As a recent article in the Tampa Bay Times points out, guns have been an integral part of the Florida and the United States of America since the colonial period. Guns were the subject of the 2nd Amendment which was ratified in December 1791. The 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.”
James Madison originally proposed the Second Amendment shortly after the Constitution was officially ratified as a way to provide more power to state militias, which today are considered the National Guard. It was deemed a compromise between Federalists — those who supported the Constitution as it was ratified — and the anti-Federalists — those who supported states having more power. Having just used guns and other arms to ward off the English, the amendment was originally created to give citizens the opportunity to fight back against a tyrannical federal government.
Since that time, the issue over guns has evolved from a federal-state issue to an individual-collective one.
Since its ratification, Americans have been arguing over the amendment’s meaning and interpretation. One side interprets the amendment to mean it provides for collective rights, while the opposing view is that it provides individual rights.
Those who take the collective side think the amendment gives each state the right to maintain and train formal militia units that can provide protection against an oppressive federal government. They argue the “well regulated militia” clause clearly means the right to bear arms should only be given to these organized groups. They believe this allows for only those in the official militia to carry guns legally, and say the federal government cannot abolish state militias.
Those with the opposite viewpoint believe the amendment gives every citizen the right to own guns, free of federal regulations, to protect themselves in the face of danger. The individualists believe the amendment’s militia clause was never meant to restrict each citizen’s rights to bear arms.
The debate has only intensified recently with the spate of mass shootings across the country. Gun control advocates argue that the mass shootings wouldn’t occur if guns were regulated and kept out of the hands of some citizens. Pro gun enthusiasts counter that the issue isn’t about guns at all but about mental health and the decline of societal norms.
In either case, the debate centers around the wording of the 2nd Amendment itself. Those who want gun control argue that the framers of the Amendment intended guns for a well-regulated militia i.e. armed forces and not individuals. Those who favor guns believe the framers intended individuals to keep and bear arms for their personal safety and freedom.
The courts have weighed in on the issue as well-leaving neither side a clear victor.
Until 2008, the Supreme Court repeatedly upheld a collective right (that the right to own guns is for the purpose of maintaining a militia) view of the Second Amendment, concluding that the states may form militias and regulate guns.
The first time the Court upheld an individual rights interpretation (that individuals have a Constitutional right to own a gun regardless of militia service) of the Second Amendment was the June 26, 2008 US Supreme Court ruling in DC v. Heller. The Court stated that the right could be limited: “There seems to us no doubt, on the basis of both text and history, that the Second Amendment conferred an individual right to keep and bear arms. Of course the right was not unlimited… Thus we do not read the Second Amendment to protect the right of citizens to carry arms for any sort of confrontation, just as we do not read the First Amendment to protect the right of citizens to speak for any purpose.”
The US Supreme Court ruled on June 28, 2010 in McDonald v. Chicago that the Fourteenth Amendment, specifically the Due Process Clause, includes the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms and, thus, the Second Amendment applies to the states as well as the federal government, effectively extending the individual rights interpretation of the Second Amendment to the states.
On June 27, 2016, in Voisine v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled (6-2) that someone convicted of “recklessly” committing a violent domestic assault can be disqualified from owning a gun under the 1996 Lautenberg Amendment to the 1968 Gun Control Act. Associate Justice Elena Kagan, JD, writing the majority opinion, stated: “Congress enacted §922(g)(9) [the Lautenberg Amendment] in 1996 to bar those domestic abusers convicted of garden-variety assault or battery misdemeanors–just like those convicted of felonies–from owning guns.”
On Feb. 20, 2018, the US Supreme Court indicated it would not hear an appeal to California’s 10-day waiting period for gun buyers, thus leaving the waiting period in place. Justice Clarence Thomas said the Court should have heard the challenge, stating “The right to keep and bear arms is apparently this Court’s constitutional orphan,” in reference to the Court not hearing a major Second Amendment case since 2010.
The Court is as divided as the country on this issue. The United States has 120.5 guns per 100 people, or about 393,347,000 guns, which is the highest total and per capita number in the world. 22% of Americans own one or more guns (35% of men and 12% of women). The prevalence of guns means that the issue will not be easily or quickly resolved. Proponents on both sides have thoughtful arguments and plenty of lobbyists attempting to influence both the legislative and judicial branches of government. It’s a thorny issue that is part and parcel of living in a democratic society.