The Second Amendment of the United States Constitution (and how it applies to gun ownership rights) has been subject to controversy and multiple interpretations. The specific text of the amendment is as follows:
“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 text has been interpreted in different ways by different groups of people throughout history. Supporters of personal gun ownership claim that the amendment was aimed at giving gun ownership rights to individuals. Opponents claim that the amendment was written for state militias, and should apply to the law enforcement and military of each state rather than to citizens. The Supreme Court has been the most influential in establishing the precise scope and applicability of the second amendment. The Supreme Court changed their rulings over time and this has led to the second amendment being interpreted as extending personal rights of gun ownership to individuals.
Some citizens are in favor of the right to personally own guns for self-defense, hunting, or sport. Supporters of gun rights typically assert the wording of the second amendment as being evidence that the founding fathers wanted them to be able to own guns for personal use. The second amendment does contain wording that references the right that people have to own and carry guns. In contrast, there are also citizens that are against people having the right to own guns for personal use. Opponents of gun rights use the beginning phrases of the second amendment as support for the view that guns should only be used for military or law-enforcement purposes. The initial phrase of the amendment refers to a well-regulated militia. In the times of the founding fathers, militias were groups that used weapons to defend themselves. The text also goes on to specify that they are necessary to the security of a free state (as opposed to personal or individual freedom). Thus, opponents of gun rights have argued that the second amendment was aimed at giving states the right to have their own national guards or state military forces to prevent Federal abuses of power. They generally think that supporters of personal gun rights are misinterpreting the amendment. Regardless of contrasting political and personal opinions, the Supreme Court has made rulings that are the final say on the issue.
National Rifle Association
The National Rifle Association (NRA) is an organization that is dedicated to preserving the rights of gun ownership extended to individuals. It was founded in 1871 (Supica, 2014). An ironic aspect about the NRA is that it was founded by soldiers (Supica, 2014). The modern NRA fights for individual gun ownership rights and exerts a strong political influence on public policy. The modern NRA is focused on the individual rights that people should be given, and makes frequent arguments for how the original wording of the constitution was not meant to be used exclusively for state militias. However, the early days of the NRA were advocated by soldiers that wanted to be able to fire their own rifles when they were not engaged in combat (Supica, 2014). Thus, the original NRA was about gun rights for soldiers, and not necessarily the general public.
The NRA has played a significant role in swaying public opinion on the gun rights debate. Although opponents of personal gun ownership have political backing, the NRA is a large organization that spends a substantial amount of money to sway public opinion on the issue of gun ownership rights. Commercials, advertisements, and public speeches have been used as methods of gaining support. An important point to make is that gun manufacturers have a monetary incentive to get laws passed that allow personal ownership of guns. It is certainly possible that NRA financial support comes from some people that genuinely care about freedom and the right to personally own guns. However, many financial supporters of the NRA are gun sellers or manufacturers. By legalizing the personal ownership and use of firearms, they stand to make financial gains from the sale of guns.
Several different court cases have addressed the issue of whether or not states can pass laws that prohibit individuals from owning firearms for personal use. Not all of the cases were decided in the same way. Rather, over time the Supreme Court has changed their interpretation of the second amendment. The latest court cases are in support of personal gun ownership rights.
Prior to 1934, most interpretations of the second amendment allowed individuals the right to carry and own guns for personal use. Scott v. Sandford was an influential case in the middle of the eighteenth century (Cottrol & Diamond, 1991, p. 311). In the case, it was determined that when slaves were granted citizenship, they were also permitted to own and carry guns (Cottrol & Diamond, 1991, p. 314). This case is important because it demonstrates that personal gun ownership was widely accepted and a common practice at the time. This particular case arose as a result of slaves being given the right of personal gun ownership. However, it was a commonly agreed upon thing for other white citizens to be permitted the right to keep and bear arms.
In response to gangsters and criminals using firearms for illegal purposes, public opinion changed on the rights of individuals to personally own guns. In 1934, the National Firearms Act was the first codified national law that impacted the manufacture and sale of firearms (DOJ, n.d.). The law placed an excessively high tax on certain firearms (automatic weapons, shotguns, and other gangster weapons). In addition, the act also required that certain types of firearms be registered (DOJ, n.d.). The implications of the law were that it was much more difficult for individuals to obtain and purchase certain types of firearms. It was also more difficult and expensive for manufacturers to profit from the sale of those firearms.
