The last time the Supreme Court heard a case that dealt with
the right to keep and bear arms was before World War II. Even then, as Chief
Justice John Roberts said in his confirmation hearings, the Court "sidestepped"
the real question posed by the Second Amendment.
Now, with the decision to hear an appeal that overturned
Washington D.C.'s three decade-old gun ban, the Supreme Court could finally
rule on whether or not the Second Amendment guarantees a personal right to bear
arms, or a collective right that only includes the ambiguous "well-regulated
militia." Unlike First Amendment jurisprudence, cases that hinge on the Second
Amendment are few and far between. Never before has the Supreme Court actually
addressed the issue of what rights — if any — are contained in the Amendment.
The central issue in the case is not the efficacy of gun
bans or restrictions in general. If this were the case the D.C. gun ban would
surely have been overturned years ago as its purpose — decreasing violent crime
— has never been realized. Washington, D.C. has been and the murder capital of
the United States with its murder rate more than five times the national
average. If banning guns is supposed to have the effect of reducing crime and
making the city safer, then it is certainly a complete and utter failure.
The issue before the Supreme Court will not, however, be an
exercise in the effects — dismal though they may be — of the D.C. gun ban. The
question I hope the Supreme Court will address is whether or not the Second
Amendment protects individual rights and whether or not the Washington, D.C. City
Council, by effectively banning gun ownership, has violated those rights.
It is my belief that the Second Amendment unequivocally
guarantees an individual right and must be protected. Many have and will
disagree with me on this point, but if one takes the time to study the period
in which the Amendment was written, there can be no doubt that the framers
intended an individual right.
The most common mistake people make in discussing the Second
Amendment is that too often the focus is placed on the first clause that refers
to "A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state."
The problem with this is that the debate inevitably devolves into what
constitutes a militia and how the modern-day National Guard fits in to the
equation. In reality, the focus should be on taking the entire Amendment
together because the militia clause is dependent upon the right to keep and
bear arms clause.
To put it more clearly, if we look at the political
environment at the time the Bill of Rights was written, the idea that
individuals had a right to own firearms as a means of self-protection was
uncontested. Not one of the framers opposed the right of individuals to keep
weapons. The common belief at the time — and this belief still persists today —
that one of the first steps a government takes toward oppression of its
citizens is to take away their ability to defend themselves. Today this belief
is often met with derision that such a thing could never happen now.
That may be, but the fact remains that the Second Amendment
does protect the individual's right to own firearms — for protection, for sport
or any other lawful purpose.
What then does the militia clause mean?
Again, if we look at the time period the Amendment was
written, I believe it has to do with the relationship between state militias
and the federal government. The constitution clearly grants Congress the sole
authority for raising any military force, but at the time many political
leaders were concerned about how much power the federal government had over
states. As a check against the exclusive federal power over the military, many
states considered raising their own militaries to protect against federal
abuses. In order to prevent the obviously dangerous situation that would result
from such an environment, the framers of the Second Amendment included the
militia clause as a way to allow the states and individuals to defend
themselves against government tyranny.
In the end I believe the Supreme Court will rule in favor of
the individual's right to keep and bear arms. Most likely the decision will be
5 to 4, and it will most likely end the debate over gun control as much as Roe
v. Wade ended the debate over abortion.
Whatever the outcome, however, look for the issue to be a major topic in the
presidential race and the debate over future Supreme Court appointees.
Mike Hahn ([email protected]) is a
senior majoring in political science and history.