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By: History.com Editors
Updated: July 27, 2023 | Original: December 4, 2017
The Second Amendment, often referred to as the right to bear arms, is one of 10 amendments that form the Bill of Rights, ratified in 1791 by the U.S. Congress. Differing interpretations of the amendment have fueled a long-running debate over gun control legislation and the rights of individual citizens to buy, own and carry firearms.
Right to Bear Arms
The text of the Second Amendment reads in full: “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.” The framers of the Bill of Rights adapted the wording of the amendment from nearly identical clauses in some of the original 13 state constitutions.
During the Revolutionary War era, “militia” referred to groups of men who banded together to protect their communities, towns, colonies and eventually states, once the United States declared its independence from Great Britain in 1776.
Many people in America at the time believed governments used soldiers to oppress the people, and thought the federal government should only be allowed to raise armies (with full-time, paid soldiers) when facing foreign adversaries. For all other purposes, they believed, it should turn to part-time militias, or ordinary civilians using their own weapons.
But as militias had proved insufficient against the British, the Constitutional Convention gave the new federal government the power to establish a standing army, even in peacetime.
However, opponents of a strong central government (known as Anti-Federalists) argued that this federal army deprived states of their ability to defend themselves against oppression. They feared that Congress might abuse its constitutional power of “organizing, arming and disciplining the Militia” by failing to keep militiamen equipped with adequate arms.
So, shortly after the U.S. Constitution was officially ratified, James Madison proposed the Second Amendment as a way to empower these state militias. While the Second Amendment did not answer the broader Anti-Federalist concern that the federal government had too much power, it did establish the principle (held by both Federalists and their opponents) that the government did not have the authority to disarm citizens.
Practically since its ratification, Americans have debated the meaning of the Second Amendment, with vehement arguments being made on both sides.
The crux of the debate is whether the amendment protects the right of private individuals to keep and bear arms, or whether it instead protects a collective right that should be exercised only through formal militia units.
Those who argue it is a collective right point to the “well-regulated Militia” clause in the Second Amendment. They argue that the right to bear arms should be given only to organized groups, like the National Guard, a reserve military force that replaced the state militias after the Civil War .
On the other side are those who argue that the Second Amendment gives all citizens, not just militias, the right to own guns in order to protect themselves. The National Rifle Association (NRA) , founded in 1871, and its supporters have been the most visible proponents of this argument, and have pursued a vigorous campaign against gun control measures at the local, state and federal levels.
Those who support stricter gun control legislation have argued that limits are necessary on gun ownership, including who can own them, where they can be carried and what type of guns should be available for purchase.
Congress passed one of the most high-profile federal gun control efforts, the so-called Brady Bill , in the 1990s, largely thanks to the efforts of former White House Press Secretary James S. Brady, who had been shot in the head during an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in 1981.
District of Columbia v. Heller
Since the passage of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which mandated background checks for gun purchases from licensed dealers, the debate on gun control has changed dramatically.
This is partially due to the actions of the Supreme Court , which departed from its past stance on the Second Amendment with its verdicts in two major cases, District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) and McDonald v. Chicago (2010).
For a long time, the federal judiciary held the opinion that the Second Amendment remained among the few provisions of the Bill of Rights that did not fall under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment , which would thereby apply its limitations to state governments. For example, in the 1886 case Presser v. Illinois , the Court held that the Second Amendment applied only to the federal government, and did not prohibit state governments from regulating an individual’s ownership or use of guns.
But in its 5-4 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller , which invalidated a federal law barring nearly all civilians from possessing guns in the District of Columbia, the Supreme Court extended Second Amendment protection to individuals in federal (non-state) enclaves.
Writing the majority decision in that case, Justice Antonin Scalia lent the Court’s weight to the idea that the Second Amendment protects the right of individual private gun ownership for self-defense purposes.
McDonald v. Chicago
Two years later, in McDonald v. Chicago , the Supreme Court struck down (also in a 5-4 decision) a similar citywide handgun ban, ruling that the Second Amendment applies to the states as well as to the federal government.
In the majority ruling in that case, Justice Samuel Alito wrote: “Self-defense is a basic right, recognized by many legal systems from ancient times to the present day, and in Heller , we held that individual self-defense is ‘the central component’ of the Second Amendment right.”
Gun Control Debate
The Supreme Court’s narrow rulings in the Heller and McDonald cases left open many key issues in the gun control debate.
In the Heller decision, the Court suggested a list of “presumptively lawful” regulations, including bans on possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill; bans on carrying arms in schools and government buildings; restrictions on gun sales; bans on the concealed carrying of weapons; and generally bans on weapons “not typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes.”