The case of United States v. Miller arose following the restrictions that were placed on firearms. In the case, the defendant was charged with transporting a sawed-off shotgun over state lines. The defense argued that the restrictions placed on interstate commerce and gun rights were an attempt by the Federal government to take power away from state police forces (United States v. Miller, 1939). The defense also argued that it was unconstitutional for restrictions to be placed that prevent people from owning or obtaining guns. It was argued that if the founding fathers thoughts restrictions were reasonable than they would have included them in the text of the constitution. The constitution only mentions that people should have the right to bear arms and does not explicitly state any restrictions that can be placed on them. However, it does explicitly state that the purpose is so that states can maintain well-regulated militias. The lower court initially ruled in favor of the defendants and agreed that it was unconstitutional for their second amendment rights to be taken away (United States v. Miller, 1939). A later decision by the Supreme Court stated that there were no grounds for the defendants to appeal the earlier decision and that the restrictions placed on firearms were not violating constitutional rights (United States v. Miller, 1939). An important point in the case was that the gun in question was a sawed-off shotgun. The plaintiffs argued that a sawed-off shotgun does not have legitimate uses for the defense and protection of a state. Instead, it is primarily a criminal weapon that can be easily concealed and does severe damage at close range. Since the issue arose in response to a weapon that is mainly used for criminal purposes, the Supreme Court ruled against the defendant’s appeal. This case served as precedent for many future court cases that arose as a result of complaints about restrictions being placed on gun ownership rights.
In the years between the Miller decision and later court decisions, many states passed laws that placed restrictions on gun ownership rights. Since the main issue in past cases was whether or not the Federal government could make laws restricting gun rights, states were generally free to write their own legislation on it. Some states made it illegal for people to own handguns. Instead of restrictions being placed, some states completely outlawed the purchase of handguns or other firearms except for military or law-enforcement purposes. These harsh gun laws existed for years before later court decisions that rendered them unconstitutional. District of Columbia v. Heller and Mcdonald v. Chicago were used to demonstrate that the second amendment applies to individual citizens and that it also protected from states writing laws to infringe upon individual rights to own guns.
An important case that rose to the forefront of discussion at its time is District of Columbia v Heller. While the Miller case was used for many legal decisions, a related case made it to the Supreme Court. District of Columbia v Heller is a landmark case that occurred in 2008 in which the Court was forced to revisit an issue that seemed like it was already decided. The case arose in response to additional gun restrictions that were placed during the 1970s. Some of the restrictions prevented individuals from possessing guns to defend themselves while in their own homes (District of Columbia v. Heller, 2008). The case involved a team of defendants that each had their own unique story and background. Some of them used guns to defend themselves. Others were put in danger as a result of their inability to legally obtain firearms for self-defense. The case involved many different important issues. A central feature of the case was over the constitutional wording of the second amendment (District of Columbia v. Heller, 2008). The defense claimed that the wording was meant to include individuals because the same concepts of protecting the states from Federal abuse of power could be applied to individuals. If individuals were not permitted to own guns for self-defense, then the government would have an unreasonable amount of power. However, the issue was that the constitution did mention militias and how guns were necessary to protect the freedom of a state, and not necessarily the freedom of individuals. The final decision by the Supreme Court ruled that the constitution was written with the intention of also extending the power of gun ownership to individuals that wish to use them for lawful purposes (District of Columbia v. Heller, 2008). In other words, they ruled that the founding fathers intended for people to be able to lawfully use guns to protect themselves from real dangers in their homes or communities.
The most recent Supreme Court case that is relevant to the issue of gun rights is Mcdonald v. Chicago. In this 2010 case, the issue was again revisited. Although the court had several cases to draw upon as precedent, this case involved some new elements that were not present in the others. For example, this case involved the Court deciding that the same concepts of individuals having protection from Federal abuses of power also applied to state and local governments (McDonald v. Chicago, 2010). In other words, it was ruled as unconstitutional for states or local governments to write laws that restricted the right of citizens to own guns for lawful purposes. The Heller case was used to support the Court’s decision (McDonald v. Chicago, 2010). This is an important case because it represents the most recent decision in a long line of legal battles over the right to own guns.
The issue of gun ownership rights has been an ongoing debate since the early years of America. People that are against private gun ownership argue that the second amendment was only meant to apply to state militias and law enforcement. In contrast, people in favor of gun ownership rights state that the amendment was meant to protect people from abuses of power. If the Federal government can abuse state power, then it is reasonable to assume that states can also abuse the personal liberty of citizens. Thus, states should not be allowed to pass laws that place undue restrictions on the ability of citizens to purchase and own guns for lawful purposes. While opinions on the issue may continue to clash, Supreme Court cases serve as a rational basis to form an opinion on. The Courts use previous cases and logical reasoning to come to their decisions. Their most recent decision states that the second amendment does in fact apply to individuals and it also prevents the state and city governments from writing laws that place undue restrictions on people that wish to purchase guns for lawful purposes. Thus, the second amendment was meant to prevent power from being abused. By allowing citizens to own guns for lawful purposes, it balances the power in a city or state. While some restrictions on which people can own guns and what types of guns are within the bounds of constitutionality, people should have the right to purchase and own weapons that are used for lawful purposes.