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 backdrophighlighted by a general disdain for professional armieswould 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 were tried jointly in a Louisiana federal court with felonies in connection with an April 13, 1873, assault on two AfricanAmerican men. One of the criminal counts charged that the mob intended to hinder the right of the two men to bear arms. The defendants were convicted by a jury, but the circuit court arrested the judgment, effectively overturning the verdict. In affirming that decision, the Supreme Court declared that “the second amendment means no more than that [the right to bear arms] shall not be infringed by Congress, and has no other effect than to restrict the powers of the national government.”
In Presser v. Illinois, 116 U.S. 252, 6 S. Ct. 580, 29 L. Ed. 615 (1886), Herman Presser was charged in Illinois state court with parading and drilling an unauthorized militia in the streets of Chicago in December 1879, in violation of certain sections of the Illinois Military Code. One of the sections in question prohibited the organization, drilling, operation, and parading of militias other than U.S. troops or the regular organized volunteer militia of the state. Presser was tried by the judge, convicted, and ordered to pay a fine of $10. On appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Presser argued, in part, that the charges violated his Second Amendment right to bear arms. The Court disagreed and upheld Presser’s conviction. The Court cited Cruikshank for the proposition that the Second Amendment means only that the federal government may not infringe on the right of states to form their own militias. This meant that the Illinois state law forbidding citizen militias was not unconstitutional. However, in its opinion, the Court in Presser delivered a reading of the Second Amendment that seemed to suggest an absolute right of persons to bear arms: “It is undoubtedly true that all citizens capable of bearing arms constitute the reserved military force or reserve militia of the United States,” and “states cannot prohibit the people from keeping and bearing arms.”
Despite this generous language, the Court refused to incorporate the Second Amendment into the Fourteenth Amendment. Under the first section of the Fourteenth Amendment, passed in 1868, states may not abridge the Privileges and Immunities of citizens of the United States. The privileges and immunities of citizens are listed in the Bill of Rights, of which the Second Amendment is part. Presser had argued that states may not, by virtue of the Fourteenth Amendment, abridge the right to bear arms. The Court refused to accept the argument that the right to bear arms is a personal right of the people. According to the Court, “The right to drill or parade with arms, without, and independent of, an act of congress or law of the state authorizing the same, is not an attribute of national citizenship.”
The Presser opinion is best understood in its historical context. The Northern states and the federal government had just fought the Civil War against Southern militias unauthorized by the federal government. After this ordeal, the Supreme Court was in no mood to accept an expansive right to bear arms. At the same time, the Court was sensitive to the subject of federal encroachment on States’ Rights.
Private militias are armed military groups that are composed of private citizens and not recognized by federal or state governments. Private militias have been formed by individuals in America since the colonial period. In fact, the Revolutionary War against England was fought in part by armies comprising not professional soldiers but ordinary male citizens.
Approximately half the states maintain laws regulating private militias. Generally, these laws prohibit the parading and exercising of armed private militias in public, but do not forbid the formation of private militias. In Wyoming, however, state law forbids the very formation of private militias. Under section 19-1-106 of the Wyoming Statutes, “No body of men other than the regularly organized national guard or the troops of the United States shall associate themselves together as a military company or organization, or parade in public with arms without license of the governor.” The Wyoming law also prohibits the public funding of private militias. Anyone convicted of violating the provisions of the law is subject to a fine of not more than $1,000, imprisonment of six months, or both, for each offense.
In states that do not outlaw them, private militias are limited only by the criminal laws applicable to all of society. Thus, if an armed private militia seeks to parade and exercise in a public area, its members will be subject to arrest on a variety of laws, including disturbing-the-peace, firearms, or even riot statutes.
Many private militias are driven by the insurrection theory of the Second Amendment. Under this view, the Second Amendment grants an unconditional right to bear arms for Self-Defense and for rebellion against a tyrannical governmentwhen a government turns oppressive, private citizens have a duty to “insurrect,” or take up arms against it.
