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The Second Amendment

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

On June 26, the Supreme Court ruled in District of Columbia v. Heller that the Second Amendment—"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"— protects a purely individual right, as do the First, Fourth and Ninth Amendments. "Nowhere else in the Constitution does a 'right' attributed to 'the people' refer to anything other than an individual right," the court said. "The term ['the people'] unambiguously refers to all members of the political community." 

The court's 5-4 majority rejected the notion pushed by D.C. officials and gun control supporters in Heller —taken from the Kansas Supreme Court's decision in Salina v. Blaksley (1905)—that the amendment protects only a privilege to possess arms when serving in a militia. All nine justices rejected gun control supporters' alternate and mutually exclusive idea—invented by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit in U.S. v. Tot (1942)—that the amendment protects only a state power (a so-called "collective right") to maintain a militia. 

Citing a previous decision by the court, recognizing that the right to arms is individually-held, the court noted, "As we said in United States v. Cruikshank (1876), '[t]his is not a right granted by the Constitution. Neither is it in any manner dependent upon that instrument for its existence. The Second Amendment declares that it shall not be infringed.'" 

The court also declared that the Second Amendment protects "the individual right to possess and carry weapons in case of confrontation," including "all instruments that constitute bearable arms." It said that people have the right to keep and bear handguns (the type of arm at issue in Heller), because "[T]he inherent right of self-defense has been central to the Second Amendment right. . . .Under any of the standards of scrutiny that we have applied to enumerated constitutional rights, banning from the home 'the most preferred firearm in the nation to 'keep' and use for protection of one's home and family,' would fail constitutional muster." 

As demonstrated by the vast majority of research on the subject, the court's ruling is consistent with the Second Amendment's history and text, the statements and writings of the amendment's author, James Madison, and other statesmen of the founding period, and the writings of respected legal authorities of the 19th century. Constitutional scholar Stephen Halbrook has noted that there is no evidence that anyone associated with drafting, debating and ratifying the amendment considered it to protect anything other than an entirely individual right. 

Madison, who introduced the Bill of Rights in Congress, said that the amendments "relate first to private rights." In The Federalist #46, he wrote that the federal government would not be able to tyrannize the people, "with arms in their hands, officered by men chosen from among themselves, fighting for their common liberties, and united and conducted by [state] governments possessing their affections and confidence." In The Federalist #29, Alexander Hamilton wrote, "if circumstances should at any time oblige the government to form an army of any magnitude that army can never be formidable to the liberties of the people while there is a large body of citizens, little, if at all, inferior to them in discipline and the use of arms, who stand ready to defend their own rights and those of their fellow-citizens." 

Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, in his Commentaries on the Constitution (1833), still regarded as the standard treatise on the subject, wrote, "the right of the citizens to keep and bear arms has justly been considered, as the palladium of the liberties of the republic." 

In U.S. v. Miller (1939), the most recent of the important Second Amendment-related Supreme Court cases prior to Heller, the court recognized, as it did in U.S. v. Cruikshank (noted above), that the right to arms is individually-held and not dependent upon militia service. Had the court believed the amendment protected only a militiaman's privilege or a state power, it would have rejected the case on the grounds that the defendants were neither actively-serving militiamen or states. As the Heller court noted, the Miller court never questioned the defendants' standing. It questioned only whether a short-barreled shotgun had "a reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia," which it described as private citizens "bearing arms supplied by themselves and of the kind in common use at the time." 

As indicated in the Heller decision, the Supreme Court has always recognized that the Second Amendment protects, and was intended by the Framers to protect, a purely individual right of individuals to keep and bear arms useful for defense, hunting, training and all other legitimate purposes.

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Established in 1975, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) is the "lobbying" arm of the National Rifle Association of America. ILA is responsible for preserving the right of all law-abiding individuals in the legislative, political, and legal arenas, to purchase, possess and use firearms for legitimate purposes as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.