Since that verdict, as lower courts battle back and forth on cases involving such restrictions, the public debate over Second Amendment rights and gun control remains very much open, even as mass shootings became an increasingly frequent occurrence in American life.
To take just three examples, the Columbine Shooting , where two teens killed 13 people at Columbine High School, prompted a national gun control debate. The Sandy Hook shooting of 20 children and six staff members at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012 led President Barack Obama and many others to call for tighter background checks and a renewed ban on assault weapons.
And in 2017, the mass shooting at country music concert in Las Vegas in which 60 people died (to date the largest mass shooting in U.S. history, overtaking the 2016 attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida ) inspired calls to restrict sales of “bump stocks,” attachments that enable semiautomatic weapons to fire faster.
On the other side of the ongoing debate of gun control measures are the NRA and other gun rights supporters, powerful and vocal groups that views such restrictions as an unacceptable violation of their Second Amendment rights.
Bill of Rights, The Oxford Guide to the United States Government . Jack Rakove, ed. The Annotated U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Amendment II, National Constitution Center . The Second Amendment and the Right to Bear Arms, LiveScience . Second Amendment, Legal Information Institute .
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The first amendment, interpretation & debate, the second amendment, matters of debate, common interpretation, the reasonable right to bear arms, not a second class right: the second amendment today.
by Nelson Lund
University Professor at George Mason University University Antonin Scalia School of Law
by Adam Winkler
Professor of Law at University of California Los Angeles Law School
Modern debates about the Second Amendment have focused on whether it protects a private right of individuals to keep and bear arms, or a right that can be exercised only through militia organizations like the National Guard. This question, however, was not even raised until long after the Bill of Rights was adopted.
Many in the Founding generation believed that governments are prone to use soldiers to oppress the people. English history suggested that this risk could be controlled by permitting the government to raise armies (consisting of full-time paid troops) only when needed to fight foreign adversaries. For other purposes, such as responding to sudden invasions or other emergencies, the government could rely on a militia that consisted of ordinary civilians who supplied their own weapons and received some part-time, unpaid military training.
The onset of war does not always allow time to raise and train an army, and the Revolutionary War showed that militia forces could not be relied on for national defense. The Constitutional Convention therefore decided that the federal government should have almost unfettered authority to establish peacetime standing armies and to regulate the militia.
This massive shift of power from the states to the federal government generated one of the chief objections to the proposed Constitution. Anti-Federalists argued that the proposed Constitution would take from the states their principal means of defense against federal usurpation. The Federalists responded that fears of federal oppression were overblown, in part because the American people were armed and would be almost impossible to subdue through military force.
Implicit in the debate between Federalists and Anti-Federalists were two shared assumptions. First, that the proposed new Constitution gave the federal government almost total legal authority over the army and militia. Second, that the federal government should not have any authority at all to disarm the citizenry. They disagreed only about whether an armed populace could adequately deter federal oppression.
The Second Amendment conceded nothing to the Anti-Federalists’ desire to sharply curtail the military power of the federal government, which would have required substantial changes in the original Constitution. Yet the Amendment was easily accepted because of widespread agreement that the federal government should not have the power to infringe the right of the people to keep and bear arms, any more than it should have the power to abridge the freedom of speech or prohibit the free exercise of religion.
Much has changed since 1791. The traditional militia fell into desuetude, and state-based militia organizations were eventually incorporated into the federal military structure. The nation’s military establishment has become enormously more powerful than eighteenth century armies. We still hear political rhetoric about federal tyranny, but most Americans do not fear the nation’s armed forces and virtually no one thinks that an armed populace could defeat those forces in battle. Furthermore, eighteenth century civilians routinely kept at home the very same weapons they would need if called to serve in the militia, while modern soldiers are equipped with weapons that differ significantly from those generally thought appropriate for civilian uses. Civilians no longer expect to use their household weapons for militia duty, although they still keep and bear arms to defend against common criminals (as well as for hunting and other forms of recreation).
The law has also changed. While states in the Founding era regulated guns—blacks were often prohibited from possessing firearms and militia weapons were frequently registered on government rolls—gun laws today are more extensive and controversial. Another important legal development was the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Second Amendment originally applied only to the federal government, leaving the states to regulate weapons as they saw fit. Although there is substantial evidence that the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment was meant to protect the right of individuals to keep and bear arms from infringement by the states, the Supreme Court rejected this interpretation in United States v. Cruikshank (1876).
