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2A or not 2A: A Complete Breakdown of the Second Amendment

Second Amendment blog cover

When the U.S. Constitution was first ratified in September 1787, it didn’t have quite as much detail as it does today. It lacked what we now know as the Bill of Rights – a series of amendments that guarantee U.S. citizens certain rights under the law of the land.

Though a bill of rights was proposed with the initial constitution, it was not approved by the Constitutional Convention. Some delegates thought it was unnecessary since state constitutions already outlined rights for their residents. Others felt that explicitly stating certain rights in the Constitution itself would imply that those were the only rights guaranteed to the people.

Mostly though, the delegates were simply tired of debating, so they passed the Constitution with the promise of future amendments. This promise was then fulfilled when the Bill of Rights was ratified by three-fourths of state legislatures on December 15, 1791.

The Second Amendment Breaking Down What It Says

Perhaps the most hotly debated amendment out of those in the Bill of Rights is the Second, which guarantees United States citizens the right to bear arms. But what does it actually say?

“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.”

“A well-regulated Militia…”

During debates about the Second Amendment, some will point to the word “Militia” and argue the intention was only to prevent Congress from legislating away a state’s right to self-defense. This viewpoint takes the amendment as a law for the collective, rather than the individual. Under this definition, local, state, and federal legislatures can regulate firearms without implicating rights.

However, when asked about the definition of militia, Bill of Rights advocate and Founding Father George Mason said, “It is the whole people, except for a few public officials.” He implied that the right to keep and bear arms is an individual one not dependent on being part of a formal militia, which the Supreme Court upheld much later in 2008’s District of Columbia v. Heller.

colonial militia
The word “militia” is sometimes a point of contention for people during debates about the Second Amendment.

“…being necessary to the security of a free State…”

This line is a bit more self-explanatory than the last. After freeing themselves from tyrannical British rule, the Founding Fathers felt that citizens should be able to protect themselves and their rights against the government. This portion of the amendment also grants the right to self-defense and defense of one’s personal property.

“…the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

This final phrase is probably what most people think of when they hear “Second Amendment” or “2A.” It establishes the right that citizens have to own firearms for lawful purposes and says the government may not interfere with that right.

2A in Court – What Does the Supreme Court Say?

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) doesn’t often hear challenges to the Second Amendment, so when it does, the rulings issued are notable. Here are four landmark cases within the century:

United States v. Miller (1939)

In 1939, an Arkansas court charged Jack Miller and Frank Layton with violating the National Firearms Act of 1934 when they transported a sawed-off double-barrel shotgun in interstate commerce.They argued that the Act violated their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms, and the district court agreed before dismissing the case.

The case was later appealed and went before the Supreme Court, where the decision was overturned unanimously. In their ruling, the SCOTUS justices said the Second Amendment did not guarantee the individual right to keep this weapon because a sawed-off shotgun did not reasonably relate to the preservation of a “well-regulated Militia.”

The Summary: SCOTUS ruled that certain weaponry is not exempt from regulations under the Second Amendment.

District of Columbia v. Heller (2008)

This case was the first major Second Amendment case to be heard by SCOTUS since the Miller ruling. Prior to this case, the District of Columbia code made it illegal to carry an unregistered firearm, but prohibited the registration of handguns. The exception to this rule was that the chief of police could issue one-year licenses for handguns.

Dick Anthony Heller applied for a handgun license and was denied, so he sued D.C., arguing that the District had violated his Second Amendment right to keep a firearm in his home for self-defense. The case was initially dismissed, but in appellate court and the Supreme Court, it was decided that the D.C. law violated the Second Amendment. Furthermore, the ruling stated that federal laws still applied to Washington, D.C. despite the fact that it is not a state.

The Summary: SCOTUS said the Second Amendment’s wording creates an individual right to possess firearms that cannot be restricted by any legislature. However, the ruling was 5-4, with the dissenting side arguing that the Second Amendment refers to a collective militia’s rights rather than the individual.

District of Columbia v. Heller
In District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to affirm the individual right to possess firearms. (Photo: The New York Times)

McDonald v. City of Chicago (2010)

At this point in time, the Heller decision only applied on a federal level. Chicago had a similar firearm restriction to that of Washington, D.C., so Otis McDonald and several other residents sued the city. The case was initially dismissed, but it was then appealed and made its way to the Supreme Court, which sided with McDonald.

The Summary: The 5-4 ruling in this case upheld Second Amendment rights on a state and local level in addition to the federal level. However, it did rule that a variety of state and local gun laws were legally permissible, including:

  • Restriction of concealed and open carry of loaded guns in public
  • Bans on assault weapons, large capacity magazines, and silencers
  • Extreme risk protection orders and other prohibitions on dangerous people possessing guns
  • Firearm design safety standards
  • Safe storage requirements
  • Waiting period laws
  • Private-sale background checks and licensing laws

New York Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen (2022)

This brings us to the most recent firearm law case SCOTUS has dealt with. The case brought before the Supreme Court a 100+ year-old New York law that created limits on carrying handguns outside the home. Under the law, individuals applying for concealed carry permits had to demonstrate “proper cause” for needing a permit. This wording was vague, often leaving it up to local officials to judge whether or not an applicant’s reason had merit.

The Summary: In a 6-3 ruling SCOTUS found that the New York law violated the “keep and bear arms” portion of the Second Amendment. The court did acknowledge that states could still set reasonable requirements for obtaining concealed carry permits though.

Read our full breakdown of the Bruen decision.

Even to this day, courts are still taking – and ruling on – Second Amendment cases, and their rulings continue to create waves across the country’s legal landscape. If you want to stay up-to-date on the firearms laws in your area, enroll in a training session with Concealed Coalition today!

Sources: The Constitution Center, Constitution Annotated, Cornell Law, NRA Institute for Legislative Action, Oyez

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