2nd Amendment Learning Guide
The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution grants the right to bear arms. It was designed as a compromise between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. The Federalists wanted to keep the Constitution as it was when it was originally ratified, whereas the Anti-Federalists wanted to include language that gave more sovereignty to individual states. James Madison's proposal of the Second Amendment was designed as a way to provide more power to state militias. Today these militias are the National Guard. The amendment reads: "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."
Proposed shortly after the United States Constitution was ratified in 1788, the Second Amendment was ratified in December 1791.
Interpretations of the Second Amendment
The Second Amendment is one of the most often discussed and argued-upon amendments to the Constitution. Some people believe it deals in collective rights, such as a militia. Others believe that the Second Amendment grants individual citizens the right to gun ownership under the law. These two opposing viewpoints have contributed to the nationwide gun control debate.
Those who view the Second Amendment as pertaining to collective rights argue in favor of restrictions on access to firearms. It is their view that federal regulation of gun ownership is necessary for safety. The groups who see the Second Amendment as granting individual rights to gun ownership argue that the Second Amendment gives a citizen the absolute right to own a firearm, free from federal regulation. They argue that federal restrictions violate the last four words of the amendment: "shall not be infringed."
The Supreme Court and the Second Amendment
Gun control is frequently debated and discussed among the American public. The interpretation that carries the most weight, however, is that of the Supreme Court. But the Supreme Court has surprisingly been called upon very little to discuss and issue rulings on the Second Amendment.
In the 1876 case U.S. v. Cruikshank, the Supreme Court ruled that the right of each individual to bear arms was not guaranteed under the Constitution; the Constitution restricted the federal government's actions, but the regulation of guns was the right of state and local governments. This decision was upheld in a later case, with the Supreme Court also ruling that while the federal government could not prohibit gun ownership, individual states could. In 1894, the Supreme Court reaffirmed that position, ruling in Miller v. Texas that the Second Amendment applies to federal law but not state laws.
Many decades would pass without significant Supreme Court rulings on the Second Amendment. In 2008, the case of District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court ruled for the first time that the Second Amendment granted individual gun ownership rights under federal law. A later case involving the city of Chicago would reaffirm the Supreme Court's decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, with the court deciding that the Second Amendment "applies equally to the federal government and the states."
The battle over gun rights at the state level has continued. In 2016, researchers from the Harvard Business School found that states where a mass shooting takes place see a 15 percent increase in proposed gun-related legislation for the year. The study also showed that the types of measures enacted can be predicted by the political party in power: When Republicans hold power in the state legislature following a mass shooting, the number of bills enacted to reduce government restriction of gun ownership increases by 75 percent.
The debate over gun control and the Second Amendment continues, and as the types of firearms available evolve, so do the debates over restricting access to them. Groups from each side of the argument spend millions of dollars each year to encourage public action and lobby state and federal legislators. With each mass shooting, the debate is fueled even further, and each side tries even harder to influence public policy.
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