The U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment has been usurped by the NRA and pro-gun lobbyists.

The historical context and textual origin of the Second Amendment are critical to its  interpretation – “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 Declaration of Independence was adopted July 4, 1776.  Later the new USA recognized it was “a nation without a national government” (Hamilton).  After four years of debate among the States, in 1781 the Articles of Confederation (Articles) was ratified.  This document defined our national government until the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1788. Until 1783 Americans were fighting a king so they feared and distrusted a strong central government with a standing army.  The States also feared invasion from surrounding territories, local uprisings and indigenous attacks. Americans wanted republican government with people the ultimate source of legislative power through elected representatives.  But conventional wisdom was that such a republic could work only with a small population in a small territory. So the Articles gave the national government very limited power, including military power, and provided that “…every State shall always keep up a well-regulated and disciplined militia, sufficiently armed and accoutered, and shall provide and constantly have ready for use, in public stores, a due number of filed pieces and tents, and a proper quantity of arms, ammunition and camp equipage.”  Later the Constitution’s Framers changed course and gave all military power to the federal government.  However, the Bill of Rights Second Amendment (ratified 1791) was to reassure the States they could retain and arm militias.  Today the militia’s role is fulfilled by the National Guard which is located in each State and can be deployed by governors.

The NRA and pro-gun fanatics conveniently ignore and repudiate the “militia” phrase of the Second Amendment and wrongly argue the amendment is only about personal possession of guns and any gun law is unconstitutional.  The “militia” phrase announces the purpose for which the right to bear arms was codified – to prevent the elimination of State militias.  The amendment’s text supports an argument for some personal possession of arms but is neither absolute nor unlimited. Federal case law has long established that legislatures may regulate the civilian use and misuse of firearms so long as they don’t interfere with the preservation of a State militia.

Melinda McWilliams