The Second Amendment of the United States Constitution is one the most misunderstood and most widely discussed of the Amendments in the Bill of Rights. Debate over this amendment escalated in the late 20th century, when organizations lobbying for gun control in the United States found themselves debating pro-gun lobbies over its precise meaning. The arguments hinge on what exactly the amendment means and who it is supposed to be referencing. Unfortunately for scholars who are interested in the debate, few Supreme Court cases have tested it, making it even more challenging to analyze the intent of these loaded words.
The text of the Second Amendment reads, in full: “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.” Several other drafts change the capitalization and punctuation, although the text remains the same. The crux of the debate is whether or not it allows individual Americans to own weapons, specifically firearms, and, if so, what sort of firearms they can own.
There are a number of schools of thought on the amendment. The first believes that the law was framed as a State's rights issue, meaning that it was intended to protect the right of individual states to form and arm militias. Others argue that, since members of a citizen militia are required to equip themselves, the amendment protects the rights of individual citizens. A third school of thought is a compromise between the two, suggesting that people are permitted to keep and bear arms that are related to militia duty.
Gun ownership and gun control are sticky issues in the United States. Organizations like the National Rifle Association would like to promote responsible gun ownership for all American citizens who wish to possess weapons, while other groups believe that Americans should only be able to own certain types of guns, or even none all. The somewhat vague meaning of the Second Amendment has made discussion of these issues very challenging, as the contents are open to interpretation.
The debate often challenges the precise definitions of “people,” “arms,” and “militia” in the text in the hopes of getting a clearer idea of the meaning of the amendment. In fact, the concept of protected arms ownership existed in common law when the Constitution was written, and it is entirely possible that the framers left the amendment vague because they assumed that everyone was already aware that individual citizens could own arms. What exactly “arms” are is a subject for debate, however, since swords, spears, and other weapons can also be considered “arms,” and the military weapons in the 1700s were not comparable to those used in modern times.
The debate over the Second Amendment is unlikely to end anytime soon, even though it has been tested in the Supreme Court, because gun control is such a sensitive issue in America. Many scholarly texts have reviewed the content and possible meaning of the amendment, and no matter how a person argues it, he or she can probably find extensively researched scholarly material to back up his or her point of view.
Still, with all the debate, evidence, and opinions on the matter, the question was answered to some extent in a landmark case in 2008: District of Columbia v. Heller. In a 5-4 decision, the US Supreme Court held that, like all other rights covered in the Bill of Rights, the right to bear arms is an individual right. Whether the debate ends with this decision remains to be seen.