How the Second Amendment Works

Second Amendment activist Second Amendment activist
Second Amendment activist Joseph Gabriele of Littleton, Colorado gathers with other activists in support of gun ownership on Jan. 9, 2013 at the Colorado State Capitol in Denver, Colorado. Marc Piscotty/Getty Images

In a March 2018 New York Times opinion essay, retired U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice John Paul Stevens put forward a startling proposal. In the wake of the Feb. 15 school shooting in Parkland, Florida in which 17 people were killed by a teenage gunman, Stevens applauded demonstrators marching in support of stricter gun-control laws. But Stevens argued that merely banning military-style semiautomatic rifles, increasing the minimum age for purchasing guns and imposing more thorough background checks wouldn't be enough to prevent more deaths.

Instead, Stevens proclaimed, the marchers should demand a repeal of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees the right to bear arms.

Stevens' proposal immediately provoked an emphatic response from President Donald Trump, a supporter of gun rights, who tweeted in all uppercase — the online equivalent of shouting — that "THE SECOND AMENDMENT WILL NEVER BE REPEALED!"[source: Lopez].

A public argument between a former justice and the nation's chief executive would have been a remarkable moment, except that Americans in recent decades have grown accustomed to debates on the Second Amendment provoking intense feelings and bitter strife. The object of the controversy is a single, 27-word sentence written in the late 1700s:

"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."

And despite the furor it provokes today, for most of American history, the amendment got relatively little attention. "Few citizens understood its provisions," legal scholar Michael Waldman wrote in his 2014 book, "The Second Amendment: A Biography." "Scholars paid it little attention. Lawyers rarely raised it in court."

But that began to change in the last 50 years with the rise the gun rights movement, led by the National Rifle Association and embraced by conservative politicians. In 2008, a U.S. Supreme Court decision, District of Columbia v. Heller, shifted the focus away from "a well regulated militia" and interpreted the amendment as guaranteeing the individual right to own a firearm for protection, a meaning that Stevens and other critics have claimed is vastly different from what those 27 words originally meant [source: Stevens].

Others, in turn, have argued that the amendment always was meant to guarantee that Americans could keep their guns, free of government interference [source: NRA-ILA]. In this article, we'll look at the evolution of the Second Amendment, and the history of the debate over its meaning.