The language of the Second Amendment is simple: “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.”
Those 27 words are more complicated than they appear and have sparked a national debate over what the amendment means.
Dr. Paul Collins, associate professor of political science at the University of North Texas, spoke about the Second Amendment and its future during a lecture Tuesday at East Central University. He gave students a quick overview of the amendment, summarized key U.S. Supreme Court cases on the subject and predicted how the amendment would fare in the future.
Collins said the first clause of the amendment leads people to believe that it does not protect people’s right to carry firearms unless they serve in a branch of the U.S. military. But he said people who zero in on the second clause conclude that the amendment protects an individual right to carry guns.
“For those that put a lot of faith in the preface, it seems to suggest there’s no individual right to keep and bear arms,” he said. “For those that focus on the operative clause and sort of set aside the preface, set aside that justification clause, that gets you to the individual-right interpretation.”
ECU hosted the lecture to celebrate Constitution Day, which commemorates the signing of the U.S. Constitution. The college’s Rothbaum Lecture series is funded by an endowment established by the late Julian Rothbaum.
The U.S. Supreme Court first tackled Second Amendment issues in 1939, when the court upheld a federal law banning shipments of sawed-off shotguns in interstate commerce. The court declined to strike down the law on Second Amendment grounds without evidence that sawed-off shotguns were linked to preserving a well-regulated militia.
Collins said the court’s holding in U.S. v. Miller was the law of the land until 2008, when the justices heard arguments in District of Columbia v. Heller. That case centered on whether the District of Columbia could legally ban handguns.
The Heller decision struck down the district’s ban on handguns and upheld an individual right to use firearms for legal purposes, such as self-defense in the home. But the court also said that certain regulations — such as barring felons from owning guns — are legitimate.
Collins said the court concluded that the Second Amendment protects individual Americans’ right to bear arms.
“The court reasoned that basically through Justice Scalia’s opinion that noted that there’s a long history, not only in American political thought but well before that, that there’s a right to defend oneself and there’s a right to defend one’s property,” Collins said. “And so, this sort of led Scalia to reach that conclusion that there’s an individual right to keep and bear arms.
“He also interpreted this part of a well-regulated militia — he interpreted that to basically mean that any able-bodied person was part of that militia at the time of the founding of this country. So therefore, everybody has this right to keep and bear arms.”
The Heller decision applied only to the federal government, since the District of Columbia is a federal enclave and not a state. Two years later, the court ruled in McDonald v. Chicago that the Second Amendment applies to the states as well.
Collins said the court has upheld individual Americans’ right to keep and use guns, but current case law does not bar the government from restricting that right.
“Both opinions, particularly Heller, made it very, very clear that there are constitutional restrictions on the Second Amendment,” he said. “However, neither opinion told us exactly what that meant.”