Until recently, the judiciary treated the Second Amendment almost as a dead letter. In District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), however, the Supreme Court invalidated a federal law that forbade nearly all civilians from possessing handguns in the nation’s capital. A 5–4 majority ruled that the language and history of the Second Amendment showed that it protects a private right of individuals to have arms for their own defense, not a right of the states to maintain a militia.
The dissenters disagreed. They concluded that the Second Amendment protects a nominally individual right, though one that protects only “the right of the people of each of the several States to maintain a well-regulated militia.” They also argued that even if the Second Amendment did protect an individual right to have arms for self-defense, it should be interpreted to allow the government to ban handguns in high-crime urban areas.
Two years later, in McDonald v. City of Chicago (2010), the Court struck down a similar handgun ban at the state level, again by a 5–4 vote. Four Justices relied on judicial precedents under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. Justice Thomas rejected those precedents in favor of reliance on the Privileges or Immunities Clause, but all five members of the majority concluded that the Fourteenth Amendment protects against state infringement of the same individual right that is protected from federal infringement by the Second Amendment.
Notwithstanding the lengthy opinions in Heller and McDonald , they technically ruled only that government may not ban the possession of handguns by civilians in their homes. Heller tentatively suggested a list of “presumptively lawful” regulations, including bans on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, bans on carrying firearms in “sensitive places” such as schools and government buildings, laws restricting the commercial sale of arms, bans on the concealed carry of firearms, and bans on weapons “not typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes.” Many issues remain open, and the lower courts have disagreed with one another about some of them, including important questions involving restrictions on carrying weapons in public.
Gun control is as much a part of the Second Amendment as the right to keep and bear arms. The text of the amendment, which refers to a “well regulated Militia,” suggests as much. As the Supreme Court correctly noted in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), the militia of the founding era was the body of ordinary citizens capable of taking up arms to defend the nation. While the Founders sought to protect the citizenry from being disarmed entirely, they did not wish to prevent government from adopting reasonable regulations of guns and gun owners.
Although Americans today often think that gun control is a modern invention, the Founding era had laws regulating the armed citizenry. There were laws designed to ensure an effective militia, such as laws requiring armed citizens to appear at mandatory musters where their guns would be inspected. Governments also compiled registries of civilian-owned guns appropriate for militia service, sometimes conducting door-to-door surveys. The Founders had broad bans on gun possession by people deemed untrustworthy, including slaves and loyalists. The Founders even had laws requiring people to have guns appropriate for militia service.
The wide range of Founding-era laws suggests that the Founders understood gun rights quite differently from many people today. The right to keep and bear arms was not a libertarian license for anyone to have any kind of ordinary firearm, anywhere they wanted. Nor did the Second Amendment protect a right to revolt against a tyrannical government. The Second Amendment was about ensuring public safety, and nothing in its language was thought to prevent what would be seen today as quite burdensome forms of regulation.
The Founding-era laws indicate why the First Amendment is not a good analogy to the Second. While there have always been laws restricting perjury and fraud by the spoken word, such speech was not thought to be part of the freedom of speech. The Second Amendment, by contrast, unambiguously recognizes that the armed citizenry must be regulated—and regulated “well.” This language most closely aligns with the Fourth Amendment, which protects a right to privacy but also recognizes the authority of the government to conduct reasonable searches and seizures.
The principle that reasonable regulations are consistent with the Second Amendment has been affirmed throughout American history. Ever since the first cases challenging gun controls for violating the Second Amendment or similar provisions in state constitutions, courts have repeatedly held that “reasonable” gun laws—those that don’t completely deny access to guns by law-abiding people—are constitutionally permissible. For 150 years, this was the settled law of the land—until Heller .
Heller , however, rejected the principle of reasonableness only in name, not in practice. The decision insisted that many types of gun control laws are presumptively lawful, including bans on possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, bans on concealed carry, bans on dangerous and unusual weapons, restrictions on guns in sensitive places like schools and government buildings, and commercial sale restrictions. Nearly all gun control laws today fit within these exceptions. Importantly, these exceptions for modern-day gun laws unheard of in the Founding era also show that lawmakers are not limited to the types of gun control in place at the time of the Second Amendment’s ratification.
In the years since Heller , the federal courts have upheld the overwhelming majority of gun control laws challenged under the Second Amendment. Bans on assault weapons have been consistently upheld, as have restrictions on gun magazines that hold more than a minimum number of rounds of ammunition. Bans on guns in national parks, post offices, bars, and college campuses also survived. These decisions make clear that lawmakers have wide leeway to restrict guns to promote public safety so long as the basic right of law-abiding people to have a gun for self-defense is preserved.
