2nd Amendment Part C: History in Context
What protections does the Second Amendment offer, and are those protections relevant or necessary in a modern world?
Various interpretations of one phrase in our Constitution has created a debate amongst people since the introduction of the Bill of Rights. To understand the context of this debate, knowing the history surrounding the amendment will be helpful.
It is important to note that the Revolutionary War actually started because the British tried to confiscate the colonial’s powder and weaponry. Indeed, though things like the Tea Tax and the Intolerable Acts contributed to the growing tension, what ultimately broke the camel’s back was the Brit’s attempting to seize a firearm cache stored in Concord, Massachusetts (hence, Paul Revere’s midnight ride, “The British are coming!” [To take our shit and means of control!]).
The colonists mobilized and stormed the fort. The “shot heard ‘round the world”? That was during a stand-off, from Americans trying to protect their guns.
During the American Revolution, the original concept for American military forces was for local communities to put up their own forces to protect their families in war times. These fighting forces are known as militias. The idea behind militias at the time is that people in their community are responsible for protecting it, and ensuring that one power does not amass too large of a military power over other groups.
Militias proved ineffective against British forces, causing states to allow Congress to form a standing army, even in peacetime. When it came time to form the current United States Constitution, states were concerned that Congress [federal government] could use its standing army to control states and form a tyrannical power, especially after British soldiers showed over communities they patrolled.
Bearing these fears in mind, James Madison drafted the Second Amendment, which 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.” This essentially granted people the ability to form militias in order to protect themselves from outside forces or a tyrannical government.
For many this was enough to mitigate concerns, as it seemed to guarantee protection against tyranny. It was with the introduction of two organizations in the after the Civil War that the debate around the Second Amendment changed.
After the Civil War, the country was once more concerned with invading forces, but unlike post-Revolutionary America, now Americans worry about wars within the country and responses to emergencies on a more local level. In response, the United States Army introduced the National Guard in 1636.
The National Guard differed from other branches of the military because they were based in each state, and consisted of people living within that state’s borders. It could also be called on by the state’s governor and president to deal with local emergencies, disasters and foreign combat missions. After the National Guard’s formation, many Americans argued that there was no need to form state militias (since the National Guard could take that role), giving those with a collective interpretation of the amendment a concrete example of how the militia clause could be practiced.
Shortly after the National Guard began, the National Rifle Association (NRA) was formed with the intent to fight for the individual’s right to own and carry guns.
The 1990s are referred to as the Golden Era by some. It was a unique time that experienced a revolution in fashion, music and even technology. However, for others, the 1990s is remembered for the most tragic shootings in American history. An analysis done by Mother Jones showed that “a public mass shooting occurred on average every 172 days since 1982.” This data serves as a trend for the tragic shootings throughout the 21st century.
Thirty-six people died from mass shootings in the 1990s, according to a study by the Springer’s Journal of Child and Family Studies. Despite legislation like the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990, which forbade the possession of firearms on any school property, the infamous 1999 Columbine shooting shocked the world. Two students open-fired, killing a dozen students and a teacher, while injuring 24 others.
The question is, how did shootings like this impact the debate on the Second Amendment?
To add, in 1994, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act and Federal Assault Weapons Ban was passed, which halted the “manufacturing, possession and importation of new semi-automatic assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition feeding devices.” However, after 10 years Congress did not follow up on this bill, and essentially made it easier to buy high-capacity firearms again.
2000s Era and Beyond
After D.C. v. Heller (2008), the Supreme Court held that individuals had the right to protection after Dick Anthony Heller — a licensed private security guard — initiated a lawsuit. he suit came after the District of Columbia banned “handgun possession by making it a crime to carry an unregistered firearm and prohibiting the registration of handguns.” The nation’s capital also required its “residents to keep lawfully owned firearms unloaded and disassembled or bound by a trigger lock.”
Two years later, the Supreme Court formed a ruling in McDonald v. Chicago (2010), after a similar citywide handgun ban, as seen in the Heller case, was executed statewide. This case extended the protections of the right to carry a firearm to the state level.
These landmark cases made the Second Amendment debate turn to which guns should be used. The main target became assault weapons, upon increased mass shootings in recent years. There is no telling what the debate could become [or if it’ll ever cease], as it has already changed so much in the short life of the U.S. Though it will likely have new faces as the country evolves.