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December 09, 2016
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Searching for the Second Amendment

The current debate about gun rights only began to take shape in the 1960s. Political assassinations, racial unrest and calls for “law and order” led to passage of a federal Gun Control Act in 1968. The law restricted gun sales and imports, and was supported by the National Rifle Association (NRA). (At that the time, the NRA was chiefly concerned with gun safety, hunting, and sports shooting.) In that tumultuous decade, the claim that individuals had the right to arm themselves in self-defense wasn’t coming from conservatives, but from black nationalists. Malcolm X told his followers that the Second Amendment gave them the right to own a gun; the Black Panther Party encouraged supporters to take up arms to protect their communities from racist cops. Another decade would pass before the gun control debate took on the familiar shape it has today.

In 1977, conservative gun rights activists staged a coup during the NRA’s annual convention. Almost overnight, the right of individuals to own guns became a central part of the organization’s agenda. Then, in 1982, a report commissioned by Republican Senator Orrin Hatch claimed to have discovered “long-lost” proof that the Second Amendment was intended to give individuals the right to arm themselves for personal reasons. The debate over the meaning of the amendment was now up for grabs, and conservatives had latched onto a potent political issue they could use to win elections.

In 2008, a long and expensive campaign to reinterpret the Second Amendment paid off when Justice Anthony Scalia wrote a decision overturning a law limiting handgun possession in the crime-ridden city of Washington, DC. Subsequently, the Supreme Court and Appellate Courts have overturned some gun control laws while letting others stand. The Supreme Court itself remains narrowly divided on the issue, and the appointment of even a single new justice could once more tip the scales in another direction. Today only one thing is certain: the meaning of the Second Amendment is not yet carved in stone.