Perhaps the biggest open question after Heller is whether the Second Amendment protects a right to carry guns in public. While every state allows public carry, some states restrict that right to people who can show a special reason to have a gun on the street. To the extent these laws give local law enforcement unfettered discretion over who can carry, they are problematic. At the same time, however, many constitutional rights are far more limited in public than in the home. Parades can be required to have a permit, the police have broader powers to search pedestrians and motorists than private homes, and sexual intimacy in public places can be completely prohibited.
The Supreme Court may yet decide that more stringent limits on gun control are required under the Second Amendment. Such a decision, however, would be contrary to the text, history, and tradition of the right to keep and bear arms.
The right to keep and bear arms is a lot like the right to freedom of speech. In each case, the Constitution expressly protects a liberty that needs to be insulated from the ordinary political process. Neither right, however, is absolute. The First Amendment, for example, has never protected perjury, fraud, or countless other crimes that are committed through the use of speech. Similarly, no reasonable person could believe that violent criminals should have unrestricted access to guns, or that any individual should possess a nuclear weapon.
Inevitably, courts must draw lines, allowing government to carry out its duty to preserve an orderly society, without unduly infringing the legitimate interests of individuals in expressing their thoughts and protecting themselves from criminal violence. This is not a precise science or one that will ever be free from controversy.
One judicial approach, however, should be unequivocally rejected. During the nineteenth century, courts routinely refused to invalidate restrictions on free speech that struck the judges as reasonable. This meant that speech got virtually no judicial protection. Government suppression of speech can usually be thought to serve some reasonable purpose, such as reducing social discord or promoting healthy morals. Similarly, most gun control laws can be viewed as efforts to save lives and prevent crime, which are perfectly reasonable goals. If that’s enough to justify infringements on individual liberty, neither constitutional guarantee means much of anything.
During the twentieth century, the Supreme Court finally started taking the First Amendment seriously. Today, individual freedom is generally protected unless the government can make a strong case that it has a real need to suppress speech or expressive conduct, and that its regulations are tailored to that need. The legal doctrines have become quite complex, and there is room for disagreement about many of the Court’s specific decisions. Taken as a whole, however, this body of case law shows what the Court can do when it appreciates the value of an individual right enshrined in the Constitution.
The Second Amendment also raises issues about which reasonable people can disagree. But if the Supreme Court takes this provision of the Constitution as seriously as it now takes the First Amendment, which it should do, there will be some easy issues as well.
• District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) is one example. The “right of the people” protected by the Second Amendment is an individual right, just like the “right[s] of the people” protected by the First and Fourth Amendments. The Constitution does not say that the Second Amendment protects a right of the states or a right of the militia, and nobody offered such an interpretation during the Founding era. Abundant historical evidence indicates that the Second Amendment was meant to leave citizens with the ability to defend themselves against unlawful violence. Such threats might come from usurpers of governmental power, but they might also come from criminals whom the government is unwilling or unable to control.
• McDonald v. City of Chicago (2010) was also an easy case under the Court’s precedents. Most other provisions of the Bill of Rights had already been applied to the states because they are “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.” The right to keep and bear arms clearly meets this test.
• The text of the Constitution expressly guarantees the right to bear arms, not just the right to keep them. The courts should invalidate regulations that prevent law-abiding citizens from carrying weapons in public, where the vast majority of violent crimes occur. First Amendment rights are not confined to the home, and neither are those protected by the Second Amendment.
• Nor should the government be allowed to create burdensome bureaucratic obstacles designed to frustrate the exercise of Second Amendment rights. The courts are vigilant in preventing government from evading the First Amendment through regulations that indirectly abridge free speech rights by making them difficult to exercise. Courts should exercise the same vigilance in protecting Second Amendment rights.
• Some other regulations that may appear innocuous should be struck down because they are little more than political stunts. Popular bans on so-called “assault rifles,” for example, define this class of guns in terms of cosmetic features, leaving functionally identical semi-automatic rifles to circulate freely. This is unconstitutional for the same reason that it would violate the First Amendment to ban words that have a French etymology, or to require that French fries be called “freedom fries.”
In most American states, including many with large urban population centers, responsible adults have easy access to ordinary firearms, and they are permitted to carry them in public. Experience has shown that these policies do not lead to increased levels of violence. Criminals pay no more attention to gun control regulations than they do to laws against murder, rape, and robbery. Armed citizens, however, prevent countless crimes and have saved many lives. What’s more, the most vulnerable people—including women, the elderly, and those who live in high crime neighborhoods—are among the greatest beneficiaries of the Second Amendment. If the courts require the remaining jurisdictions to stop infringing on the constitutional right to keep and bear arms, their citizens will be more free and probably safer as well.
