The Second Amendment to the U.S. 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 subject matter and unusual phrasing of this amendment led to much controversy and analysis, especially in the last half of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, the meaning and scope of the amendment have long been decided by the Supreme Court.
Firearms played an important part in the colonization of America. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, European colonists relied heavily on firearms to take land away from Native Americans and repel attacks by Native Americans and Europeans. Around the time of the Revolutionary War, male citizens were required to own firearms for fighting against the British forces. Firearms were also used in hunting.
In June 1776, one month before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Virginia became the first colony to adopt a state constitution. In this document, the state of Virginia pronounced that "a well regulated Militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defence of a free State." After the colonies declared their independence from England, other states began to include the right to bear arms in their constitution. Pennsylvania, for example, declared that
the people have a right to bear arms for the defence of themselves and the state; and as standing armies in the time of peace are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be kept up; And that the military should be kept under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.
The wording of clauses about bearing arms in late-eighteenth-century state constitutions varied. Some states asserted that bearing arms was a "right" of the people, whereas others called it a "duty" of every able-bodied man in the defense of society.
Pennsylvania was not alone in its express discouragement of a standing (professional) army. Many of the Framers of the U.S. Constitution rejected standing armies, preferring instead the model of a citizen army, equipped with weapons and prepared for defense. According to Framers such as Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts and GEORGE MASON of Virginia a standing
army was susceptible to tyrannical use by a power-hungry government.
At the first session of Congress in March 1789, the Second Amendment was submitted as a counterweight to the federal powers of Congress and the president. According to constitutional theorists, the Framers who feared a central government extracted the amendment as a compromise from those in favor of centralized authority over the states. The Revolutionary War had, after all, been fought in large part by a citizen army against the standing armies of England.
The precise wording of the amendment was changed two times before the U.S. Senate finally cast it in its present form. As with many of the amendments, the exact wording proved critical to its interpretation.
In 1791 a majority of states ratified the BILL OF RIGHTS, which included the Second Amendment. In its final form, the amendment presented a challenge to interpreters. It was the only amendment with an opening clause that appeared to state its purpose. The amendment even had defective punctuation; the comma before shall seemed grammatically unnecessary.
Legal scholars do not agree about this comma. Some have argued that it was intentional and that it was intended to make militia the subject of the sentence. According to these theorists, the operative words of the amendment are "[a] well regulated Militia ? shall not be infringed." Others have argued that the comma was a mistake, and that the operative words of the sentence are "the right of the people to ? bear arms ? shall not be infringed." Under this reading, the first part of the sentence is the rationale for the absolute, personal right of the people to own firearms. Indeed, the historical backdrop?highlighted by a general disdain for professional armies?would seem to support this theory.
Some observers argue further that the Second Amendment grants the right of insurrection. According to these theorists, the Second Amendment was designed to allow citizens to rebel against the government. THOMAS JEFFERSON is quoted as saying that "a little rebellion every now and then is a good thing."
The Supreme Court makes the ultimate determination of the Constitution's meaning, and it has defined the amendment as simply granting to the states the right to maintain a militia separate from federally controlled militias. This interpretation first came in United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542, 23 L. Ed. 588 (1875). In Cruikshank, approximately one hundred persons...