The Second Amendment reads: “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.”
Most people think that this amendment was included in the Constitution to protect the right to bear arms (i.e., firearms). However, when I read Carol Anderson’s interesting, well-written, and very well documented book The Second, it became clear to me that this was not really the case at all.
The Second Amendment was included in the Bill of Rights to assure the Southern states that they would be able to continue to have militias in order to put down slave revolts and to hunt down runaway slaves.
James Madison needed to keep the Southern states in the Union and on board for ratification of the Constitution. That required acquiescence to safeguarding their ability to continue slavery. The amendments to the Constitution that make up the Bill of Rights are about individual rights; therefore, the right to have a militia could not be included there. However, a militia needed armed men, and thus, the individual right to bear arms was a means to put the “right to a militia” in the Constitution and keep the Southern states in the Union.
Another aspect of the Second Amendment speaks about the right of the “people” to bear arms. “People” when the Constitution was drafted meant “white male citizens.” Black people, enslaved or free, were not considered citizens. Immediately after the ratification of the Constitution, all states but one (Vermont) passed laws prohibiting Black people from owning and using guns, presumably to make absolutely sure that the right to bear arms was a white right, not a universal right.
Thus, the Second Amendment assured white supremacy. Anderson shows clearly in her book that, to the present day, Black individuals who legally carry a gun are treated differently from white gun carriers by law enforcement, and this not infrequently leads to the killing of African Americans who were legally carrying a gun.
The U.S. Supreme Court ignored the militia part of the one-sentence Second Amendment in the Heller vs. District of Columbia decision in 2008 when it ruled, 5 to 4, that “The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.” This was essentially reaffirmed in the McDonald vs. Chicago decision of the Supreme Court in 2010 (also 5 to 4). There have been no state militias in the U.S. since the National Guard was established as replacement by the Militia Act of 1903.
The consequences of the Heller and McDonald Supreme Court rulings have been devastating. Gun ownership has skyrocketed in the U.S., contributing to the significant recent rise in gun homicides and injuries, as well as to suicides by guns, gun accidents, and use of deadly force by law enforcement who are afraid of people they deal with having a gun, legally or not.
The wording of the Second Amendment does not support the notion that the intent of the original framers was to guarantee in the Constitution an individual’s right to own and use guns “for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.” Rather, as pointed out in Anderson’s book, the right to bear firearms was connected to the need of the Southern states to have armed militias, consisting of white men to keep Black slaves in their place.
More mass shootings have occurred while I was writing this: 10 dead and 3 wounded in Buffalo in what appears to have been a white supremacist, anti-Black act of gun violence. And in Milwaukee at least 17 people were injured in a shooting where police recovered no less than 10 guns at the scene (likely handguns).
Why are we waiting to ban all semiautomatic rifles and all handguns outside one’s home for which there is no “traditionally lawful purpose.” “Self-defense in the home,” if one sees a need for that, can be accomplished with a handgun — provided that it is safely stored and fitted with a trigger-lock and has a limited magazine capacity.
And there is no place in the U.S. for “ghost guns” that circumvent any sort of regulation, such as universal background checks, age limits, red flag laws, stolen-gun reporting requirements, and so on.
How many more people have to die in the U.S. because of the lack of common-sense gun regulation and our misinterpretation of the Second Amendment?
Maarten Bosland, a former Oak Park resident, is a member of Gun Responsibility Advocates.