No other part of the U.S. Constitution is talked about more than the Second Amendment.
Many people boldly assert their rights under that amendment, often while worrying that the amendment is under attack.
If you missed it, the Second Amendment has to do with the right to “keep and bear” firearms.
Before you stop reading, this column is not advocating or opposing gun control. It is about the Second Amendment, which has become a central part of modern American life.
The Second Amendment is one of the shortest, consisting of a single sentence: “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 seemingly simple sentence has given rise to an almost endless and heated debate about just exactly what right it assures to the people. Its somewhat unusual grammar, especially the overuse of commas, doesn’t make it any clearer.
Few argue about a couple of reasons for its existence.
First, after domination by the British that clamped down hard on many America colonists, the framers of the Constitution wanted to make sure that the people had firearms readily available to protect their country from such control by their new government.
Second, the right to own a gun was widely recognized, and the amendment meant to preserve that right for the people – individual Americans.
Some argued that the right only meant that a person could keep a gun for the purpose of use in a militia to resist a force that would undermine the exercise of other guaranteed rights.
Others said that the individual right to keep a gun was inherent in being a free citizen of the United States. For them, the Second Amendment became the hallmark of the American concept of individual freedom.
It took 219 years before the Supreme Court, the body responsible for the last word on what the Constitution means, settled the question.
In 2008, it ruled that the Second Amendment put into the Constitution each person’s right to own guns and carry them. It overturned a law that effectively banned guns in Washington, D.C.
What about the language on the need for a militia? In effect, the Court said that people had the right to guns if for no other reason than for use in a militia, but that was not the only basis for the right.
Because the debate over an individual’s right to own a gun had been settled, the decision found favor with opponents of gun control, the National Rifle Association proclaiming: “This is a great moment in American history.”
To those favoring the more limited view, the decision looked partisan and ideological, though they conceded that it is the binding answer. But it was not the end of the debate.
Some, like the NRA, see almost any gun control law as a move to eliminate the right to gun ownership. Limiting gun ownership, they believe, may mean that the government will also erode other inherent American liberties.
Some worry that the federal government is becoming as undemocratic as it was under the British in the 1770s. They seem to believe that taxation is despotism, so guns must be kept ready.
Because the Second Amendment embodies the concept of freedom, they say, it must not be limited. For them, the right to gun ownership is absolute.
While the Court disappointed those who believed in a limited right to gun ownership and pleased opponents of gun control, it did not adopt the absolute position, writing: “Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited.”
It found that history showed that “courts routinely explained that the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”
It said that “nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”
After the Newtown school killings, President Obama has proposed new gun controls, but none apparently going beyond the Supreme Court ruling. His opponents say such proposals erode freedom and, in their view, this one untouchable right.
The debate is now about whether the Second Amendment right is so absolute that there can be no new limits or if the conservative Supreme Court was right in finding that limits are allowed, even necessary.