What Does the Second Amendment Really Mean?
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The answer to that question is as old as the country itself, and it continues to evolve as Americans debate the right balance of individual freedom and public safety.
After every mass shooting and subsequent examination of gun violence statistics, a predictable argument is sure to follow as gun-rights advocates and gun-control advocates square off over what should be done next. Each side speaks with passion and fire about rights and law and the Constitution, the meaning of “the right to bear arms” and “a well-regulated militia,” and what these terms mean in the context of our Second Amendment rights.
But does anyone really know what those rights are? Even the experts can’t say for certain because the Constitution is constantly being reviewed and reinterpreted. Some commonly held myths about the Constitution also cloud what we think we know about our rights, and that goes for our First Amendment rights as well as our Second.
What is the Second Amendment?
“A lot of people forget that the Supreme Court didn’t recognize an individual right to own guns until 2008,” says Adam Winkler, professor of Constitutional Law at UCLA and author of Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America. That was when the Court decided District of Columbia v. Heller. The 5–4 ruling found that the Second Amendment protects the individual’s right to bear arms for self-defense, and overturned a Washington, D.C., law that prohibited people from keeping handguns in their homes.
“Nowhere else in the Constitution…does ‘the people’ refer to anything other than an individual right,” the late Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority. And thus the right to bear arms came to include the right of the individual to own a gun for protection—something that had never been articulated by the Supreme Court before.
The Constitution is open to wide interpretation
The Constitution is a remarkably brief founding document—just 7,591 words stretched over seven articles defining the authority invested in the government and 27 amendments generally laying out the rights retained by the people. Its brevity is both the beauty and the burden of the Constitution since it allows for interpretation in response to changing circumstances but also lacks specificity to easily settle disputes. When it comes to Second Amendment rights, the tension between these two traits is particularly sharp.
Here’s what Second Amendment actually says: “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.” That short sentence has sparked endless discussion and disagreement.
“The gun debate has been going in circles for decades, and it certainly doesn’t bring us together as a society,” Winkler says, noting that absolutists on both extremes often drown out more moderate discussion. Nonetheless, he says it’s important to let every side be heard when deciding which policy to pursue: “That’s what makes us a democracy.”
The Constitution’s meaning can change
Another key part of democracy is its ability to adapt to new conditions and societal norms. As attitudes that were once thought of as perfectly natural become abhorrent in more enlightened times, the law can change to reflect that. The subject of race relations is a perfect example.
In the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court ruled that state-mandated racial segregation did not offend the Constitution. But in 1954, when civil rights advocates argued in Brown v. Board of Education that “separate but equal” was a fiction that legalized unconstitutional discrimination, a unanimous Supreme Court agreed. Government-sanctioned segregation was outlawed, in the North and the South, less than 60 years after Plessy.
That same changing dynamic could exist in the context of the Second Amendment. Will the next mass shooting change the hearts and minds of so many Americans that the right to own guns has to change to accommodate this new reality? It’s possible. After all, it’s sometimes said amongst Constitutional scholars that all it takes to change the Constitution is the ability to count to five. In other words, can you get five Supreme Court justices to agree with what you think the Constitution means? Ultimately, “the right to bear arms” means what a majority of the Court says it means, and that can shift relatively quickly.
But the Court’s respect for precedent and history is meant to prevent our fundamental rights from getting blown away too easily by political winds. Justices often look to the Founders’ struggle in crafting the Constitution for guidance.
The Second Amendment came out of an early power struggle
The gun control debate frequently focuses on what the Founders intended when they wrote the Second Amendment into the Bill of Rights, as the first 10 amendments are called. Was it so the people could take up arms to fight their own government gone tyrannical, or was the establishment of a well-regulated militia a way to discourage foreign threats? As Winkler and co-author Nelson Lund, a law professor at George Mason University, wrote for the non-partisan National Constitution Center, it’s a little of both.
While the Constitution and the amendments that would become the Bill of Rights were being debated in the earliest days of the republic, two factions emerged with very different views of what the new nation should look like. What would the relationship between the individual states and the federal government be? Should one be superior to the other? Who should have the firepower to maintain that balance?
States’ rights advocates, the Anti-Federalists, argued that the proposed Constitution would leave the states vulnerable to federal force, while pro-centralized-government Federalists responded that the people were armed and therefore not easily controlled by a federal army. But the lessons of the Revolutionary War showed that building an army was difficult and a ready militia was necessary for national defense.
“Implicit in the debate between Federalists and Anti-Federalists were two shared assumptions,” Winkler and Lund wrote. “First, that the proposed new Constitution gave the federal government almost total legal authority over the army and militia. Second, that the federal government should not have any authority at all to disarm the citizenry.”
Gun laws have always existed in America
But while the Federalists and Anti-Federalists were hashing out the right to bear arms, the states were already regulating who could own guns and how they could keep them, Winkler notes. In 1776, Massachusetts required an oath of loyalty to “the Cause of America” from anyone who wanted to own a gun, with Pennsylvania passing similar laws to disarm those “disaffected” by the fight for independence.
Even after the Second Amendment became law, states were in the business of deciding who could own and keep firearms. In slave states like Virginia, for example, African Americans, even “freedmen,” were barred from possessing weapons.
The right to bear arms is not limitless
In 2016’s Caetano v. Massachusetts, the Supreme Court extended the Second Amendment right to own weapons for self-defense to include “all instruments that constitute bearable arms.” But does that mean every individual has the right to own any weapon? The short answer is, no.
“Like all of our rights, the Second Amendment is subject to commonsense restrictions,” Winkler says.
Just as the First Amendment right to free speech doesn’t protect perjury and the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination doesn’t cover voluntary confessions, the individual right to own guns can be regulated without offending the Second Amendment, he says. The Court has approved laws preventing convicted felons and the mentally ill from owning guns, for instance, a position not considered controversial except by the most ardent gun advocates.
A majority of Americans see a balance of rights as attainable
Except for the few who favor totally banning firearms on one end of the debate, and the few who favor completely unregulated weapons on the other, the vast majority of Americans fall somewhere in between. They favor reasonable laws targeted at keeping guns out of the most dangerous hands while recognizing law-abiding citizens’ right to own firearms for self-defense, hunting, and sport. According to a November 2020 Gallup poll, 91 percent of Americans want gun laws to be stricter or to stay as they are, while just 9 percent want looser regulations.
But Winkler says revoking or significantly changing the Second Amendment is highly unlikely. “The truth is, there are only about 10 states with restrictive gun laws,” he says, including Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey. Notably, California is known for the strictest regulations, and it also has the seventh-lowest rate of deaths by gun violence. Since it takes a super-majority of 38 states to repeal an amendment, and roughly 40 states are gun-friendly, Winkler says the Second Amendment is more likely to be amended to expand gun rights than revoke them. Instead, we will have to continue talking about it and trying to find the sweet spot where our right to individual security and public safety are in balance.
- Adam Winkler, professor of Constitutional Law at UCLA and author of Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America
- Oyez: “District of Columbia v. Heller”
- National Constitution Center: “The Second Amendment”
- Gallup: “Support for Stricter U.S. Gun Laws at Lowest Level Since 2016”
- World Population Review: “Strictest Gun Laws by State 2021”