March 6, 2013 —
REGION — “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.”
That’s it. The entire Second Amendment. A single sentence, just 27 words. Despite its brevity and apparent simplicity, the Second Amendment has been subjected to radical reinterpretation over the years. The meaning we assign to it today might have perplexed our founding fathers.
When the amendment was adopted in 1791, memories of the Revolutionary War were still fresh. Citizen soldiers had defeated King George’s army and the value of “a well-regulated militia” was apparent for all to see. And at a time when the young republic was uneasy about establishing a standing army, the constitutional right of ordinary citizens to organize for their common defense was of the utmost importance. “Gun control” in the modern sense of the term was a not an issue. “Arms” meant flintlocks, and every farmer had one.
But the 19th century saw major innovations in arms manufacturing. In 1836, Samuel Colt introduced the percussion cap revolver. The first repeating rifles were available in 1848. By the time the Civil War raged, Americans were able to kill one another with remarkable efficiency. Even today, after two World Wars, after Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, it remains our bloodiest conflict. More than 625,000 men were killed; more than a half million more were maimed or wounded.
As firepower increased and hand guns proliferated, cities, towns and states began to restrict the possession of firearms. Laws prohibiting concealed weapons were adopted in many states including Kentucky, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas. Even the Wild West wasn’t all that wild. Cowboys riding into Wichita, KS had to surrender their weapons before entering town. And if you wanted to wear a six-shooter, you had to get out of Dodge, literally. Carrying a gun in that otherwise wide-open cattle town was against the law. Constitutional challenges to these prohibitions were virtually non-existent.
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.