Arms and the citizen

This data is interesting not only because it shows how peculiar we Americans are in this respect, but also because it sheds important light on the meaning of the Second Amendment. What did the framers have in mind? How could they have had such an idiosyncratic notion of individual freedom? A long-standing puzzle about the Second Amendment is what it actually means. It provides: "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 puzzle turns on which of two possible interpretations of the text makes more sense. The first possible interpretation construes the text as guaranteeing individuals a constitutional right to purchase and possess guns. The second possible interpretation construes the text as guaranteeing individuals a constitutional right to purchase and possess guns for the purpose of serving in the militia.

In its 2008 decision in District of Columbia vs Heller, the Supreme Court, in a sharply divided five to four decision, embraced the first of these interpretations. The court's five "conservative" justices argued that the Second Amendment guarantees individuals a constitutional right to own guns for any lawful purpose, whether or not gun ownership is related in any way to serving in the "militia."

In a dissenting opinion, the four more "liberal" justices reasoned that a plain reading of the text of the Second Amendment makes clear that it was not intended by the framers to guarantee individuals a personal right to own guns for any lawful purpose, but to ensure, at a time when there were no professional police forces, no national guards and no standing armies, that the government would have the capacity to call up an appropriately equipped volunteer militia whenever it was needed to help preserve the peace.

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