The interpretation of the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America has been a topic of controversy since its acceptance over two-hundred years ago. This controversy stems from the fact that the amendment was written for reasons for the most part that do not have any relevance today.
One side argues the amendment void, and the other takes it out of historical context so it portrays the meaning they want. To understand what the Second Amendment means, one must interpret the actual text, the historical background for its adoption, and what it means today.
“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”(Nesbit, 309). What many people see when they read this is, ‘the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed’. One can say that it clearly states that people do have a right to have firearms. Who are ‘the people’?
Some argue that the people are just what it says, citizens. “[M]any legal historians have concluded that the right is corporate rather than individual”(Hook, 30). Meaning that the right is giving to the state government, not to individual citizens. Others argue that it does give people the right to bear arms, but only if you belong to a certain group.
This group is defined by the beginning preamble to the Second Amendment, ‘A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a Free State’. This preamble is set out to regulate the other half of the Amendment. What is a militia? “[A] militia is a body of men enrolled for military service, and called out periodically for drill and exercises, but serving full time only in an emergency”(Hook, 25).
This is talking about a State-sponsored militia that is well-regulated. Since there are no State Militias do the people have any right to bear Arms? According to this amendment, it is up to the State to decide that. This whole Amendment is guarantee’s the state the right to have a well-regulated militia in which the people can bear arms.
“[T]he individual’s right to bear arms applies only to the preservation or efficiency of a well-regulated [state] militia. Except for lawful police and military purposes, the possession of weapons by individuals is not constitutionally protected”(Nisbet, 316).
One cannot only look at the text to understand the true meaning of the Second Amendment one must also look into the historical reasons for its adoption.
The struggle with England and King George scared the American people. They saw a man corrupted by power and using his power to do evil. The founding fathers realized that one man having so much power could be corrupting. That is why they set up our political system with many checks and balances so that one branch could not dominate the other two.
The founding fathers feared that the one man in control could turn out to be a tyrant. For this reason, they feared having a standing army of professionally trained soldiers. The founding fathers set up the Second Amendment for the possibility that the government would have to be overthrown.
“[The Second Amendment,] a statement perhaps aimed less at the right of the individual to carry arms than to prohibit the establishment of a permanent army of professional soldiers who might someday offer a threat to the civilian society the envisaged”(Hook, 26).
So the second Amendment was set up to protect the citizens from the possible oppression they could undergo from their own government. It was also set up to protect us from other countries.
At the time standing armies were hired soldiers and mercenaries who for the most part fought for the money instead of the country. The founding fathers believed that state militias fighting for their country and freedom would be much more effective in battle.
“A militia is the only safe form of military power that a popular government can employ; and because it is composed of the armed [citizens], it will prevail over the mercenary professionals who man the armies of neighboring monarchs”(Nesbit,318).
This is how we won the Revolutionary War, by using state militias. The Second Amendment was important to the people then, but now does it really have any meaning?
In modern times, we have what the founding fathers feared the most, a national standing army with the President as Commander. We have no State Militias that could give any resistance if President Clinton tried to take military control and ordered troops to enforce tyrannical laws. Fortunately, this has not happened.
The problem is that firearms have been a part of this nation from the beginning. In fact, Congress at that time did not even feel it necessary to put an Amendment in the Constitution because having a firearm was as common as riding a horse. “[T]his right had not been questioned, for it was viewed as a traditional privilege lying outside the Constitution…”(Hook, 30).
Having a firearm at that time was so common that they did not even think about having to legalize it. Today is a different story. With more and more regulations on firearms being passed, the Second Amendment is the only thing groups like the NRA have to hold on to. Both sides need to sit down and find a solution to this gun-control debate. Or one day this Amendment will be interpreted at face value and firearms in citizens’ hands will be a thing of the past, unless of course, it is in a state-sponsored militia.
As time goes on the controversy of the Second Amendment increases. When examined by the actual text, the historical background, and how it applies today, the Second Amendment has little if any relevance for modern society. Groups like the NRA and ACLU need to work together to find a solution to this gun-control debate so, in the end, both groups are satisfied with the results.
Nesbit, Lee. Gun Control Debate: You Decide. New York: Prometheus Books, 1990.
Hook, Donald. Gun Control: The Continuing Debate. Washington: The Second Amendment Foundation, 1992.