Right to Bear Arms

The Second Amendment to the Constitution 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.

The "right of the people to keep and bear Arms" has been one of the most hotly contested and controversial rights included in the Bill of Rights. Because the Supreme Court has never applied the Second Amendment to the States, it has largely been interpreted and applied at the state and local levels.1

Balancing Liberty and Order

The Second Amendment poses serious questions about balancing liberty and order. While it clearly states that the right to own and bear a gun "shall not be infringed," how far does that right extend? And at what point do the interests of society and the need to maintain order become so profound that individual rights must be limited? As is true of all of the liberties enumerated in the Bill of Rights, the right to bear arms has reasonable limitations on it. For example, if we were to take the definition of "arms" literally, we might conclude that the Second Amendment guaranteed each individual's right to own a nuclear weapon.

Clearly the right does not extend to the ownership of weapons of mass destruction. But where should the line be drawn? In recent years, efforts have been made to limit the kinds of guns that individuals can by. "Assault" weapons, in particular, have been targeted by gun control activists. Several other restrictions have been placed on the ownership of a gun. For example, no one under the age of 21 can legally buy a handgun, and convicted felons, the mentally ill and people who have court-sanctioned restraining orders against them cannot own guns. Waiting periods and background checks are in place to assure that individuals who are prohibited from purchasing guns are not able to do so.

Are these limitations too severe? Has the government infringed on individual rights too much in the name of maintaining order? In the wake of several recent school and workplace shootings, many Americans believe that gun control laws should be tightened even further. Second Amendment supporters, however, argue that the real answer is to enforce the laws that we already have. Doing so, they argue, would have kept guns out of the hands of the perpetrators of some of these crimes.

Perspectives on the Second Amendment

The authors of the following essays and speeches provide an overview of each side of the gun control-gun rights debate and the main issues involved.

Should Gun Control Laws be Tightened?

Every year the Congress debates and usually votes on at least one major piece of legislation related to gun control. This Congress has been no exception. Below are statements expressing the views of two prominent members of Congress on the Second Amendment.

"Gun Liability Reform," Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN) Majority Leader

Statement on Gun Legislation, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY)

Is the "Right to Bear Arms an Individual or Community Right?

While most people interpret the Second Amendment to be a guarantee of an individual's right to own and carry a gun, there is growing support for the view that the "right to bear arms" is a community right, not an individual one. By emphasizing the first half of the Second Amendment, proponents of this view argue that the Framers did not intend to protect an individual's right to bear arms, but rather the rights of the states to form and maintain armed militias

"The Right to Keep and Bear Arms: A Right to Self-Defense Against Criminals and Despots," by Robert Dowlut, Stanford Law & Policy Review (1997)

Robert Dowlut argues that the Second Amendment was intended to guarantee individuals the right to bear arms to protect themselves and their property from other individuals and from freedom-encroaching governments.

The Ideological Origins of the Second Amendment," by Robert E. Shalhope, The Journal of American History, Vol. 69, No. 3. (Dec., 1982), pp. 599-614.

Shalhope provides an excellent historical overview of the chief arguments on both sides of the debate.


NOTES
1. The Supreme Court has, however, ruled that the Congress extended its authority under the Commerce Clause too far in attempting to ban guns in school zones. See United States v. Lopez (1995).