The Right to keep and bear arms: A brief history of a controversial amendment

Since Congresswoman Giffords’s was injured last Saturday, the nation has clung to reports of her condition as she fights for her life at the University Medical Center in Tucson, Arizona. Republicans and Democrats alike are on the roller coaster that is the status of her critical condition.

Her ability to breathe on her own and to respond to her doctors keep those following her story hopeful. Arizona State Senator Kyrsten Sinema described the tragedy as one that crosses party lines, “This tragedy is nonpartisan. It’s human,” she said.

Agreement on this national calamity seems to end there—with deep sadness for the victims and hope for the injured. As with any mass shooting incident, such as the one in Tucson that has so far left 6 people dead and 12 injured, public outcry to prevent this senseless tragedy from happening again has reached fever pitch. And, as with most events that have occurred as a result of gun violence, focus has fallen once again on the ever controversial 2nd Amendment.

Before weighing in on the contentious and inevitable gun restriction debate, however, we must first refer to history to understand the context in which the framers wrote the words, “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 Bill of Rights was not originally intended to apply to the states.”

Some readers of Constitution Daily may be surprised to learn that the Bill of Rights, or the first ten amendments to the Constitution, was not originally intended to apply to the states. In fact, it was put in place solely to protect citizens from the federal government.

With enactment of the 14th Amendment after the Civil War, the stage was set for a legal revolution that nationalized the Bill of Rights. Using the Amendment’s “due process” clause, the Supreme Court gradually determined that most of the guarantees of the Bill of Rights limit state and local governments as well the federal government.

It wasn’t until 2010, however, in the landmark case McDonald v. Chicago, that the right to keep and bear arms for the purpose of self-defense was recognized as an individual’s right and made applicable to the states.

Even though states cannot ban citizens from possessing firearms, they can still regulate gun ownership.

So it is no surprise that in the wake of the tragedy at the supermarket in Tucson, gun questions are arising once again. Should gun laws be more strict? Could this tragedy have been averted? What can we do to keep it from happening again—a Constitutional discourse we encourage and will continue to explore on Constitution Daily.