What does the Second Amendment Actually Say?

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.

~ Second Amendment to the United States Constitution

Assault RiflesThe battle over gun control has heated up again. On one extreme side of the battle are those who wish to completely eliminate gun ownership. On the other extreme are those who want no restrictions at all. Between these two extremes is a broad range of ideas, from limiting only high-powered assault rifles, to only having registration and background checks, to limiting the number of bullets a gun can hold, and so forth.

Those on both sides of the battle have brought forth impressive sets of statistics to bolster their positions. Both sides have paraded a steady stream of victims and their families with powerful, emotional testimonies from about how guns have either taken or saved their lives, or the lives of their loved ones. Both sides have well-funded, powerful lobbies in Washington and in all fifty statehouses, and both sides have demonized the other in the media.

How should Congress respond to the question of gun control? First and foremost, all laws in the United States, including gun laws, must conform to the United States Constitution. The Constitution is the foundation upon which all other law must be based. Since the Second Amendment directly addresses the issue of gun control, all other laws must be consistent with it.

militiaInterestingly, the Second Amendment is the only amendment to the Constitution which states a purpose: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state…” The right to keep and bear arms is not about hunting rights, as some have claimed, nor is it simply about personal protection. It’s about the ability to raise a militia.

What is a militia? According to George Mason, who was a statesman and a delegate from Virginia to the U.S. Constitutional Convention, and who is called the “Father of the United States Bill of Rights” (along with James Madison), “I ask, sir, what is the militia? It is the whole people, except for a few public officials.” (George Mason, in Debates in Virginia Convention on Ratification of the Constitution, Elliot, Vol. 3, June 16, 1788). According to the American Heritage® Dictionary, a militia is:

  1. An army composed of ordinary citizens rather than professional soldiers.
  2. A military force that is not part of a regular army and is subject to call for service in an emergency.
  3. The whole body of physically fit civilians eligible by law for military service.

So, the purpose of the Second Amendment is to ensure that ordinary civilian citizens have weapons suitable for military usage in the case of an emergency. This completely destroys the argument that so-called “assault rifles” and automatic and semi-automatic weapons are not covered by the Constitution; it is precisely the right to keep and bear these types of military-grade weapons that is specifically the protected by the Second Amendment. Ordinary citizens, the Second Amendment argues, have the right and responsibility to own military-grade weapons so they can be called upon to defend the security of the state.

What does it mean that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed?” Again, according to the American Heritage® Dictionary, to infringe means:

in·fringed, in·fring·ing, in·fring·es

  1. To transgress or exceed the limits of; violate: infringe a contract; infringe a patent.
  2. Obsolete To defeat; invalidate.

To encroach on someone or something; engage in trespassing: an increased workload that infringed on his personal life.

bill-of-rightsTherefore, the people’s right to keep and bear arms shall not be transgressed, exceeded, violated, or encroached upon. Yet, this is precisely what most gun-control legislation does – it limits who can own weapons and/or which weapons they can own and use. Gun-control, by definition, infringes on the right to own and bear arms.

What about the argument that the mentally ill and felons should not have the right to own guns? First, the Second Amendment does not allow for it – this constitutes “infringement.” And secondly, how society determines what constitutes “mentally ill” and what it classifies as a felony is constantly changing. I would agree that violent offenders and those with violent mental states should not have access to weapons. However, defining such individuals is extremely difficult. Does simple depression constitute mental illness, and disqualify one from gun ownership? Does the willingness to shoot an attacker in self-defense constitute a “violent tendency?” Could belief in the Biblical mandate against homosexuality eventually become a felonious “hate crime?” The legislation of exceptions to the right to keep and bear arms is a very slippery slope that is not allowed for in the wording of the Second Amendment.

Regardless of one’s position on gun control, the Second Amendment clearly opposes those who wish to limit gun ownership. There are only two ways to pass legislation to control the ownership of guns: either ignore or “reinterpret” the Second Amendment, or repeal the Second Amendment. All gun laws so far have done the first. However, ignoring or reinterpreting the Second Amendment has thus far been limited by the courts; this is why a number of gun-control advocates are beginning to call for repeal.

The Founding Fathers understood that private citizens need guns not only for personal self-protection and hunting, but also so they can organize into militias to defend themselves militarily in an emergency. The current push to limit ownership of certain types of guns violates this important right.