News / USA

Scholars Debate Second Amendment to US Constitution

Handguns are on display at B & J Guns in Colonie, New York, June 26, 2008.  The Supreme Court ruled that Americans have a constitutional right to keep guns in their homes for self-defense.
Handguns are on display at B & J Guns in Colonie, New York, June 26, 2008. The Supreme Court ruled that Americans have a constitutional right to keep guns in their homes for self-defense.
For many Americans, the most meaningful part of the U.S. Constitution is the Bill of Rights. These 10 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 week's mass shooting at a Colorado movie theater that claimed 12 lives, there have been relatively few calls for increased gun control in the United States. Many scholars point to the importance of firearms in American history as the reason.

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 10 special amendments would be added to check the power of the government and to 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 U.S. 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 several 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 of the Constitution.

Fordham 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 citizen 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," he said.

"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."

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 citizen militias in mind when they wrote the Second Amendment.

“The First Congress and James Madison tended to shoehorn [squeeze in] 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 might be that neither a militia nor an armed citizenry is appropriate for modern society.  But it is 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 additional gun control legislation, particularly ahead of this year's national elections, even in the wake of the recent shooting in Colorado.

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.

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Comment Sorting
by: Dante from: Sydney Australia
July 26, 2012 3:00 AM
If US citizens were to spend some time looking at the statistics they would realise that, irrespective how you read the 2nd amendment, bearing arms has NOT made them more safe. The rate of violent death caused by firearms in the US is more than 3 times that of its nearest Euro zone country (year 2000 stats shows USA @ 2.97 death/100k population while Portugal is the highest Euro zone with 0.84) and nearly 6 times that of Switzerland (2.97 vs 0.56). If US citizens want to feel and be safer, they would abolish the 2nd amendment. Based on how poorly informed US citizens are, and their skewed politics, neither party will attempt to change the status quo. And so we shall periodically see more of the same. As Obama quickly asserted, he supports the 2nd amendment because to do otherwise would mean political suicide. It's very unfortunate that there are so very few 'courageous' leaders in the World.
In Response

by: Dante from: Sydney
July 27, 2012 2:16 AM
To Bret: I'm sorry Bret, I'll come into your house only if invited, you are most welcome to come into mine for a beer anytime you are downunder. Your comments with regard to non-US citizens commenting on US affairs simply shows the narrow focus US citizens have and how insular they are. There is an entire World out there, and actions in the US influence others. We in the civilized World look forward to the time when the US abandons its cowboy and gun culture and join the rest of us in a more civilized and safer World. We know that being armed to your teeth does not give you a safer environment, instead encourages others to be even better armed. The spike in gun sale in the US after the recent tragedy simply reinforces that, just as you comments do. Often a view from the outside helps in identifying the rot you have on the inside. If having 6000 rounds of ammunition, assault rifles, hand guns make you safe then your logic is lost on many in the civilized World. Good luck!
In Response

by: bret from: texas
July 26, 2012 3:11 PM
Leave it to a non u.s. citizen to comment on something he knows nothing about other than stats.. How about crime going down in states with the right to carry? Where is your stats. on that? Try breaking into my house and you sir can become one of your statistics.

by: riano from: indonesia
July 24, 2012 10:34 PM
I think this country fail to protect their citizens form fear, one decade many murdered without unreasonable opinion, we hope senate and house of representative to make decision to stop these crimes , because too easy to bear this weapons in states..

by: Yoshi from: Sapporo
July 24, 2012 5:56 PM
Please imagine American society with no firearms of all individuals. Are Americans shot by State army? Are citizens shot by immigrants? Are innocent people shot by terrorists?

It looks like you Americans are in civil war with suspitions and without faith or trust each other.

by: Eaglekiss
July 24, 2012 9:34 AM
Comment on the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights: the Right to bear Arms.

“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.”
1) The phrase “the right of the people to keep and bear Amrs” can be understood as a further metioning to the previous idea “A well-regulated Militia” as it is linked with the previous phrase without a conjunctive word “and” and thus “the right to keep and bear Arms” can be interpreted as recognized for the people collectively in the Militia, not individually.
2) If “the right to keep and bear Arms” is interpreted as recognized for each individual as seen by the cowboys in the West Frontier in the past, it is still possible to prevent a deranged individual from conducting mass murder if one of the armed individuals reacts in time (like the cowboys in the past) by shooting dead that individual before he can go on killing more people. Thus, if many individuals can bring guns with them anywhere they go, it is possible to prevent mass murder crimes as other individuals can react fast to protect themselves and other individuals under threat.
In Response

by: Bukkiah from: NH
July 24, 2012 1:52 PM
“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 car being necessary to get to work, the right of me to walk shall never be infringed."
"Payment being necessary to attend an event, the right of the people to walk by and hear it from outside shall not be infringed."
"The necessity of a branch of government to be armed, the people's right to be armed shall not be infringed."
This in no way implies only those people that are part of the branch of government, any more then my legs are a car, or someone outside unpaid is the same as inside paid at the event.
All other interpretations ignore the context, federalist papers and impose their own opinions. It is not even sane to suggest they need to spell out that the nations militia (army, since they envisioned NO standing army, as we have and had anyway, since it was unavoidable, need to be armed).

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