The U.S. Supreme Court has issued a qualified rejection of the insurrection theory. According to the Court in Dennis v. United States, 341 U.S. 494, 71 S. Ct. 857, 95 L. Ed. 1137 (1951), “[W]hatever theoretical merit there may be to the argument that there is a ‘right’ to rebellion against dictatorial governments is without force where the existing structure of the government provides for peaceful and orderly change.” Scholars have interpreted this to mean that as long as the government provides for free elections and trials by jury, private citizens have no right to take up arms against the government.
Some people have disagreed with the Supreme Court’s definition of tyranny. Many of these people label the state and federal governments as tyrannical based on issues such as taxes and government regulations. Others cite governments ponsored racial and ethnic Integration as driving forces in their campaign against the federal and state governments. Many of these critics have formed private militias designed to resist perceived government oppression.
Some private militias have formed their own government. The legal problems of these private militias are generally unrelated to military activities. Instead, any criminal charges usually arise from activities associated with their political beliefs. The Freemen of Montana is one such militia. This group denied the legitimacy of the federal government and created its own township called Justus. The Freemen established its own court system, posted bounties for the arrest of police officers and judges, and held seminars on how to challenge laws its members viewed as beyond the scope of the Constitution. According to neighbors, the group also established its own common-law court system and built its own jail for the imprisonment of trespassers and government workers, or “public hirelings.”
In the 1990s, the Freemen came to the attention of federal prosecutors after members of the group allegedly wrote worthless checks and money orders to pay taxes and to defraud banks and credit card companies. One Freeman had also allegedly threatened a federal judge, and some had allegedly refused to pay taxes for at least a decade.
In March 1996, law enforcement officials obtained warrants for the arrest of many of the Freemen. However, remembering the violence that occurred when officials attempted to serve arrest warrants on another armed group in Waco, Texas, in 1993, law enforcement authorities did not invade the Freemen’s 960-acre ranch in Jordan, Montana. Although the Freemen constituted an armed challenge to all government authority, its beliefs and its military activities were not illegal, and most of its members were charged with nonviolent crimes, such as Fraud and related conspiracy. Two men were also charged with threatening public officials. In addition, several Freemen faced charges of criminal syndicalism, which is the advocacy of violence for political goals.
Amar, Akhil Reed. 2002. “Second Thoughts.” Law and Contemporary Problems 65 (spring).
Barry, Monica Sue. 1996. “Stockpiling Weapons: Can Private Militias Receive Protection under the First and Second Amendments?” Thomas Jefferson Law Review 18 (spring).
Hardaway, Robert, Elizabeth Gormley, and Bryan Taylor. 2002. “The Inconvenient Militia Clause of the Second Amendment: Why the Supreme Court Declines to Resolve the Debate over the Right to Bear Arms.” St. John’s Journal of Legal Commentary 16 (winter).
Dennis v. United States.
Several decades later, the Supreme Court ignored the contradictory language in Presser and cemented a limited reading of the Second Amendment. In United States v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174, 59 S. Ct. 816, 83 L. Ed. 1206 (1939), defendants Jack Miller and Frank Layton were charged in federal court with unlawful transportation of firearms in violation of certain sections of the National Firearms Act of June 26, 1934 (ch. 757, 48 Stat. 12361240 [26 U.S.C.A. 1132 et seq.]). Specifically, Miller and Layton had transported shotguns with barrels less than 18 inches long, without the registration required under the act.
The district court dismissed the indictment, holding that the act violated the Second Amendment. The United States appealed. The Supreme Court reversed the decision and sent the case back to the trial court. The Supreme Court stated that the Second Amendment was fashioned “to assure the continuation and render possible the effectiveness of militia forces.”
The Miller opinion confirmed the restrictive language of Presser and solidified a narrow reading of the Second Amendment. According to the Court in Miller, the Second Amendment does not guarantee the right to own a firearm unless the possession or use of the firearm has “a reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia.”
