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U.S. History Textbook Continues Tradition of Misinterpreting Second Amendment

Friday, September 20, 2013

Recent news out of Texas has pro-rights parents reaching for their children's backpacks after it was revealed that a popular textbook used to teach high school advanced placement U.S. history courses includes a shocking misinterpretation of the Second Amendment. Published by AMSCO School Publications, Inc., and titled, United States History: Preparing for the Advanced Placement Exam, the 2010 edition of the textbook incorrectly summarizes the Second Amendment as meaning, "The people have the right to keep and bear arms in a state militia." The Canejo Valley School District of Thousand Oaks, Calif., has made a copy of the entire text of the widely-used volume available on its website.  

The view offered by the textbook's authors is sometimes referred to as the "sophisticated collective right" interpretation of the Second Amendment. This interpretation posits that individuals have a right to keep and bear arms only in connection with their service in a state militia. This reading of the amendment gained favor with anti-gun activists when the rejection of their previously held interpretation, that the Second Amendment was a "collective right" of states to arm militias, became unavoidably apparent.

These two misinterpretations, however, were conclusively put to rest by the Supreme Court's 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller.  Justice Scalia's majority opinion holds that the amendment protects "the individual right to possess and carry weapons in case of confrontation" and that its use of the phrase bear arms, "in no way connotes participation in a structured military organization."

With this decision, the popular understanding of the Second Amendment as an individual right unrelated to service in an organized militia was indisputably stamped with the authority of the nation's highest court.

The error in the AMSCO textbook was spotted by sharp-eyed Brie Getts, a junior at John H. Guyer High School in Denton, Texas, who alerted her father to the passage. Brie's father, Sean Getts, subsequently publicized the excerpt on Facebook, believing that the authors "interpreted the amendment in favor of gun control." Sean's post went viral, prompting a response from the Denton Independent School District in which a spokesperson assured parents that "Denton ISD history teachers are disseminating the correct information on the Second Amendment."

Soon after the John H. Guyer High School incident, the internet was abuzz with another example of textbook malfeasance. This book, titled, The Americans, and published by McDougal Littell (now Holt McDougal), contains a passage in a section on the Bill of Rights that asserts, "The Second and Third Amendments – grant citizens the right to bear arms as members of a militia of citizen-soldiers and prevent the government from housing troops in private homes in peacetime."

Having published the book in 2007, and without the benefit of the Heller decision, the McDougal Littell text's authors are guilty of a somewhat lesser error than those of the AMSCO title. However, the individual rights interpretation was still well-known in 2007.  Indeed, in March of that year, it was validated in Parker v. District of Columbia, the federal appellate case that would become Heller in the Supreme Court.  Another federal appellate case, United States v. Emerson, endorsed the individual rights view in 2001.  Thus, the text's lopsided presentation of the right is still worthy of criticism.

To AMSCO book co-author John J. Newman's credit, he admitted when questioned about the controversy by Fox News that the summary of the Second Amendment in the 2010 edition was outdated --having been written prior to the Heller decision--and that it will be corrected in a new edition of the textbook for 2014. Curiously, despite their failure to update important developments regarding the Bill of Rights for the 2010 edition, the pair managed to find the time to include updated sections on the 2008 presidential election and Barack Obama's first 100 days in office.

Regarding the AMSCO book, Second Amendment attorney and scholar Richard Halbrook told Fox News, "I don't think the definition was put in the book in good faith." History shows that Halbrook's skepticism is warranted, as the problem of misinterpretations and one-sided descriptions of the Second Amendment in materials distributed through our nation's schools is longstanding and oftentimes deliberate.

Previously, the NRA has solicited the public for examples of how the Second Amendment is being portrayed in textbooks. To sample just a few: In 1985, the NRA received numerous complaints from concerned parents regarding the popular 1984 edition of Magruder's American Government textbook, prompting NRA to contact the authors. In the book's discussion of the Second Amendment, the authors took the indefensible position that "[i]ts words were added to the Constitution solely to protect the right of each State to keep a militia…. It does not guarantee any person 'the right to keep and bear arms' free from any restriction by government; nor was it written to do so." The 1993 edition of Prentice Hall's textbook American Government features a section which states, "The 2nd Amendment is widely misunderstood. It was added to the Constitution to protect the right of each state to keep a militia." And the authors of a 1992 textbook published by Houghton Mifflin titled, A History of the United States, win the blue ribbon for most bizarre interpretation of a constitutional right, as the book claims, "Amendment 2 guarantees that the federal government cannot deny states the right to enlist citizens in the militia and to provide them with training in the use of weapons."

In 1987, Handgun Control, Inc. (now Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence) produced a propaganda packet for teachers aimed at schoolchildren in grades 7-12. Ironically, its release coincided with the bicentennial of the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. Titled Guns & the Constitution, the anti-rights package was replete with misleading pamphlets, a classroom video and poster, and activity sheets that encouraged students to view the amendment as a collective right or simply as an outdated relic.

Four years later, to coincide with the bicentennial of the Bill of Rights, the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence produced a document titled, Teaching the Bill of Rights: The Case of the Second Amendment. Its authors described it as, "A Critique of Existing Educational Materials and Suggestions for Change." The report was aimed at ensuring textbooks portrayed the collective rights view as authoritative and dismissed the correct individual right interpretation. "This Second Amendment myth must be debunked," it stated, "we think the time has come to call upon textbook publishers." Brady touted the success of the campaign, stating, "Several major publishers have committed themselves to substantial revisions of their texts."

That these incorrect interpretations of the Second Amendment continue to plague our schools following the Heller decision is deplorable and inexcusable. The best way to counter such falsehoods is simply by bringing them to light.  That's why we encourage anyone who discovers an obvious misinterpretation of the Second Amendment in their child's, or their own, school materials to alert the NRA-ILA by sending us a copy of the offending materials at ILA-Contact@nrahq.org, or by mail at NRA-ILA Research and Information Division, 11250 Waples Mill Rd., Fairfax, VA 22030.  Just as engaged and informed voters are what make gun owners a force at the ballot box, engaged and informed pro-rights parents and students, like Sean and Brie Getts, can effect positive change and promote accuracy of instruction in our schools.

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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.