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The 2nd Amendment to the Constitution is a single sentence with profound implications. 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.” As part of the Bill of Rights, this amendment safeguards US citizens’ right to bear arms. It is a right that has been jealously defended up to the present day.
At the end of the eighteenth century, ‘militia’ meant any group of citizens who had joined together intending to protect their communities. Militias were also organized to protect towns, cities, and the new states. Experience had made people distrustful of centralized government and was reluctant to give them too much power. Soldiers had seen how the British government had kept control of the American colonies, so they did not want the new US government to have similar power.
The 2nd Amendment’s effect was to give the federal government no authority to disarm the state militias. This means that the states still had the means to protect themselves against any form of oppression. There was a strong body of opinion current at the time, which held that the federal government should not create a permanent national army. Instead, a national army should only be brought into existence when there were real foreign threats to the United States. However, the Constitutional Convention of 1787 did grant the federal government authority to raise and maintain a national army.
As soon as the 2nd Amendment was ratified, so the arguments about exactly what it meant began. Some argued that as it specifically mentions ‘militias’ then the right to bear arms only applied to those citizens who were part of an organized militia. Others argued that the right to bear arms applied to every citizen. This latter interpretation is the one in force today.
Interpreting the 2nd Amendment as a protection for individuals who wish to bear arms has led to much debate about how strictly the principle should be applied. Powerful voices on both sides of the argument have spoken out. Those in favor of gun control argue that many people who own guns are not fit to do so. They want a stricter vetting system so that those deemed to have criminal records or mental health problems are refused the right. The Brady Bill of 1993 was a significant victory for them, as it introduced background checks on purchasers of handguns. Those who oppose gun controls include the National Rifle Association founded in 1871 and has been vociferous in its campaigning against them.
In 1886 the Supreme Court stated that the 2nd Amendment applied only to the federal government, and the individual states could control gun ownership. However, they later overturned this decision and ruled that neither the federal government nor the states could impose gun ownership restrictions. In doing this, they established the principle that self-defense was a basic human right and that gun ownership was a part of that right. The Supreme Court, though, did suggest areas where limitations were reasonable – and court cases continue to this day, which challenges those suggestions.
Americans continue to enjoy the right to bear arms, despite many mass shootings. These have outraged many members of the public, but supporters of gun ownership argue that gun controls are an abuse of their constitutional rights. Those rights remain in place, just as they have done since the eighteenth century.