Thursday, June 14, 2007

On the Second Amendment (Inspired by Parker v. District of Columbia)

The Supreme Court may soon have a chance to decide what exactly the Second Amendment implies. Recently, in a case called Parker v. District of Columbia (more on that here), the Court of Appeals for DC struck down a strict gun control law, and the judge who authored the opinion stated that the District should appeal to the Supreme Court. Of course, there is no guarantee that the Court will accept the case, but if it does, this would be an interesting chance for it to rule on how far the right to bear arms goes, and given the current orientation of the Court, gun control advocates may not be too happy with the results.

With the facts of this specific case aside, here is my interpretation of the Second Amendment. The Amendment 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." So, unlike so many other constitutional rights, it gives an explanation as for why the right exists, and in my interpretation at least, it sets limits on that right.

Using only the language of the amendment as guidance, let's ask ourselves, "Why does the right to keep and bear arms exist?" It seems rather clear that the purpose of it is either to establish or to ensure the protection of "well regulated militias." As far as I know, "militias" have evolved from groups of private citizens to what we now call the state national guards. So, back in the 18th century, private gun ownership did allow for well-regulated militias to be established. However, such is not the case today.

Of course, the common argument is that even though we (aside from the national guards, of course) do not have well-regulated militias, private ownership of guns ought to be constitutionally protected in case private citizens were ever to find themselves in the position where they would have to attempt to establish a "militia" and defend against an oppressive government (this argument is enhanced by the fact that the state national guards are under the control of the President).

Despite the humor involved in such a claim (a bunch of rednecks with shotguns are going to take on the United States military?), it is foolish on other grounds: it has no basis in the Constitution. The fact of the matter is that private owners who may or may not (with the odds on the latter) have to assemble to form some sort of "militia" do not constitute a "well-regulated militia." If these private owners assembled once a month, say, and conducted drills, or at least had some sort of structure, we might be able to consider them a militia. But, as it stands, a group of unaffiliated private owners does not constitute a "well-regulated militia." Thus, I argue that the Second Amendment does not protect private ownership of guns.

Certainly, there may be other arguments to be raised regarding the usefulness of private gun ownership (e.g. guns provide protection in an inherently unsafe environment), but they do not find basis in the Constitution. If the Second Amendment simply read "the right to bear arms shall not be infringed," I would not be raising these concerns. However, it explicitly states the reason why that right ought not to be infringed. And modern private gun ownership simply does not square with the goals of the Second Amendment.

1 comment:

George Lyon said...

If the first amendment read, "a well informed electorate, being necessary to a free people, the right of the people to free speech shall not be infringed," would you suggest that the right of free speech was a collective right existing only to voters and only as to political speech? I doubt it. Beyond that, the militia was at the time of the founding of the Constition, all freemen capable of bearing arms, and in fact by federal law is all males between the ages of 18 and 45 and all female members of the National Guard, with some minor exceptions, so your National Guard theory is wrong as a matter of fact. Moreover, not one legal scholar ever embraced this restrictive view of the amendment prior to the 1930s. The evidence is overwhelming that the amendment was intended to protect private ownership of arms, otherwise it would have essentially gutted the federal government's powers to arm and control the organized militia set forth in Article 1, Section 8. You need to actually read the militia clauses to understand this.