The Second Amendment, Interpreted
Perhaps no other section of the United States Constitution has caused as much debate in our nation’s history as the second amendment. The second amendment reads:
“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.”
All 27 words of this sentence has been integral to the debate surrounding the right to owning a firearm. In this interpretation, each word will be dissected, to help explain what the purpose of this amendment truly was. This article will also discuss more broadly the gun debate as a whole.
A Well-Regulated Militia
The first part of this amendment aims to define the author’s intent. James Madison was the individual who proposed the addition of the second amendment language to preserve that right for all states, rather than let states decide. A “militia” during the Revolutionary War era was in essence a group of men that worked together to protect their locality. In those days, Americans were wary of any possibility of tyrannical government, and it was popular belief that, except under circumstances of war, regular civilians should be able to bear their own privately held weapons and take part in local militias. (History)
Being Necessary to the Security of a Free State
When the United States ratified the current United States Constitution in year 1788, which greatly expanded the federal government’s ability to raise an army over the previous Articles of Confederation which were ratified in 1781, Anti-Federalists were vocal about how any federal army would deprive a state against defending themselves. That is why the second amendment was introduced by James Madison, to empower local militias (History).
The Right of the People to Keep and Bear Arms
The most critical portion of the second amendment, and the most contested, is “the right of the people to keep and bear arms”. Depending on interpretation, this portion either directly relates to the first part of the amendment, regarding a “well-regulated militia” or it relates to any citizen. What this means is that in order for “the people” to keep and bear arms, those “people” must be a part of a militia. Alternatively, this phrase is also sometimes interpreted as any individual can bear arms, regardless of intent to be a part of a militia.
Shall Not be Infringed
The most powerful portion of the amendment is its ending. To be infringed means that an individual is undermined, or encroached on, by either another individual or agency, such as the government. But in order to not be infringed, it needs to be clear what exactly the definition of the second amendment is. Without a proper understanding, there is no basis for a right to be infringed when the right itself is not clear. Is the forming of a militia the right? Or is individual weapon ownership the right?
The Amendment’s Meaning Today
In the United States today, you can legally join a militia. In fact, there are hundreds of formed militias around the country (SPLC). These militias operate privately and do engage in military-style training. Unfortunately, some groups become safe havens for severe racial and bigoted views. Outside of the small militia community, the National Guard is sometimes looked to as a militia as well which balances the amendments definition to protect residents against the federal government. The National Guard exists within every state and is made up of state residents who report to the respective state’s governor. The President of the United States also has the legal authority to federalize any state national guard as well to assist in national interests. Additionally, states do have the legal authority to establish a State Defense Force (SDF), which only reports to their respective governor. There are 25 states with an SDF (State Forces).
There are clearly many ways to be a part of a militia, which is why it is my belief that if you want to own a firearm, you should be required to join a militia. The militia you join (or start) should meet at some frequency of occurrence, perhaps have a uniform, and be an organized group. The process of joining a militia needs to be simple, and not a roadblock for someone wanting to own a weapon. Simultaneously, a militia needs to have access to firearms that could be interpreted as being equal to firearms held by any federal military branch. These weapons, more specifically fully automatic weapons, should be required to be held collectively by the militia, and only accessible in a truly necessary time of conflict by its members. For all other weapons, such as semi-automatic rifles, handguns, and the like, any individual (with some exceptions) should be able to possess those in their private residence for personal use, such as training, sport, hunting, and home protection. These militias, following the intent of the second amendment, need to be fully autonomous from the federal government, and have their primary mission to be to protect Americans and the United States Constitution from tyranny.
Exceptions to the possession of firearms needs to apply to individuals as they do somewhat today. Certain individuals with mental health issues, domestic abusers, violent criminals, and those who exhibit certain red flags, should be completely restricted from owning a weapon as their intentions do not align with the second amendment.
The debate over the right to bear arms also applies to concealed and open carry laws, which are enacted by states and municipalities. Concealed carry laws, which are to allow citizens to have a hidden weapon on their person while in public, exist to a varying degree in all 50 states. Open carry laws, which allow an individual to openly carry a weapon, also exist across the nation to a wide variety of regulations and permitting as well. Does it help prevent tyranny if an individual can openly carry a pistol at the supermarket? And is the fear of that weapon being allowed openly irrational, or understandable? As previously discussed, a gun owner should be able to possess certain weapons for personal use, including protection. However, in their current state, open carry laws miss the point of protection. When in public, it should be the responsibility of a public agency, such a local police force, to protect individuals. As heroic as the anecdotal evidence is, there is no proof that concealed or open carry makes anyone safer (The Atlantic).
The Nuanced Debate
At the end of the day, the police do not always arrive in time when you need them. We also do not know when the day will be, if ever, that the federal military forces turn on the American public. Nobody wants to live in fear for their lives, and that fear is legitimate – whether directed at the possibility of tyranny, for someone to commit a mass shooting, or for a spouse concerned that the next argument will be deadly. Objectively, less firearms in a home can lead to less in-home tragedies. It is easy to point out that in the news every once in a while, we see a story of a child getting a hold of a firearm and killing their sibling by accident.
But does that grief mean we need to restrict all weapons or penalize those who properly store their weapons? We also need to reckon with mental health. In the year 2017 there were 23,854 Americans who died from a firearm suicide (CDC), which is not even mentioning the deaths in recent mass shootings. Would at least some of the victims be alive if they did not have access to a weapon? Perhaps there is some legitimacy to the debate of how accessible it should be for certain magazine sizes and gun caliber, which when combined, can lead to war-like injuries on USA Main Street. It is okay for an individual to believe in gun ownership, just as it is okay for an individual to believe in no gun ownership, but it is the intention of that gun ownership we must consider.
The Second Amendment debate is as alive as ever, and will not be going away anytime soon. The birth of the amendment was conceived in the idea of freedom and protection from tyranny. This right, and the debate that surrounds it is important, and needs to be reasonable. Whether it be today, or 200 plus years ago, we as a nation need to understand and protect the sanctity, and intention, of this right. What do you think?
- Tyler, The National Watch