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Reconstructing the Second Amendment

by Saul Cornell on May 7, 2006

Saul Cornell

Few issues in America are more controversial than guns. Yet even among hot button topics in American public life there is something perverse about the dynamics of the debate over guns.

Polling data for decades have shown that most Americans favor stronger gun laws. Indeed, surveys demonstrate that such policies are even supported by most gun owners. Yet pundits and political soothsayers have written off this issue because it is perceived to be a loser at the polls.

Gun rights and gun control have long histories. Although both sides in the great American gun debate have claimed to have history on their side, each has presented a version of the past that is highly selective. One of the many embarrassing truths about the debate over the right to bear arms that neither side wishes to admit is that gun rights ideology is the illegitimate and spurned child of gun control.

Efforts at gun control, particularly policies aimed at broad scale prohibitions of firearms, have generally led to an intensification of gun rights rhetoric and activism. Understanding the history of this tangled relationship, one of American history’s more bizarre examples of ideological co-dependency, may provide some insights into how we might move this debate forward and break this cycle.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s recent summit on gun violence reminds us that this is not the first time in American history that gun violence and gun control have been on the minds of New Yorkers. DeWitt Clinton, mayor from 1803 to 1815, bemoaned the problem posed by hand guns almost two hundred years ago.

As long as there have been guns in America there have been regulations governing their use and storage. Without government direction there would have been no body of Minutemen to muster on the town greens at Lexington and Concord. If the Founders had imbibed the strong gun rights ideology that drives today’s gun debate we would all be drinking tea and singing, “God save our gracious Queen.”

Ironically, the Second Amendment does not prohibit robust gun regulation, it compels it. Today’s gun rights ideology is antithetical to the original understanding of the Second Amendment and only emerged in the 19th century when individual states began passing the first gun control laws to deal with the new problems posed by hand guns.

There is much to be learned from America’s first gun violence crisis and the first gun control movement. It is not surprising that during that struggle gun rights supporters tried to lay claim to the Second Amendment by reinterpreting it as an individual right of self defense. This argument continues to be effectively employed by opponents of gun regulation.

Modern gun control proponents have generally been embarrassed by the Second Amendment, viewing it as an anachronism. Early proponents of gun regulation did not make the same mistake. Rather than dismiss the Second Amendment as a remnant of America ‘s revolutionary past, they venerated it, reminding their opponents that the Second Amendment was about an obligation citizens owed to their government and communities to contribute to public defense. They also staked out another right that has not been much talked about recently in this debate: a right to be free from the fear of gun violence.

What does all of this mean for the contemporary gun debate? Proponents of gun control must not demonize gun owners, particularly given the fact that most gun owners support reasonable gun regulation. Any solution to America’s gun problem must have the support of gun owners.

Rather than abandon the Second Amendment and dismiss it as a relic of another era, supporters of gun regulation need to reclaim this part of our constitutional heritage. Supporters of regulation need to point out that liberty without regulation is impossible. The right to be free from the threat of gun violence deserves as much respect as the right to bear arms.


Saul Cornell, a writer for the History News Service, is a professor of history at Ohio State University and author of "A Well Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control in America" (2006).