What Does the Second Amendment Say? A History of the Oft-Debated Constitutional Article

Mike Acevedo puts a weapon on display at the National Armory gun store on April 11, 2013 in Pompano Beach, Florida.
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As a community mourns the dead and attempts to cope with the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., the argument surrounding the Second Amendment has once again been thrust into the spotlight.

Those against gun control argue that regulating firearms infringes on an individual’s "right to bear arms," while proponents for such a measure say putting “common sense gun laws” in place would save lives and in no way threaten the sanctity of the amendment.

But what does the Second Amendment actually say, and how has it been interpreted in recent years?

The Second Amendment was adopted on Dec. 15, 1791 as part of the first 10 amendments in the Bill of Rights.

Drafted in the years immediately following colonial rule, many in America deeply mistrusted the idea of a standing army, such as the British forces they had recently defeated.

“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 amendment reads.

One year after the drafting of the amendment, President George Washington signed a federal law requiring that every man eligible for militia service — able-bodied white men between 16 and 60 — own a gun and ammunition for military service.

The Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Miller in 1939 that the framers of the Bill of Rights included the Second Amendment to ensure the effectiveness of the military.

Some believe the amendment’s language, specifically the phrase "the right of the people to keep and bear arms," creates a constitutional right for individual citizens of the U.S., but it wasn’t until 2008 that the Supreme Court interpreted it as such.

In D.C. v. Heller, the plaintiff challenged the constitutionality of the country’s capital's handgun ban. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment established an individual right for citizens to possess firearms, striking down the D.C. handgun ban as a violation of that right.

The late Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in the majority opinion of the court that “the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited.”

“From Blackstone through the 19th-century cases, commentators and courts routinely explained that the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose,” he wrote, noting that the amendment does not prevent the state from banning "dangerous and unusual weapons."

Scalia’s opinion, rooted in originalism, or the idea that the Constitution should be interpreted based on the intent of the founders, did not define what constitutes as a "dangerous and unusual" weapon.

In 2010’s McDonald v. City of Chicago, the Supreme Court ruled the Second Amendment applies to the states and is not restricted to the federal government.

Six years later, the Supreme Court ruled in Caetano v. Massachusetts that the Second Amendment “extends... to all instruments that constitute bearable arms, even those that were not in existence at the time of the founding” and is not limited to “only those weapons useful in warfare."

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