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Who Should Own Guns in America?

Next month, the Supreme Court of the United States is expected to hear oral arguments on the 32-year-old law that restricts gun ownership in Washington, DC. It will be the first time in nearly 70 years that the high court will hear a case on whether the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees an individual or a collective right to own firearms.

Self-reliance as a feature of America's idea of liberty has deep roots in the nation's constitutional tradition. It begins, many experts say, with the country's frontier history, when muskets were used for hunting and protection by the first settlers in the New World. They add that self-defense and guns were also tied to America's Revolutionary War experience.

A Long History

"The American love affair with firearms is very old. It has to do with the fact that it was an armed citizenry that enabled the revolution against the British in the late 18th century," says Benjamin Wittes, Director in Pubic Law at the Brookings Institution here in Washington.

"At any given moment in American history, there is sort of a gun that kind of represents it -- whether it's the musket in the hands of the militiamen or the Colt .45 in the Wild West or the Tommy Gun in the urban warfare of the gangster era," says Wittes.

"Then you tie in another dominant theme. From the very beginning in the United States, there was an enormous fear of what were called 'standing armies'," says Ralph Rossum, who teaches political philosophy and the American Constitution at Claremont McKenna College in California.

"The Framing generation [i.e., America's Founding Fathers] was enormously suspicious of governmental power and wanted an armed militia. They worried about standing armies. Standing armies were often sources of corruption. And there was the fear that a standing army could be mobilized against the liberties of the people," says Rossum.

The idea of establishing militias was incorporated in the Second Amendment. The text consists of two clauses. One speaks of the necessity of creating "a well regulated Militia," the other speaks of "the right of the people to keep and bear arms."

Interpreting the Second Amendment

Most experts point to what they consider to be the ambiguous wording of the Second Amendment, which has resulted in two opposing interpretations of what it protects: individual liberties or states' rights.

The debate over whether it protects individual or collective rights to possess firearms intensified in the second half of the 20th century. But in more than 200 years, the Supreme Court has rarely addressed the issue. The high court last looked at the Second Amendment in 1939.

But last year, the Supreme Court accepted a case that deals with the constitutionality of prohibiting private citizens from keeping guns in their homes. At issue is Washington, DC's 32-year-old law that bans the possession of firearms unless they are unloaded, locked or disassembled.

Eugene Volokh, who teaches constitutional law at the University of California at Los Angeles, says a federal appeals court ruled last year that the ban was unconstitutional.

"The DC Circuit [Court of Appeals], which is the federal court in charge of DC, held that in fact it is an individual right and that the gun ban violates that right. So now that there is this disagreement among courts, the U.S. Supreme Court has stepped in to decide the issue," says Volokh.

Supporters of individual liberties argue that in a free society each citizen must have the right to bear arms, and that this right safeguards all other rights Americans enjoy. But the opposing side contends that the Second Amendment has to do with the obligation citizens owe to the state to participate in a militia.

Legal scholar Eugene Volokh says such critics hold that the Second Amendment has nothing to do with individual rights. "Those who take a states' rights view argue that it is the right of the people as a collective entity acting through their states and state militias. So they focus on the first clause of the amendment, which is 'a well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free state'," says Volokh. "The individual rights view is that the purpose of the individual right is to maintain the armed citizenry as a means of protecting freedom against despotism. But the way that purpose is accomplished is by securing to individual people the right to keep and bear arms."

A Supreme Court Ruling

Volokh says the Supreme Court's ruling on the Washington, DC law - which is expected in the next few months - could be a landmark decision that answers the long-standing question of whether the Second Amendment guarantees an individual or a collective right.

But other scholars, including the Brookings Institution's Benjamin Wittes say that the case could be the first chapter in examining the constitutionality of gun control rather than the final word.

"If it is a collective right, then the issue goes away. Then any state can regulate individual firearms ownership as it sees fit," says Wittes. "But if it is an individual right, then you have this second level question, which is: What kind of an individual right is it? Does that mean the state can still regulate, but it can't ban? Does it mean the state has to respect your right to own it absolutely?"

Some experts say that because none of the justices of the current Supreme Court have ever presided over a Second Amendment case, any prediction about how the court will rule is little more than speculation. But others contend it is unlikely that the high court will cancel a right that is embedded in the ideas of self-reliance and self-defense, which is central to America's identity.

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