Thursday, February 21, 2013

Interpretations of the Second Amendment

By Miranda Jacobs
      On January 16, President Obama proposed stricter gun control laws, including a ban on assault weapons and tougher penalties for gun traffickers. U.S. laws regarding citizen ownership of guns first appeared when the Second Amendment was ratified in 1791. The amendment states as follows: “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.”
      The meaning of the Second Amendment has been debated for the past two centuries. The debate is often between the collective rights theory and the individual rights theory. The collective rights theory holds that the Second Amendment is meant to protect only the rights of state militias to own guns. The individual rights theory holds that it is meant to protect the rights of all individuals to own guns. Because our justice system relies heavily on the Constitution to determine the ethicality of laws, careful interpretation of the Constitution is one of the most important responsibilities of politicians, lawmakers, and every U.S. citizen.A popular argument collective rights theorists use is that the language of the Second Amendment does not imply individual rights. The Amendment begins with “A well regulated Militia” and refers to the defense of a “free State.” The Founding Fathers would have clearly stated the amendment to be an individual right if it was meant to be. Additionally, post-revolutionary war Americans were sensitive to the possibility of falling prey to a tyrannical government again. For collective rights theorists, protecting state rights from an overbearing government would have been the Founding Fathers’ top priority.
        For most of U.S. history, the collective rights theory was generally accepted. But in the 2008 Supreme Court case District of Columbia v. Heller, the individual rights theory won widespread approval.
The case concluded that all individuals have the right to own guns as a means of self-protection. Like collective rights theorists, individual rights theorists often use the language of the amendment as evidence. They focus on the amendment’s reference to the right of “the people” to possess guns. For individual rights theorists, the protection of one’s self and family supersedes the protection of the government and the state.
        Like many political debates in the U.S., both sides of the gun control debate can be supported by the Constitution. The Second Amendment’s openness to interpretation is what makes the Constitution a living document. It should not be interpreted exactly as it was written two centuries ago and applied to current affairs. While the constitutional principles of equality and freedom should always remain intact, the degree with which we apply each principle should evolve appropriately with our society. In other words, while an armed government ruling an unarmed population is dangerous and, therefore, U.S. citizens should have a right to own guns, we are still responsible for determining how many and what kind of guns individuals may own.


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