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The Right to Bear Arms
The U.S. Constitution's 2nd amendment protects the rights of Americans to own firearms of any sort.
That is certainly the argument presented in our mass media, and made by the gun rights organizations; but is it a fact? Listed below are resources that you and your students can use to develop an answer.
Here is the text of the 2nd amendment.
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.
Questions you might want to consider when discussing the text
Why do most people, when summarizing or quoting the amendment, ignore the reference to a well regulated Militia and to the security of a free State; focusing only on the right to keep and bear arms?
Does the word people, as used in the amendment, refer to the body politic, individual citizens, or both? More importantly, how did Americans in 1790 understand it?
In the U.S., courts interpret the meaning of our constitution and laws.
On June 26, 2008, the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in District of Columbia v. Heller. This 5-4 decision overturned precedent and announced that the 2nd amendment confers upon individuals the right to own firearms. In his decision for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia noted that this was not an unlimited right, but that future decisions would be necessary to define what the limits might be. The decision and two dissents from it are available for reading online at http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/07pdf/07-290.pdf
Prior to the Supreme Court decision in Heller, information at the following links illustrated the state of 2nd amendment law.
The Jurist (from Pitt Law School) provides links to pending and past gun law cases. This site also presents a fabulous set of links to advocacy groups and background materials.
FindLaw summarizes the current state of constitutional law on 2nd amendment issues.
Here is a link to summaries (prepared by the National Rifle Association) of all existing federal court decisions relating to the 2nd amendment.
You might want to secure text for the cases identified in the above summaries, just in case your students want to see if they agree with the people who did the summarizing. FindLaw is probably the best source for such text. The footnotes section of the page linked above is a good place to begin.
In 2000, historian Michael Bellesiles published Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture. In it he explores the reality behind some of the mediated images we have of guns and early America. His findings ignited a small explosion of discussion. In April 2001, Arming America was awarded a Bancroft Prize in History (rescinded on December 7, 2002). Here are links to reviews, excerpts and interviews.
If you have the Real Player plug-in installed for your web browser, you can hear Bellesiles interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air (September 26, 2000). To do so, click here. When you see the Archived Show screen, enter September 26, 2000 in the three drop down boxes that appear, then click the Select Show button. Follow the instructions on the screen you'll see next.
Bellesiles' book drew massive fire from gun rights advocates, not all of it collegial (see Book on America's Gun Culture Has Its Author Watching His Back by Jennifer K. Ruark, in the May 10, 2001 Chronicle of Higher Education). One of his critics, Clayton Cramer, takes aim at his scholarship, challenging his choice and use of sources and the accuracy of some quotes. If your students are capable of working with original source material, you might want to have them examine Cramer's charges. Ask them to explore whether his evidence justifies his conclusions, and to find out if and how Bellesiles has responded. Mark Greif, in an article for Britannica.com in December 2000 (preserved for posterity by the Internet Archive), wrote that Cramer and Bellesiles have engaged in an ongoing Internet e-mail debate. Perhaps your students will be able to track down some of these exchanges should you choose to ask them to explore it. On December 8, 2001, the New York Times reported on the controversy.
Bellesiles addressed his critics in this Emory University essay. He has also posted images of probate records whose veracity have been called into question by some of his critics. On October 25, 2002, Emory University announced that Bellesiles had resigned his position effective December 31, 2002. For those who are interested, here is a link to a Google search that will list links to all Bellesiles information currently available on the web.
Note (September 7, 2004): At this point, the campaign to discredit Bellesiles and his work appears to have been thoroughly successful; however, its proponents now seem somewhat hypocritical. Last year, charges similar to those against Bellesiles were leveled against John R. Lott, a researcher whose work is often cited to support the positions of pro-gun activists. Rather than campaigning against Lott in the same way they had done against Bellesiles, pro-gun groups seemed to ignore the controversy until it vanished. For an overview of this saga, see Dick Dahl's Inequitable Penalties? The Tales of Two Gun Researchers. A more detailed look at the specifics of the Lott case is available in the Mother Jones article, Double Barreled Double Standards.
Gun issues are among the most controversial in American culture. Here are links to more sites where you can sample that controversy.
Gun issue advocacy groups
Gun issues covered by the news media
On Saturday, August 18, 2012, I presented a session at EdCampSFBay titled "2nd Amendment History Lab". In the session, I showed teachers how to use primary source documents with students working to find out whether the 2nd amendment was intended to secure an individual's right to purchase and carry firearms, or the state's right to control its own militia. My flowchart for the session can be accessed by clicking on this link.
For additional activities dealing with gun issues, take a look at Face-off Over Guns.
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original web posting: Thursday, July 5, 2001
last modified: Tuesday, August 21, 2012