What is The 2nd Amendment? - Definition, History & Court Cases

Instructor: Stephen Benz

Stephen has taught history, journalism, sociology, and political science courses at multiple levels, including the middle school, high school and college levels. He has a JD and a BA in sociology and political science.

In this lesson, we will define the 2nd Amendment, look at its origins and then examine famous Supreme Court cases involving the amendment. The lesson concludes by noting the ways in which the 2nd Amendment continues to be debated today.

Definition

In 2013, the Pew Research Center reported that 37% of American households held an adult who owned at least one gun. This makes America the developed country with the most guns in the world! But what gives Americans this right to own guns? It is the 2nd Amendment.

The graph shows the number of guns per 100 residents in countries around the world, with the U.S. in the lead.
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The 2nd Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was part of the original Bill of Rights, added to the Constitution in order to convince more states to ratify it. The interpretation of this amendment has been the source of much debate.

The 2nd Amendment as passed by Congress states:

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.

Seems like just a simple sentence, right? Yet this one statement has been at the heart of much argument over the years, since scholars and judges have disagreed on what the amendment really means.

Did the Framers of the Constitution mean that everyone had an individual right to hold guns? Or did the Framers simply mean that each state could have its own militia? Supporters of gun control laws argue that the Framers only meant to allow the formation of militias. The supporters of gun rights, on the other hand, argue that the Framers meant that all citizens can bear arms.

History and Court Cases

United States vs. Cruikshank

The original interpretation of the 2nd Amendment came in the 1876 Supreme Court case, United States v. Cruikshank. In the case, the Court ruled that the 2nd Amendment limited the federal government's right to infringe on guns, but argued that states did have a right to regulate guns. The decision stated: 'The right to bear arms is not granted by the Constitution; neither is it in any manner dependent upon that instrument for its existence. The Second Amendment means no more than that it shall not be infringed by Congress, and has no other effect than to restrict the powers of the National Government.' For the most part, this meant that guns could be regulated by individual states.

United States v. Miller

In 1939, Jack Miller and Frank Layton were arrested for transporting a sawed-off shotgun across state lines without the appropriate tax stamps. At the time, the federal government had passed a law placing a really high tax on such weapons to counteract gangs and mafias. But didn't the Constitution guarantee the right of an individual to bear arms? Miller and Layton used this philosophy and challenged their arrest, eventually taking their case to the Supreme Court in the United States v. Miller. The Supreme Court, however, ruled that the federal government did not infringe upon the rights of the two men because the weapon that they possessed was not used to form a militia. The Justices essentially stated that the government has the right to regulate any guns that were not being used as part of a militia. Thus, the Supreme Court continued to support the idea that individuals didn't have the right to bear guns unless they were part of a militia.

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