Accessibility links

Understanding Guns in America


For many Americans, the most meaningful part of the U.S. Constitution is the Bill of Rights. These ten amendments were written to protect individual Americans from tyrannical rule. Like the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and worship, the Second Amendment -- proclaiming the right to bear arms -- has often been at the center of debate. But in the wake of last month's mass shooting at a Virginia university that claimed 33 lives, including that of the gunman, there have been relatively few calls to ban handguns in the U.S. And many scholars point to the importance of firearms in American history as the reason why.

When America's Founding Fathers added the Bill of Rights to the Constitution in 1791, they wanted to protect individuals from potentially dangerous central and state governments.

Most scholars say the Constitution might not have been ratified had Americans not been assured that ten special amendments would be added to check the power of the government and guarantee individual liberties.

Many early Americans feared the tyranny that a standing army might impose, so they wanted to keep military power under civilian control by allowing private citizens to keep arms.

The Second Amendment to the Constitution 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." But the controversy over these 27 words hinges on the interpretation of the amendment.

Individual Rights

America's Founding Fathers drew on many sources for their ideas -- ancient Greece and Rome, the Italian Renaissance and more recent English philosophers.

“The question really is not, 'Will some people be armed?', but it's a question of, 'Who?'” says Stephen Halbrook, a Washington, D.C. attorney and a leading scholar of the Second Amendment. "The basic principle really was debated between Plato and Aristotle -- namely, Plato wanted the ideal state of the rule of the philosopher king. Under him would be an auxiliary, or soldier force, which would enforce his will. And then, there would be the common people who Plato didn't think were very bright versus the model that Aristotle set forth, which would be a citizenry in which all of whom participated in the body politic and a citizenry, which was also armed."

Halbrook says the Framers of the Constitution wanted to protect many of the same rights they initially enjoyed as Englishmen. In the months leading up to the American Revolution, many colonists were deprived of a number of freedoms, including the right to own firearms so that the British could enforce laws many Americans considered unjust.

A Well Regulated Militia

But for many experts, individual gun ownership was not the main issue for the Framers.

Ohio State University historian Saul Cornell says, "What's easy to forget is that the Second Amendment actually poses an enormous burden on the citizenry." For Cornell, the Second Amendment is more concerned with maintaining national defense through citizens militias than with protecting individual gun ownership rights.

"I don't think that many people on either side of the modern gun debate -- gun control or gun rights -- really would be happy if we went back to the original meaning of the Second Amendment because for gun control people, it would involve a much greater militarization of society. We would be living in a country much more like Israel or Switzerland. And on the other side, it would involve much greater regulation because you could not muster the militia without regular inspections of firearms, without much more training. So you have to be careful what you wish for because sometimes you may get it," says Cornell.

The Gun Control Debate

Americans wanting to emphasize an individual's right to own guns stress the 'right to bear arms' portion of the Second Amendment while those concerned with reducing the number of gun-related deaths in the United States by regulating gun ownership stress the 'well regulated militia' phrase.

David Hardy, another constitutional scholar and Arizona attorney, says the Framers of the Constitution had both individual rights and citizens militias in mind when they wrote the Second Amendment.

“The First Congress and James Madison tended to shoehorn a number of different guarantees into each amendment to the constitution,” says Hardy. “The First Amendment alone protects freedom of speech, press, religious operations, freedom from the establishment of religion, freedom of assembly and of petition of the legislature. They were packing them together. The Second Amendment was two entirely separate clauses that were added together to serve two different purposes.”

Gun ownership in America has a long history. Firearms helped cowboys and settlers tame the nation's wild west. But as the frontier vanished and a nationalized system of defense developed, the connection between citizen and soldier faded.

It may be that neither a militia nor an armed citizenry is appropriate for modern society. But it's clear that the nation's Founding Fathers included both of these ideas in the Constitution because they intended them to be taken seriously.

And given the deeply held tradition of gun ownership in America, most analysts agree that politicians are unlikely to support a ban on firearms, particularly ahead of next year's national elections, even in the wake of the recent Virginia Tech shootings -- the worst case of gun-related violence in the nation's history.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

  • 16x9 Image

    Victor Morales

    Victor Morales is Senior Analyst for the Voice of America, where he has reported on U.S. and international affairs for more than two decades.  He is the former head of VOA’s Focus New Analysis Unit and VOA Learning English.  He also hosted the agency’s premier public affairs talk shows, Encounter and Press Conference, USA, and anchored the leading English news program, VOA News Now.

XS
SM
MD
LG