The Bill of Rights is a powerful addition to our constitution. The first ten amendments to the Constitution were ratified in 1791 as key Founding Fathers like James Madison and George Mason stated strongly that guarantees of personal rights were missing from a predominantly structural and procedural document. The Bill of Rights, however, was written in a largely general and sometimes vague manner, which required interpretation and elaboration by the Congress and the Supreme Court. One of those rights that has been at the center of the debate over proper definition and implementation is the Second Amendment.
As stated, the Second Amendment reads as follows:
“A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the securing of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
The Second Amendment appears to be organized into four separate sections — the need for a well-regulated Militia, the importance of the Militia securing a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, and the guarantee that these rights shall not be infringed (to limit or undermine). In modern times the sections on a well-regulated Militia and the importance of securing a free State have been overshadowed by “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms,” and the importance of not limiting or undermining this right to bear arms.
Legislative and judicial action on the Second Amendment was not controversial or debated for much of the time after ratification as interpretations of the Amendment concentrated on the importance of a standing army (militia) and the value of the army protecting Americans as members of a free State. It was not until 2007 in a landmark case out of the District of Columbia — District of Columbia v. Heller — that the Supreme Court concentrated on the meaning and application of the “right to bear arms.” The issue that brought up the question of citizens having a right to own guns was in response to a law in Washington, D.C. that effectively barred citizens from purchasing and keeping firearms in their homes. But in a 5-4 decision Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia writing for the majority concluded that the Second Amendment does provide an individual’s right to keep and bear arms for lawful purposes. Later in 2010, the Supreme Court expanded the right to bear arms to the states in a decision out of Illinois — McDonald v. City of Chicago.
With the Heller and McDonald decisions and a later case out of New York (New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, Inc v. Bruen) that disallowed the state from requiring applicants for a gun license to demonstrate a justifiable need, the stage was set for a massive increase in gun purchases in the United States and gun-related deaths. From 2008 to 2022 gun deaths increased from 31,593 to 45,247; gun ownership increased from 304 million in 2008 to 393 million in 2022; mass shootings increased from 253 in 2013 to 647 in 2022; school shooting incidents increased from 13 in 2009 to 51 in 2022, and suicide by guns increased from 18,223 in 2008 to 24,297 in 2020. And more disturbing in 2022 6,000 children died from gun violence.
With the Courts upholding gun rights it became difficult for the federal government, states, and municipalities to pass gun restrictions such as universal background checks, outlawing military-style weapons such as the AR-15, magazine limits and age requirements for gun ownership. Joined with the support of the Courts for the Second Amendment right to bear arms has been the role of the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA), which championed gun rights and refused to make any compromises regarding restrictions on gun ownership. The NRA is well funded by its membership and employees hundreds of lobbyists to convince members of Congress to vote against any legislation that would limit the purchase and ownership of guns. The NRA has been so effective that many members of Congress rely on campaign contributions from the organization, while those that may support restrictions often fear election strategies that urge its members to rally against those who would challenge the limitations on guns. With this kind of lobbying power there has been little effort to reform gun laws, even though a vast majority of Americans support universal background checks, a ban on assault rifles, and restrictions on the number of bullets permitted in a gun.
The gun culture that has permeated America and American society has led to regular and horrific mass shootings. Americans watch the carnage in Sandy Hook, Connecticut; Uvalde, Texas; Buffalo, New York; Atlanta, Georgia; Boulder, Colorado to name just a few of recent mass shootings and begin to feel that we as citizens of this country will have to adjust to the reality of gun deaths, a kind of “normalizing” the impact of the gun culture. But it is important to remember that the United States is unique in the world when it comes to a gun culture and a failure to take action to regulate gun ownership (the United States has 46% of the world’s civilian-owned guns). Countries like Japan, Australia, United Kingdom, Germany and Canada all have strict gun laws that require limits on ownership, training with firearms, prohibitions of assault rifles and detailed background checks of potential gun applicants. Not surprisingly, the number of gun-related deaths in these countries is extremely low if non-existent. Moreover, those who live in countries with strict gun laws cannot fathom why the United States permits such lax laws and how the American people and particularly American political leaders accept the tragic loss of life.
While gun rights and protection by the courts of the Second Amendment are currently solidly in place, that does not mean that reform of existing laws or a rejection of the arguments presented in the Heller and subsequent Supreme Court decisions are impossible to achieve. Advocates of changes in gun laws talk about “common sense gun reform” that does not take away a person’s right to purchase a gun or gives the government the right to confiscate firearms. Besides the generally accepted view to mandate universal background checks and mental health evaluations of prospective gun purchasers, the emphasis among the proponents of common sense gun reform want to see changes such as the requirement that guns have safety locks with codes that would negate anyone in a household from an unauthorized use of a gun, training of gun owners with mandatory “gun” tests much like those required of new car drivers and personal injury insurance that would require owners pay not only to purchase a gun but to assume financial responsibility for the deadly use of a gun. As advocates of reform often state, such reforms are not unreasonable or invasive of personal freedom, rather they put the onus on the owners to act responsibly and help to save lives.
But unfortunately, until there is a major shift in the political arena and a rejection or at least a modification of the gun culture in our country, these tragic deaths of thousands of Americans will continue. The outlook, sadly, does not look promising for common sense gun reform.