For many Americans, the most meaningful part of the U.S. Constitution is the Bill of Rights. These 10 amendments were written to protect individual Americans from tyrannical rule. Like the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and worship, the Second Amendment — proclaiming the right to bear arms — has often been at the center of debate. But in the wake of last week’s mass shooting at a Colorado movie theater that claimed 12 lives, there have been relatively few calls for increased gun control in the United States. Many scholars point to the importance of firearms in American history as the reason.
When America’s Founding Fathers added the Bill of Rights to the Constitution in 1791, they wanted to protect individuals from potentially dangerous central and state governments.
Most scholars say the Constitution might not have been ratified had Americans not been assured that 10 special amendments would be added to check the power of the government and to guarantee individual liberties.
Many early Americans feared the tyranny that a standing army might impose, so they wanted to keep military power under civilian control by allowing private citizens to keep arms.
The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states:
“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.”
But the controversy over these 27 words hinges on the interpretation of the amendment.
America’s Founding Fathers drew on many sources for their ideas — ancient Greece and Rome, the Italian Renaissance and more recent English philosophers.
“The question really is not, ‘Will some people be armed?’ but it’s a question of, ‘Who?’” says Stephen Halbrook, a Washington, D.C., attorney and a leading scholar of the Second Amendment. “The basic principle really was debated between Plato and Aristotle — namely, Plato wanted the ideal state of the rule of the philosopher king. Under him would be an auxiliary, or soldier force, which would enforce his will. And then, there would be the common people who Plato didn’t think were very bright versus the model that Aristotle set forth, which would be a citizenry in which all of whom participated in the body politic and a citizenry, which was also armed.”
Halbrook says the framers of the Constitution wanted to protect many of the same rights they initially enjoyed as Englishmen. In the months leading up to the American Revolution, many colonists were deprived of several freedoms, including the right to own firearms, so that the British could enforce laws many Americans considered unjust.
But for many experts, individual gun ownership was not the main issue for the framers of the Constitution.
Fordham University historian Saul Cornell says, “What’s easy to forget is that the Second Amendment actually poses an enormous burden on the citizenry.” For Cornell, the Second Amendment is more concerned with maintaining national defense through citizen militias than with protecting individual gun ownership rights.
“I don’t think that many people on either side of the modern gun debate, gun control or gun rights, really would be happy if we went back to the original meaning of the Second Amendment, because for gun control people it would involve a much greater militarization of society,” he said.
“We would be living in a country much more like Israel or Switzerland. And on the other side, it would involve much greater regulation because you could not muster the militia without regular inspections of firearms, without much more training. So you have to be careful what you wish for, because sometimes you may get it.”
Americans wanting to emphasize an individual’s right to own guns stress the ‘right to bear arms’ portion of the Second Amendment, while those concerned with reducing the number of gun-related deaths in the United States by regulating gun ownership stress the ‘well regulated militia’ phrase.
David Hardy, another constitutional scholar and Arizona attorney, says the framers of the Constitution had both individual rights and citizen militias in mind when they wrote the Second Amendment.
“The First Congress and James Madison tended to shoehorn a number of different guarantees into each amendment to the Constitution,” says Hardy. “The First Amendment alone protects freedom of speech, press, religious operations, freedom from the establishment of religion, freedom of assembly and of petition of the legislature. They were packing them together. The Second Amendment was two entirely separate clauses that were added together to serve two different purposes.”
Gun ownership in America has a long history. Firearms helped cowboys and settlers tame the nation’s wild west. But as the frontier vanished and a nationalized system of defense developed, the connection between citizen and soldier faded.
It might be that neither a militia nor an armed citizenry is appropriate for modern society. But it is clear that the nation’s Founding Fathers included both of these ideas in the Constitution because they intended them to be taken seriously.
And given the deeply held tradition of gun ownership in America, most analysts agree that politicians are unlikely to support additional gun control legislation, particularly ahead of this year’s national elections, even in the wake of the recent shooting in Colorado.