The legislative measures that inspire most Second Amendment discussions are Gun Control laws. Since the mid-nineteenth century, state legislatures have been passing laws that infringe a perceived right to bear arms. Congress has also asserted the power to regulate firearms. No law regulating firearms has ever been struck down by the Supreme Court as a violation of the Second Amendment.
Historically, the academic community has largely ignored the Second Amendment. However, gun control laws have turned many laypersons into scholars of the Second Amendment’s history. The arguments for a broader interpretation are many and varied. Most center on the Original Intent of the Framers. Some emphasize that the Second Amendment should be interpreted as granting an unconditional personal right to bear arms for defensive and sporting purposes. Others adhere to an insurrection theory, under which the Second Amendment not only grants the personal right to bear arms, it gives citizens the right to rebel against a government perceived as tyrannical.
In response to these arguments, supporters of the prevailing Second Amendment interpretation maintain that any right to bear arms should be secondary to concerns for public safety. They also point out that other provisions in the Constitution grant power to Congress to quell insurrections, thus contradicting the insurrection theory. Lastly, they argue that the Constitution should be interpreted in accordance with a changing society and that the destructive capability of semiautomatic and automatic firearms was not envisioned by the Framers.
In response to the last argument, critics maintain that because such firearms exist, it should be legal to use them against violent criminals who are themselves wielding such weapons.
In the 2000s, federal courts continue to revisit the scope and detail of the Second Amendment right to bear arms. In particular federal courts have recast much of the debate as one over whether the Second Amendment protects a “collective” right or an “individual” right to bear arms. If the Second Amendment protects only a collective right, then only states would have the power to bring a legal action to enforce it and only for the purpose of maintaining a “well-regulated militia.” If the Second Amendment protects only an individual right to bear arms, then only individuals could bring suit to challenge gun-control laws that curb their liberty to buy, sell, own, or possess firearms and other guns.
Not surprisingly, courts are conflicted over how to resolve this debate. In United States v. Emerson, 270 F.3d 203 (5th Cir. 2001), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit found that the original intent of the Founding Fathers supported an individual-rights interpretation of the Second Amendment, while the Ninth Circuit came to the opposite conclusion in Nordyke v. King, 319 F.3d 1185 (9th Cir. 2003). Although no court has concluded that the original intent underlying the Second Amendment supports a claim for both an individual- and a collective rights based interpretation of the right to bear arms, the compelling historical arguments marshaled on both sides of the debate would suggest that another court faced with the same debate may reach such a conclusion.
Amar, Akhil Reed. 1992. “The Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment.” Yale Law Journal 101 (April).
Becker, Edward R. 1997. “The Second Amendment and Other Federal Constitutional Rights of the Private Militia.” Montana Law Review 58 (winter).
Bogus, Carl T., ed. 2000. The Second Amendment in Law and History: Historians and Constitutional Scholars on the Right to Bear Arms. New York: New Press.
Dolan, Edward F., and Margaret M. Scariano. 1994. Guns in the United States. New York: Watts.
Dunlap, Charles J., Jr. 1995. “Revolt of the Masses: Armed Civilians and the Insurrectionary Theory of the Second Amendment.” Tennessee Law Review 62 (spring).
Hanson, Freya Ottem. 1998. The Second Amendment: The Right to Own Guns. Springfield, N.J.: Enslow.
Hook, Donald D. 1992. Gun Control: The Continuing Debate. Washington, D.C.: Second Amendment Foundation.
Hoppin, Jason. 2003. “Ninth Circuit Upholds Controversial Ruling on Second Amendment.” Legal Intelligencer (May 8).
. 2003. “Second Amendment Fight Steals Show in Gun Ban Case: Panel Enters Fray over Individual Rights.” San Francisco Recorder (February 19).
McAffee, Thomas B. 1997. “Constitutional Limits on Regulating Private Militia Groups.” Montana Law Review 58 (winter).
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