The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution,
ratified in 1791, reads as follows:
“A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the
security of a free State, the right of the people to
keep an bear Arms shall not be infringed.”
What does the amendment mean? How should it be interpreted? Were the people mentioned in the amendment intended to be all of the people, or just those who were members of a well-organized militia? Are individual citizens guaranteed a constitutional right to keep and bear arms? Or, was the intended purpose of the Second Amendment limited only to the establishment of State militias?
The controversy rages on. Three possible schools of thought form the basis for debate on the issue. First, let’s consider the more traditional “individual rights model” that holds that the Second Amendment guarantees to individual private citizens a fundamental right to possess and use firearms for any purpose at all, subject only to limited government regulation. It is the view that is supported by the National Rifle Association and most firearms enthusiasts.
The second variant is often referred to as the “limited individual rights” model. Individuals under this model maintain a constitutional right to possess firearms insofar as such possession bears a reasonable relationship to militia service. This model confirms militia association as prerequsite to that right.
The third possible interpretation is usually called the “collective model.” It asserts that the Second Amendment right to bear arms guarantees only the right of the people to maintain well-regulated militias. It does not protect the right of any citizen to own or possess weapons if that person is unaffiliated with a well-organized militia. This is, of course, the position most resisted by the NRA.
Over the past seventy years, only one significant pronouncement had been made on the issue of a Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms by the United States Supreme Court, namely in the case of United States v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174 (1939), a case related to the transportation of sawed-off shotguns in interstate commerce. The Court rejected a challenge to the right to transport those weapons. In the the Miller opinion, the Court concluded: “In the absence of any evidence tending to show that possession or use of a shotgun having a barrel of less than eighteen inches in length at this time has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well-regulated militia, we cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument. Certainly, it is not within judicial notice that this weapon is any part of the ordinary military equipment or that its use could contribute to the common defense.”
Subsequent to this pronouncement and through the next seven decades, the tendency in the lower level (inferior) federal courts has been to support the limited individual rights and collective model interpretations of the Second amendment, as in the case of Lewis v. the United States, 445 U.S. 55, 65 n. 8 (1980). Lewis characterized the Miller holding as follows: “The Second Amendment guarantees no right to keep and bear a firearm that does not have some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well-regulated militia.”
In a rare, but noteworthy exception to the lower courts’ support of collective rights, the Fifth Circuit Court in the case of United States v. Emerson, (No. 01-8780, at 19 n.3., 2001) held that the Second Amendment “does protect the rights of individuals, including those persons who are not members of any militia or engaged in active military service or training, to possess and bear their own firearms, subject to reasonable restrictions.”
Gleefully supporting the Emerson opinion in support of an individual right, NRA representatives were set back the following year by the countering opinion in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Silveira v. Lockyer (No. 01-15098, D.C. No. CV-00-0041 1-WBS, 2002) that concluded as follows:
“The historical context of the Second Amendment and the debates relevant to its adoption demonstrate that the founders sought to protect the survival of Free States by ensuring the existence of effective State militias, not by establishing an individual right to possess firearms. An examination of the historical context surrounding the enactment of the Second Amendment leaves us with little doubt that the proper reading of the amendment is that embodied in the collective rights model.”
The foregoing suggests an intense sustained controversy that has lasted for over seventy years, leaving the issue of Second Amendment rights unclarified and unresolved. Will the issue ever be settled? The answer is “Yes, it will. Yes, it has been.” In its 2008 pronouncement related to Second Amendment rights, The United States Supreme Court has at last addressed the issue.