That amendment does not mean what you think it does

Jill Lepore wrote a great New Yorker article back in 2012 about the evolution of the meaning to the 2nd amendment.  If you are interested in gun policy, you should read it.  That said, it’s long.  German Lopez, however, just came out with an excellent Vox article that covers much of the same ground (it’s long for Vox, but much shorter than Lepore’s), and, of course, is 5 years more recent.  Here’s my favorite part that captures a key feature of our present gun reality:

As Bogus noted in a 2000 law review article, “from the time law review articles first began to be indexed in 1887 until 1960, all law review articles dealing with the Second Amendment endorsed the collective right model.”

“The collective rights model holds that the people only have a constitutional right to keep and bear arms within the militia,” Bogus said. So Americans collectively had legal access to guns to take part in the militia, but the Second Amendment didn’t protect any rights beyond that... [emphasis mine]

In particular, the NRA has been fueled by the belief that the Second Amendment is the one thing standing against a tyrannical government. Its core claim: Without an armed citizenry, the government will have an easier time suppressing people’s rights. It was not that the Second Amendment was there to let state governments maintain militias; it was that the Second Amendment was there to let the people stand against the government in general. In embracing and propagating this view, the NRA managed to tap into growing public distrust in government — fueled especially by Watergate and the failure of the Vietnam War.

Kristin Goss, author of The Gun Debate: What Everyone Needs to Know, said the shift also turned the NRA into the organization we know today: not just opposed to stricter gun regulations, but also a “culture warrior” group of conservatives distrustful of government. “I don’t think they’re really a single-issue gun rights group anymore,” she said. “That’s still the dominant theme, but gun rights are linked to a lot of other issues that are not narrow, technical questions of gun regulation.”

This, perhaps, is one of the reasons the NRA has done such a good job of achieving its mission: By describing gun rights as foundational to the nation and liberty through the Second Amendment, it elevated guns and related issues into a cultural and political identity that went beyond the legal technicalities of gun control. That made guns feel crucial to the soul of America, and many on the right embraced the new perspective.

I’m also going to link back to my post from 5 years ago summarizing some of my favorite PS research on the matter:

What’s happened with the debate over gun ownership in America is that gun ownership has come to be seen as a sacred value (rather than a consequentialist value).  Sacred values are absolute values which leave no room for compromise or negotiation.  They’re sacred!  To compromise would be profane.  Gun rights reasoning falls perfectly into this category.  Meanwhile, gun control advocates generally take a much more cost-benefit approach that considers social and political realities.  Of course, that doesn’t get people excited and entrenched in their positions– sacred values do that.  And if you’ve read NRA types waxing about the fundamental value of gun ownership, you know exactly what I’m talking about

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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