By Joey Lyons, VI Form
The Second Amendment Debate
“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.” – Second Amendment to the United States Constitution
In the 1960s, the assassinations of renowned public figures, such as Martin Luther King and President John F. Kennedy, sparked an intense, national debate over gun control. The debate between gun control supporters and gun rights advocates continued into the twenty-first century and continues in the present day. Gun control supporters argue that unrestricted gun rights cause avoidable atrocities and that the Second Amendment does not guarantee an individual the right to bear arms. Gun rights advocates believe the right to bear arms is not only necessary for self-defense, hunting, and security against tyranny, but is also protected by the Second Amendment.
In attempts to find the correct interpretation of the Second Amendment, historians have analyzed the roots of American gun culture and have probed through written records from the Founding Fathers’ debates at the Constitutional Convention. They have grappled with the language of the Second Amendment and the bizarre punctuation that separates its clauses. Despite historians’ efforts to decipher the Second Amendment’s meaning, Americans are far from reaching consensus on its correct interpretation.. In 2008, the landmark case of District of Columbia v. Heller brought the issue of interpreting the Second Amendment to the Supreme Court. In a close decision that reflected the divided, national opinions on the gun debate, the Supreme Court held in a five to four decision that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual’s right to possess a firearm for lawful purposes. The Supreme Court ruling supported the gun rights supporters’ interpretation of the Second Amendment. However, a more historically accurate interpretation of the Second Amendment is that it guarantees the states’ right to have militias, but does not protect an individual’s right to own a firearm.
When deciphering the meaning of the Second Amendment, one must consider the origional intent of the Founding Fathers in writing it. The Heller decision, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, is based upon this concept of originalism. However, while Scalia formed his opinion based on written records from Constitutional debates, his conclusion that the founders wrote the Second Amendment to guarantee an individual right to bear arms is flawed. In the debates that went into the drafting of the Second Amendment, there is no mention of it concerning individual gun ownership for self-protection or hunting. The Founding Fathers were not concerned with securing an individual right to bear arms. Instead, they drafted the Second Amendment in order to guarantee the states’ right to form militias and resist tyrannical, federal government.
To assume that the Founding Fathers wrote the Second Amendment to protect an individual right to bear arms, one must willfully ignore the amendment’s first two clauses. The leaders of the National Rifle Association did just that, when they adorned the front of their headquarters in Washington D.C. with the second half of the amendment, “…the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” However, there must be a reason why the Founding Fathers included the first half of the amendment. This reason can be found in James Madison’s notes. James Madison helped write the Constitution and, as a federalist, advocated that the thirteen states ratify it. At the same time, Madison recognized that, in the face of opposition from anti-federalists, ratification would require concessions that limited the power of federal government and granted the states certain rights. The Second Amendment was one of these concessions.
The Founding Fathers wrote the Second Amendment in order to provide states security from the possibility of military rule by the federal government. Following the Revolutionary War, state delegates at the Constitutional Convention were concerned about an all-powerful, central government devolving into tyranny. As a result, Founding Fathers’ debates revolved around limiting or expanding the power of federal government. By guaranteeing states certain rights, the framers of the Constitution ensured that federal power remained checked. The Founding Fathers intended the Second Amendment to act as a limitation to federal government by ensuring the states the right to form militias for security against tyranny. This guarantee extends a collective right to bear arms to the people of a state, but does not prevent localities from drafting laws to restrict or prohibit individuals from owning firearms.
Joey Lyons is a VI Form day student from Southborough, MA. Academically, Joey enjoys integrating his favorite disciplines (history and literature) in humanities classes.