It may be the most controversial, the most contentious right we have as Americans: the right to keep and bear arms. The root of that contention is in the often misunderstood intention of the founders and framers.
So what is the Second Amendment really about?
This is a Reality Check you won’t get anywhere else.
There are so many questions being debated in the media about what rights we have under the Second Amendment. One of those questions that has come up is: is the Second Amendment outdated?
If the founding fathers of this country had been aware of the kind of weapons we would have today, would they have kept the Second Amendment in the Bill of Rights?
And is the Second Amendment about protecting yourself, or is it more about hunting and sportsmanship?
Let’s start with the actual language of the amendment. It reads:
“A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, and the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.”
Over the years, Politico, The Atlantic, The New Yorker and other media outlets have reported about the National Rifle Association’s efforts in the 1980s that caused the “well regulated militia” part of the Second Amendment to become ignored. And, thanks to an all-out push by the the NRA, the meaning of the Second Amendment was expanded from “militia” to the individual.
Jeffrey Toobin, senior legal analyst for CNN and staff writer at The New Yorker, wrote an article for the magazine in 2012 on this very topic. He writes, “The re-interpretation of the Second Amendment was an elaborate and brilliantly executed political operation, inside and outside of government. Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 brought a gun-rights enthusiast to the White House.
“At the same time, Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican, became chairman of an important subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and he commissioned a report that claimed to find clear and long lost proof that the Second Amendment to our Constitution was intended as an individual right of the American citizen to keep and carry arms in a peaceful manner, for protection of himself, his family, and his freedoms.”
Now, Toobin’s analysis may be historically correct in his observation of the change in the public’s understanding of the Second Amendment today. But he gets it wrong when he indicates that the Second Amendment did not grant the right to private ownership of a gun for individuals.
Let’s read the Second Amendment once more, for clarity, “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, and the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.”
So what about well-regulated militias? What were the framers talking about?
The answer lies in the history of our country. Of all the fears held by the founding fathers, none was stronger than their fear of standing armies.
As constitutional scholar David E. Young has observed, “The necessity of an armed populace, protection against disarming of the citizenry, and the need to guard against a select militia and assure a real militia which could defend liberty against any standing forces the government might raise were topics interspersed throughout the ratification period.”
Now this likely a very foreign concept to many Americans, but understand this: the very first battle over the Second Amendment was not about whether or not the people should be armed. It was a given at the time of writing the Bill of Rights, as everyone was armed.
No, the battle was over whether we would have a standing army, a battle between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists.
The Anti-Federalists, among them George Mason, Patrick Henry, and Samuel Adams, were staunch advocates of the inclusion of a Bill of Rights in the Constitution because they did not trust the power of the federal government to be self-restrained.
Don Kates, a constitutional and Second Amendment scholar, explains, “During the ratification debate, the Federalists vehemently denied that the federal government would have the power to infringe freedom of expression, religion, and other basic rights – expressly including the right to arms. In this context, Madison secured ratification by his commitment to support and to safeguard the fundamental rights that all agreed should never be infringed.”
On the other side of the debate were the Federalists, which included John Jay, James Madison and George Washington. These men supported a Second Amendment because, they believed, that a central, federal government would be capable of controlling a standing army.
Instead of a standing army, Anti-Federalists wanted every able-bodied man in America to be armed in the event that a federal government, or America’s own standing army, turned against its own people.
What you need to know is that, for many Americans, this is a very difficult and uncomfortable truth. The Second Amendment is not about hunting. And it’s not about defense of your property.
The Second Amendment was written by men who ultimately believed that governments and armies would turn on their own people, as a way to guarantee that that would never happen.
Producer’s Note: In the slides quoting the Second Amendment, the quote should read: “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 quote on screen includes an “and” that should not be there.