The phrasing is simple, isn’t it?
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. The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution is simply a declaration of a right, albeit in the negative, prefaced with a statement about the importance of early militia. For a right with such profound impact, there was no sixty-page legal opinion, with annotations; no thirty-page dissent; indeed, no presidential signing statement or preamble. No, just a simple declaration of a right that, at its time, I am sure, seemed like a perfectly reasonable provision for a newly born country about to conquer a frontier.
Alas, that was then and this now. Our founding fathers could have never envisioned what modernity has brought, such as the “war on terrorism” or the “war on drugs”; semi- and fully-automatic weapons; kids molded into urban warriors by unscrupulous gang leaders; and, most shockingly, the mass shooting incidents at Columbine, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook. Where does society strike balance — liberty or life.
Constitutional jurisprudence has never been, nor was intended to be, even or clear-cut — ours is a democracy, after all. Even the interpretation of our “Bill of Rights,” the codification of our most precious liberties, has developed piecemeal as our own societal beliefs and values have evolved.
Everyone knows the 1st Amendment, which includes the freedoms of speech, religion, press, and assembly — but, unless you love history or have British soldiers living in your bedroom, you have likely forgotten about the 3rd Amendment. Like the 3rd Amendment, the 2nd Amendment has largely been ignored by our Supreme Court.
Historically, the use and development of firearms by Americans has been rich.
In our earliest days, the firearm was literally a tool of basic necessity, allowing our forefathers to conquer a continent.
The most restrictive guns laws came during the era of the “Wild West,” when disputes often resolved themselves with revolvers and town leaders implemented absolute gun bans in response.
By the twentieth century, gun development and ownership flourished. Gun collecting and gun-related sport became hobbies, societal issues ushered in new levels of gun violence and citizens sought guns as a means of personal protection.
Yet, through all of this, the Supreme Court stayed silent, leaving regulation to the several states through licensing and criminal statutes. Why?
Today, the 2nd Amendment is finally getting a robust debate — indeed, citizens, pundits and politicians are actively debating the balance of gun liberty and gun control.
And the Supreme Court is finally responding. Most court watchers see a movement within the justices to take up 2nd Amendment cases and give them full treatment, a process which began in 2008 with District of Columbia v. Heller. Other potentially profound cases are in the pipeline.
So, while the phrasing of the 2nd Amendment remains simple, its future remains anything but.
Explore the 2nd Amendment and the evolution of the right to bear arms in Daniel Nelson’s OLLI course titled, “The Second Amendment: Are All Rights Created Equal?” The course will be held at Westminster Place Apartments in Philipsburg on July 19, July 26 and Aug. 2 from 1 to 3 p.m. Discussion and debate will be encouraged. To register, go to www.olli.psu.edu or call 867-4278. Nelson is a practicing attorney and former court administrator. He earned a B.A. in history and his law degree in constitutional law.