By Seth Littrell
“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.” This text, the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, has been the subject of a lot of controversy over the past few decades. Some claim it clearly outlines the right to own guns. Others say it specifies that guns are only necessary for those involved in police or military service. With so many people clashing over the subject, professors Jane Rainey and Thomas Parker led a discussion on the issue last Thursday in the Kennamer Room in the Powell Building.
The discussion, titled “Guns and Government,” was part of a weeklong celebration of Constitution Day, which was celebrated on Sept. 17. Rainey and Parker said the Second Amendment was chosen because the Supreme Court heard a recent case that examined gun restrictions.
The discussion began with a look at the text of the Second Amendment, focusing on the punctuation, which started much of the controversy. The second comma in the amendment is usually what causes disagreement among people trying to interpret the words, Parker said.
“This amendment drives me nuts as someone teaching legal writing,” he said.
Parker explained that the reason the punctuation in the amendment is so awkward today is because there were changes made to it in the early days of the United States when it was being written.
The rest of the discussion focused on the various cases heard by the Supreme Court in which Second Amendment issues were involved. This included the 1876 case of U.S. v. Cruikshank, which discussed the difference between private and public militias.
“The Revolutionary War was fought and won by militias,” Rainey said.
However, these were state militias, as opposed to private militias with no state approval, she said. The issue was brought up when a private militia attacked a group of black free men. The court decided that while the Second Amendment allows for the creation of a federal militia for defense of the nation, it says nothing about the rights of private militias, Rainey said.
Parker and Rainey also covered the new 2010 case McDonald v. Chicago, which deals with handgun ownership in metropolitan areas, as well as the Second Amendment’s role in state governments. Parker and Rainey stressed that the only entity the amendments applied to originally was Congress.
However, because of the belief that there are certain natural rights for everyone, the Supreme Court has used the process of “selective incorporation,” ruling that some amendments apply to state governments as well as the federal government. This was the case for the Second Amendment in McDonald v. Chicago, when the court ruled that all people have the right to use firearms in the form of self-defense.
“It’s probably safe to say that no case is the last word on it,” Rainey said, referencing the many times the Supreme Court has weighed in on the issue.
The professors then opened up the floor to questions from the students. One topic that came up was whether or not an amendment could be amended. A student wanted to know if the Second Amendment’s language could be changed to make the meaning more clear. Parker and Rainey said that is possible, as shown by the repeal of prohibition, but it is also very difficult. While that would be an option for resolving the issue, it would be very time consuming and controversial, Parker and Rainey said.