The National Rifle Association (N.R.A.) filed a lawsuit against Florida on March 9 — just over an hour after Gov. Rick Scott signed new legislation that raises the state’s minimum age to purchase firearms. Senate Bill 7026 is the first gun legislation to be passed in the state since the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, that killed 14 students and 3 faculty members. The bill also bans the sale or possession of bump fire stocks, imposes a three-day waiting period on firearm purchases, and expands law enforcement’s power to seize weapons from individuals who pose a danger to themselves or others.
In response, the gun lobbyist organization argues that the age-restriction section of the bill violates the Second Amendment and ‘totally eviscerates the right of law-abiding adults between the ages of 18 and 21 to keep and bear arms’.
The N.R.A. also went on to criticize lawmakers who voted in favour of new legislation for ‘violat[ing] their sworn oath to “support, protect, and defend the Constitution” ‘,hailing those who opposed the new legislation as the ‘true believers in protecting the freedom for which our Founding Fathers fought and died’.
Arguably one of the most controversial clauses in the Bill of Rights as of today, ‘the right of the people to keep and bear arms’ has become widely understood by many as the constitutional right to own a gun. But is this interpretation of the Second Amendment really what the Founding Fathers intended?
Although this understanding of the ‘to keep and bear arms’ might seem like it was always supported by constitutional law, it actually wasn’t. In fact, only in 2008 in District of Columbia v. Heller did the U.S. Supreme Court finally rule in a 5-4 landmark decision that the Second Amendment protects the individual’s right to gun-ownership and self-defence, when justices found the city’s Firearms Control Regulations Act of 1975 to be unconstitutional:
‘The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm … and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defence within the home … .The District’s total ban on handgun possession in the home amounts to a prohibition on an entire class of ‘arms’ that Americans overwhelmingly choose for the lawful purpose of self-defence … . Similarly, the requirement that any lawful firearm in the home be disassembled or bound by a trigger lock makes it impossible for citizens to use arms for the core lawful purpose of self-defence and is hence unconstitutional’.
But in the 2008 case’s primary dissenting opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens argued that the Second Amendment’s intent was not to limit the federal government’s regulation of civilian weapon use, but rather to protect states’ rights to an armed common defense. Although many people may recognize the amendment by the part that talks about the people’s right to bear arms, the entire text is equally, if not more, important:
‘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’.
And while scholars still debate how the amendment’s distinct punctuation and capitalization further influence its meaning, it’s important to note that prior to District of Columbia v. Heller, the longstanding precedent upheld by the Supreme Court maintained that the individual right ‘to keep and bear arms’ was only protected in the context of state militia service.
The court’s decisions had even refuted the argument that the amendment guaranteed individuals’ rights to own weapons, like in the 1934 United States v. Miller case. Here, justices concluded that gangsters Jack Miller and Frank Layton’s ownership of a 12-guage shotgun did not appear to contribute to the preservation of a well-regulated state militia, and therefore was not protected under the Second Amendment.
To put it simply, the courts recognized the right to keep and bear arms not as an individual right, but as a collective right that served for the protection of the states.
So then what happened? What made our understanding of the Second Amendment change from collective rights to individuals’ rights, and why?
To figure that out, it’s important to first understand its origins. During the drafting of the Constitution, there were two key views on governmental power: Federalism and Anti-Federalism. Federalists believed in a strong national government, and in response to the chaos that erupted in the states after the American Revolution, drafted a constitution that would hopefully centralize the government’s authority.
Anti-federalists, on the other hand, strongly opposed this document, worrying a stronger national government would result in another monarchy. Whereas the previous constitution, the Articles of Confederation, gave more authority to state powers, the new constitution shifted this authority to the federal government.
They also feared that this power shift would disarm the thirteen state militias, leaving states defenceless against a tyrannical government. At the time, these state militias comprised of white men, as young as 16 years old, who were each required to supply his own military weapon for the purpose of an effective common defense.
The Anti-Federalists’ strong opposition to the ratification of the new constitution resulted in the addition of the U.S. Bill of Rights. In order to appease oppositionist fears of tyranny, Virginian Federalist and ‘Father of the Constitution’ James Madison proposed several of these crucial amendments that placed limitations on the federal government’s power, including one that specifically addressed the need for a ‘well regulated militia’ and the right ‘to keep and bear arms’. And at the time, the phrase ‘bear arms’ didn’t refer so much to the casual ownership of guns (as most Americans already expectedly did), but rather to military armament.
Although state militias may not be around anymore, the presence of guns has anything but disappeared, thanks to the N.R.A. Originally founded with the objective of firearm safety education and marksmanship training, the gun lobby’s evolution into a political behemoth has not only drastically shaped the makeup of our government, but also common understanding of the Second Amendment.
After what is colloquially known as ‘The Revolt at Cincinnati’ in 1977, the N.R.A. morphed from a bipartisan, sportsmanship organization, to a right-wing, pro-gun lobbyist group. During this landmark meeting at the Cincinnati Convention Center, guns-rights radicals stormed the event in an effort to reform the organization’s wavering position on gun control politics.
At the time, the N.R.A.’s leaders had just voted to relocate the organization’s headquarters from Washington D.C. to Colorado Springs, CO — a decision that many saw as an attempt to de-politicize the organization and a surrender to gun control legislation. By the end of the meeting, at 4 a.m. the following day, the reactionaries had replaced the group’s leadership with Harlon Carter, an absolutist believer in the Second Amendment.
Under Carter’s influence, the N.R.A.’s chief priority became the protection of individualist gun rights; he encouraged a strict ‘No compromise. No gun legislation’ ideology to the group’s members — an approach that would ultimately become a signature characteristic of the gun lobby in the future. The group endorsed politicians who advocated for gun rights, hired attorneys to defend gun rights, and funded legal research to support gun rights (in other words, history was essentially rewritten based on fragmented quotes and false narratives that made it appear as though the Founding Fathers advocated for the individualist right to bear arms). And in 1980, the group made its first presidential endorsement: Ronald Reagan.
Since the N.R.A.’s change in leadership over 40 years ago, the gun lobby has quickly risen to become an all-mighty force in American politics today. According to ABC News, the organization has given over $11 million in direct contributions to federal legislators and candidates over the last two decades. Last year, it spent over $5 million in Second Amendment rights efforts.
At one point, the Second Amendment barely ever crossed anyone’s mind. But today, it has become one of the most polarizing clauses in the Bill of Rights, largely due the N.R.A.’s manipulation of not only Congress, but also history itself.