More than two centuries after its addition, the Second Amendment is still a hotly debated and contested issue.
- The Second Amendment was ratified in 1791
- Many gun owners view it as essential to personal and community defense
- The Second Amendment allows hunting to exist
- There have been several notable legal cases in the Amendment’s history
The Second Amendment (known simply as “2A” in many firearm circles) is an amendment of the United States Constitution that was added as part of The Bill of Rights. It guarantees the right of the people to bear arms. Many feel it bestows essential rights in personal defense and home defense. Some call it an anachronism that does more harm than good. This article will explore how the Second Amendment is perceived, how it has fared legally, and what may lie ahead for it.
What the Second Amendment says
One of the most polarizing and important passages in American politics is just 26 words long and was added to the Constitution on December 15, 1791, primarily by James Madison. It 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.”
This basis has given rise to state equivalents that preserve the intent of the Second Amendment in their own words. The heart of the controversy surrounding the Second Amendment lies in two arguments. The first – given by its supporters – is rooted in safety and freedom.
The pro-gun rights view
Many firearm owners feel more secure in their ability to protect themselves, others, and their property from aggressors. Losing their guns as law-abiding citizens would leave them — and us, because we’re firearms owners, too — vulnerable to criminals who would find a way to arm themselves and continue victimizing the defenseless.
One huge advantage of a firearm over other forms of defense is that it’s a ranged weapon. With proper training, someone in danger can defend themselves from a distance without close-quarters engagement, regardless of their physical size and abilities in relation to the aggressor. This can be a life-saving factor, particularly for women.
There are also over 15 million hunters in America who rely on their Second Amendment rights. Hunting, far from its often-negative public image, is actually advantageous to ecosystems in many ways, including positively contributing to population control, vital disease management among certain species, and wildlife conservation.
The Second Amendment is thus strongly held by millions of Americans to be essential for personal and community safety and in preserving a natural balance. There is also a less enthusiastic viewpoint.
The opposing argument
The Second Amendment’s detractors view it as outdated and dangerous. They acknowledge that it was added during a tumultuous time in American history when the nation was still vulnerable to attacks from foreign powers and had come through a period of internal strife.
Opponents feel that America’s current status as a united country and the world’s most powerful nation eliminates any modern need for its citizens to bear arms. Some opponents also adopt the simplistic view that if guns were outlawed, gun violence would disappear, and the nation would be safer. This position doesn’t allow for either human nature or criminal ingenuity.
There are varying degrees of opposition to the Second Amendment. Some want it modified. Others want it abolished completely. Each feels that firearms are a hindrance to public safety, mistakenly attributing the motivations and behaviors of an isolated and troubled few to gun owners as a whole.
Contention over how the Second Amendment can or should be understood has gone to court on some important occasions.
Notable Second Amendment case law
How state law relates to the Second Amendment is open to interpretation. The Individual Rights theory maintains that any government interference in the possession of firearms is unconstitutional. The opposing Collective Rights theory holds that the Second Amendment allows legislative bodies to regulate firearms without violating the Constitution. Some of the most notable Second Amendment cases are:
- United States v. Miller
This 1939 case was a Collective Rights case and is viewed as a victory for both sides of the Second Amendment argument. It led to greater prohibitions on the receipt, possession, and transportation of firearms, while also defending and strengthening the individual’s right to bear arms when the case was dismissed.
- District of Columbia v. Heller
This 2008 case was a major step forward for the Individual Rights theory. It decided that the “militia” of the Second Amendment did not refer to formally assembled federal or state militias, but to able and willing citizens in possession of their own arms.
- McDonald v. City of Chicago
This 2010 case saw the Supreme Court rule that the Second Amendment applies to state and local governments as well as to the federal government. The ruling saw self-defense recognized as a central component of the Second Amendment and a basic human right.
Both the Heller and McDonald cases were won by a 5-4 majority, indicating how closely run such cases are and how divided Americans are on the issue.
Where the Second Amendment is headed
The Second Amendment is relentlessly held up to legal scrutiny and interpretation by both sides. On any given day, a loss or victory for gun rights could depend on the skill of a lawyer, the bias of a jury, and the whims of a judge, all without a single letter of the Amendment being altered.
A perpetual state of interpretive contention may be the Second Amendment’s ultimate destiny. Any attempt at outright abolition hardly seems possible. Perhaps one Supreme Court case gives some indication of where things might be headed.
A 2020 ruling resulting in a win for New York gun owners may usher in even more legal challenges aimed at achieving greater firearm freedoms under the Second Amendment. The article by the Brennan Center for Justice did acknowledge that opposition to those cases could still lead to a loss at the highest legal levels. It remains to be seen how things will develop.
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