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Posts Tagged ‘second amendment debate’

Understanding the Meaning of the Second Amendment

Every now and again an old debate on gun ownership gets sparked, and usually a national debate ensues for a few weeks. These debates historically always follow a tragedy of some sort involving guns, and the war is often engaged with emotionally-charged statements and seldom with facts. One thing that is rarely discussed in public debate is what the Second Amendment actually says and what it actually means. Simply reading the Second Amendment without understanding the context in which it was written and presented makes it difficult to interpret. The question anyone should consider when studying this part of the Constitution is what the intent of the law is, and whether or not it is a right of law-abiding citizens to own guns.

The Challenge of Reading the Second Amendment

It is unusual the way the Second Amendment is written. It doesn’t have grammatical flow, and that may be where most of the confusion about what it means occurs. It reads 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.

As you can tell, this is not a completely grammatical sentence; it appears to need two separate sentences or a conjunction to be correct. However, there may be purpose in the way it is written. According to Professor Edward Erler in Hillsdale College’s, Imprimis, “The immediate impetus for the amendment has never been in dispute. Many of the revolutionary generation believed standing armies were dangerous to liberty. Militias of citizen-soldiers, they reasoned, were more suitable to the character of republican government.” The concept that the framers thought of the whole people of the United States as the Militia is clear in many of the statements of the leaders of the time.

Seeing the Militia and the people as the same group makes more sense in the odd framing of the Amendment. “The right of the people to keep and bear arms” is a clause reiterating the first idea of the sentence; it is necessary to the security of a free state. It’s also one of the natural rights guaranteed by the Constitution. There would be no need to reference “the people” in the Second Amendment if the intent was to declare that only military personal could bare arms. It’s common sense that military personnel would need arms, and it wouldn’t need to be declared as a natural right for the military in the Bill of Rights.

The Bill of Rights, as James Madison declared, “relate first….to private rights.” In the context of the first ten amendments, “the people” is a term designated to reference private citizens in the other amendments. Considering the Bill of Rights was instituted to protect the natural rights of all private citizens, it seems unlikely that the Second Amendment is the one amendment where “the people” represents military personnel or any other group.

The Supreme Court Has Clarified the Meaning of the Second Amendment

The Supreme Court has ruled on the terms and meaning of the Second Amendment. Opponents to private gun ownership may claim an argument can be made that some arms may not be Constitutional; however, there have not been any Supreme Court rulings to that effect. Most people will probably remember that the Supreme Court did declare that handguns could not be banned in Washington D.C. just a few years ago. There was a law enacted to try and eliminate the ability of private citizens to carry guns, and that law was overturned and ruled on by the Supreme Court as a violation of the Second Amendment. The decision in The District of Columbia v. Heller, affirmed that law-abiding citizens have the right to arm themselves. The following are some of the highlights of that decision:

The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in the militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home….The Amendment’s prefatory clause announces a purpose, but does not limit or expand the scope of the second part, the operative clause. The operative clause’s text and story demonstrate that it connotes an individual right to keep and bear arms.

The decision by the Supreme Court is filled with many other historical and contextual insights on the right to bear arms as part of the natural right to protect one’s life, property, and liberty.

The Fundamental Purposes of the Constitution and All Law

One of the best sources for the purpose and philosophy behind having laws is Frederic Bastiat. His philosophy on law, written in his book, The Law, reflects many of the same ideals our founders had when it came to the purpose of law. In defining what law is, Bastiat wrote:

What is law? It is the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense. Each of us has a natural right–from God–to defend his person, his liberty, and his property. These are the three basic requirements of life, and the preservation of any one of them is completely dependent upon the preservation of the other two. For what are our faculties but the extension of our individuality? And what is property but an extension of our faculties?

The law of the Constitution was meant to be a written reflection of our natural rights. It was written to protect those rights. As Bastiat has written, the law is instituted to protect our person, property, and liberty, and each of these is interconnected and related. This idea is what brought about the Bill of Rights, of which, the Second Amendment was listed as the second of these private rights.

It is easy for political opponents of gun owners to play on the emotions of people when terrible things happen, but the laws found in the Constitution shouldn’t change because bad things sometimes happen: the Constitution contains the natural principles of liberty, and substituting any of those principles in an effort to stop risks that will always be around will only diminish freedom for all.