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The Constitution of the United States of America came into force in 1789. At 229 years old, it is arguably the oldest Constitution still in use in the world today. Despite being the supreme law of the land, the sovereign power remains vested in the people of the United States...
Since it is fundamental to the country's security, gun rights and regulation have been a contentious issue in the US for decades. The goal of the US gun rights legislation was to enable citizens to defend themselves against potential attacks. Additionally, Australia and other countries are debating the relationship between...
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The Second Amendment: A Fundamental Right The 2nd amendment states, "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." This is one of the most important rights to Americans and is an essential...
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Second Amendment as a Research Topic
Choosing a topic for further research is always a challenge because it requires thinking it over and gathering as much detail as possible prior to the study itself, such as making up preliminary plans and identifying the desired outcomes. It should be the subject of interest, but, at the same time, there should be some background knowledge and gaps to fill while conducting the research.
As I started selecting the topic for my future research, I mentioned some issues of particular interest. The first one was the Second Amendment guaranteeing the right to own arms. This topic caught my attention due to the recent developments in the legal environment and opposing the right to possess guns. I wanted to get to the roots of the problem and find out why it became so acute.
The second potential topic was white privilege. I thought about this one when I came across the statistics of winning Oscar awards and realized that African Americans won them more rarely than white actors.
What interested me in studying it was the opportunity to discover whether similar statistics are the consequence of history and segregation of public life. Finally, I thought of investigating gender equality. I wanted to know how the perception of women’s role in society changed over time.
However, as I spent some time reflecting on these subjects, I decided that writing about the Second Amendment would be the most appealing and interesting topic. There are several reasons for choosing it. First of all, I love studying history, especially the origins of American society and state. Moreover, there are numerous views on the right to own arms.
So, I wanted to find how they changed over time and why the Second Amendment was adopted in the first place. Finally, I decided that it would be challenging to hypothesize on its future and any changes in the legal environment pertaining to it. However, reaching this objective would be impossible without filling the gaps in my knowledge of the history and current state of mind on the Second Amendment.
As for now, I am definitely a pro-Second Amendment. I believe that American citizens should be guaranteed the right to own guns because sometimes it is the only way to ensure the safety and wellbeing of an individual.
Furthermore, in my opinion, there is no relation between being eligible for possessing arms and crime rate because, basically, if a person bears malice, no law will stop them, but the law allowing weapons might save someone’s life. Besides, I assume that the right to own guns may be seen as one of the natural rights of an individual because, in fact, it signifies the right to life and safety.
Hopefully, I will find responses to all my questions while studying the topic. What interests me the most is whether there is a direct link between the crime rate and the right to own and carry guns.
In addition to it, I hope that I will discover why there are so many perspectives on the Second Amendment among scholars, historians, and politicians, and how to arrive at a common view, if possible. Finally, I hope to determine whether the issue is solely political or social welfare is also taken into consideration when debating over the future of this amendment, and its implementation into the legal environment.
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The Second Amendment
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Essays on Second Amendment
24 samples on this topic
To many learners, writing Second Amendment papers comes easy; others need the help of various types. The WowEssays.com catalog includes professionally crafted sample essays on Second Amendment and related issues. Most definitely, among all those Second Amendment essay examples, you will find a piece that resonates with what you see as a decent paper. You can be sure that virtually every Second Amendment paper showcased here can be used as a bright example to follow in terms of general structure and writing different parts of a paper – introduction, main body, or conclusion.
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Draw Topic & Writing Ideas From This Literature Review On Do Strict Gun Control Laws Make Cities Safer?
A Review of Literature
American Freedom: A Sample Essay For Inspiration & Mimicking
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Speech Preparation 4: Persuasive Speech Writing and Research
Source 1: Peer-reviewed Journal Article
Value: High Credibility: High Source 2: The New York Times News Value: High Credibility: High- The author is an N.R.A member and has authored six books on guns
Source 3: The Guardian Newspaper Article
Value: High Credibility: High
Source 4: Journal Article
Term Paper On Gun Control Legislation: Background Checks And Public Policy.
Good Rebuttals And Refutations Essay Example
Law on Gun Possession on Campus
Research Design Research Proposal Samples
Learn to craft essays on criminal justice with this example, good research paper about 2nd amendment, free essay about gun control: speaker notes for powerpoint presentation.
SLIDE 1: TITLE SLIDE
Inspiring Essay About Conflict Viewpoint Part II
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275 words = 1 page double-spaced
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