This has been debated in the Supreme Court and at dinner tables for decades: Is gun ownership a right?
Many leftists claim gun ownership is a “privilege” and not a right.” But Eugene Volokh, a Law professor at UCLA, explains what the Second Amendment really means and how it applies to us today.
The text of the Second Amendment reads: “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.”
Volokh said that some – including the four dissenting Justices in D.C. v. Heller – believe that the right is not an individual right, but related to militias.
But looking closely at the Amendment, Volokh explains how the Founding Fathers intended the right as an individual right.
“We first need to focus on the phrase “the right of the people.” Note that the people are the only ones whose rights are secured here. Not a militia or a state government,” he said.
The phrase “the right of the people” comes up a few times in the Constitution, like in the First Amendment and the Fourth Amendment.
Those rights – everyone agrees – guarantee an individual right, not a collective one.
“Why then, if the authors of the Constitution felt so strongly about “the right of the people to own guns,” did they include language about “a well regulated militia.”
Those opening words, Volokh said, were a “justification clause,” used to help explain why a right is being secured, but it is the operative clause explains what is being secured.
In addition, back in the 18th Century, the militia was defined as “all white males 18-45.” Today, of course, that would include women and people of all races, Volokh said, but clearly it was not limited to a small group.
Finally, what does the “security of a free state” have to do with gun ownership?
“In the 1790s, the phrase “free state” wasn’t used to mean an individual state like New York or Rhode Island. Rather, it meant a free country – and nation free of despotism.”
The Founders saw an armed citizenry as a hedge against tyranny.
“This does not mean this right is unlimited,” Volokh said. “But severe restrictions on owning a gun, like severe restrictions on free speech, would be a violation of the Second Amendment.”
- Eugene Volokh is author of the blog “The Volokh Conspiracy” in The Washington Post and affiliated with the law firm Mayer Brown.