector clause: “No person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person.”
To be clear, there were plenty of guns in the founding era. Americans felt they had the right to protect themselves, especially in the home, a right passed down from England through common law. But there were plenty of gun laws, too. Boston made it illegal to keep a loaded gun in a home, due to safety concerns. Laws governed the location of guns and gunpowder storage. New York, Boston and all cities in Pennsylvania prohibited the firing of guns within city limits. States imposed curbs on gun ownership. People deemed dangerous were barred from owning weapons. Pennsylvania disarmed Tory sympathizers.
That balance continued throughout our history, even in the Wild West. A historic photo of Dodge City, the legendary frontier town, shows a sign planted in the middle of its main street: “The Carrying of Fire Arms Strictly Prohibited.” Few thought the Constitution had much to say about it.
Through much of history, this balance evoked little controversy. Even the National Rifle Association embraced it. Today the NRA is known for harsh anti-government rhetoric, but it was started to train former Union soldiers in marksmanship. In the 1930s, the group testified for the first federal gun law. In 1968, its American Rifleman magazine told its readers the NRA “does not necessarily approve of everything that goes ‘Bang!’ ”
Of course, over the past three decades, the NRA shifted sharply. At the group’s 1977 annual meeting, still remembered as the “Revolt at Cincinnati,” moderate leaders were voted out and the organization was recast as a constitutional crusade.
Together with even more intense advocates, such as the Bellevue-based Second Amendment Foundation, they are quick to decry any gun laws as an assault on a core, sacred constitutional right. They waged a relentless constitutional campaign to change the way we see the amendment.
Remarkably, the first time the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment recognizes an individual right to gun ownership was in 2008. The decision, rang loudly. But a close read shows that Justice Antonin Scalia and his colleagues make the familiar point that gun rights and responsibilities go together. The court said that, like all constitutional rights, there could be limits. “Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms,” Scalia wrote.
That’s how judges have interpreted this constitutional right. Dozens of courts have examined gun laws since 2008. Overwhelmingly they have upheld them, despite the claims of gun-rights attorneys. Yes, there is an individual right to gun ownership — but with rights come responsibilities. Society, too, has a right to safety, and there is a compelling public interest in laws to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people.
To be sure, the final scope of the constitutional provision has not been determined. The Supreme Court has not spoken again. It is infallible because it is final, as Justice Robert Jackson once wrote, not final because it is infallible. But the greatest controversy revolves around issues such as the rules for carrying a gun outside the home.
So what does the Second Amendment really mean? From the debate over the Constitution to today’s gun fights, the answer is really up to us, to the people. That answer changes over time. But one thing has remained surprisingly constant: Americans cherish freedom, but believe passionately that rights demand responsibilities. It’s hard to think of an area where that insight matters more than when it comes to ensuring that lethal weapons do not fall into the wrong hands.