What Is the Second Amendment for, Exactly?
The Second Amendment is killing us so the gun industry can rake in massive profits — we can’t keep interpreting it as an absolute right for every single citizen to own a gun.
In the week following the May 24 massacre in Uvalde, Texas, the Sioux City Bandits, a professional indoor football team from western Iowa, had planned a giveaway of an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle as a “Military Night” promotion, as they had done a year earlier. After widespread criticism, the Sioux City Journal reported that the team’s Missouri-based owner, J.R. Bond, said canceling or postponing the giveaway “didn’t even approach my radar screen.” Bond added that “some people’s ‘obsession with a piece of metal is overblown’ and that the negative comments came from East Coast residents who are ‘driving electric cars and eating wheat grass.’”
For the record: One of the main critics was the local co-owner of the State Steel Supply Company in Sioux City, who said he would end his sponsorship of the Bandits because “this promotion is beyond tone deaf and is incredibly insensitive to current affairs.” (Also, for the record: You can buy both wheat grass and electric cars in Sioux City.)
J.R. Bond was right about one thing — that some people’s “obsession with a piece of metal is overblown.” In fact, if lots of people did not have overblown obsessions with guns, he wouldn’t have been using one as a promotion, and his team would likely be named something other than “the Bandits.”
The massacre in Uvalde was horrific. An eighteen-year-old man wielding an AR-15 style semiautomatic rifle on May 24 murdered twenty-one people (nineteen of them children) and wounded seventeen others. We have heard this kind of gut-punching news too many times before, and each time millions hope this time will be the event that finally changes the country’s toxic relationship with guns. When will Congress do something, anything to stop the unrelenting deaths by firearms?
We are asking the wrong question. Let’s go back to the beginning and ask the most elemental question: What is the Second Amendment for?
A Well-Regulated Militia for the Common Defense
It’s easy to grasp the five fundamental rights of the First Amendment: freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and to petition the government.
And then the Second Amendment: every American’s fundamental right to own guns. That’s what the gun lobby would like us to believe.
But wait a minute. The Second Amendment is a wholly different kind of statement, speaking to a unique situation that made much more sense 231 years ago. The Second Amendment’s twenty-seven words say this: “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.”
The idea of the collective right to keep and bear arms as part of a well-regulated militia makes sense only in the context of the new nationhood of the United States in 1791. Given their oppressive experience with the British colonial government, many of the Anti-Federalist founders feared maintaining a standing army in times of peace. Because armies can be dangerously oppressive in the hands of autocratic leaders, they thought “the best antidote to them was a militia drawn from the body of the citizenry,” Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Jack N. Rakove and his colleagues wrote.
The Constitution can be vague in its provisions. Yet the intent of the Second Amendment was better defined just a year later in the Uniform Militia Act of 1792, which outlined federal standards for a “well regulated militia.”
First, only certain people could be in the militia. The law required “each and every free able-bodied white male citizen of the respective States, resident therein, who is or shall be of age of eighteen years, and under the age of forty-five years” be enrolled in their militia. Second, they had to bear their own arms, which included “a good musket or firelock, a sufficient bayonet and belt, two spare flints, and a knapsack, a pouch, with a box therein, to contain not less than twenty four cartridges.” Third, if a member of the militia didn’t follow the rules or failed to appear with his state militia when called up by the President, the member could be fined, court martialed, and even imprisoned.
Militias were devised to fend off federal oppression and be guarantors of the common defense. But they also served as a conduit of oppression themselves from the very beginning. Black people, Native Americans, and women were specifically excluded from the militia and from bearing arms. Controlled by a membership and command of white males, frontier militias massacred Native Americans and were called to quickly put down rebellions of enslaved people. Even after the end of slavery, people of color were often denied ownership of guns and membership into militias.
The tradition of white people using guns to oppress black people is the throughline of America’s Second Amendment history, historian Carol Anderson explains in The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America — from the marauding militias that terrorized enslaved and free black people to today’s stand your ground laws (first written by the National Rifle Association [NRA]) that almost always result in “justifiable” homicides when the shooter is white and victim is black.
By the twentieth century, the need and purpose of militias had evolved. The Militia Act of 1903 divided the militia into two classes: a new National Guard, which would be the uniformed and active militia of the United States. It also retained a Reserve Militia, which would draw upon “every able-bodied male citizen” as needed. By this point, with the establishment of a National Guard, and the tradition of a massive standing US Army, what was the point of a citizen militia?
The Gun Industry Convinces Us the Second Amendment Is About Something Else
Founded in 1871 by Union army veterans of the Civil War, the NRA’s purpose was to educate members on marksmanship and firearm safety. The group made a dramatic pivot after its annual meeting in Cincinnati in 1977, when those opposed to the NRA’s support of the Gun Control Act of 1968 (which strictly regulated guns and was passed in light of the Kennedy and King assassinations that year) seized the organization.
The new NRA worked on behalf of the gun industry to sell firearms — tens of millions of them — and quickly chose political sides, allying itself with the Republican Party and rewarding it with millions of dollars in candidate contributions in a quid pro quo for favorable legislation and tamping down any efforts for gun regulations. It’s a lot of money. Gun rights organizations spent $190.4 million on federal lobbying between 1998 and the first half of 2022, more than six times the $28.9 million spent by gun control groups during the same period, according to Open Sources, the group that tracks money in US politics.
The goal was to make guns a coveted consumer product, to convince millions of Americans to have an overblown obsession with a piece of metal. It has worked. The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) reported earlier this year that “the total economic impact of the firearm and ammunition industry in the United States increased from $19.1 billion in 2008 to $70.52 billion in 2021.” That’s roughly the value of the global sneaker industry.
To make guns a consumer obsession, the industry engaged in a decades-long effort to change how Americans interpreted the Second Amendment. Instead of a well-regulated collective right, with responsibilities of gun owners to society, guns were deemed an individual right, for citizens with a perceived need for self-defense (or just a need to feel masculine and powerful). The gun industry knows what it’s doing.
It’s no coincidence that a long-term marketing campaign beginning in 2010 for the Bushmaster .223-calibre semiautomatic rifle showed an image of the rifle with the tagline: “Consider Your Man Card Reissued.” The Bushmaster was the same civilian assault rifle used in the Newtown Elementary School massacre of twenty-eight people in 2012, most of them children.
“Perhaps the greatest trick individual-rights scholars have pulled off is convincing the courts that an amendment that begins ‘A well-regulated militia’ actually has little to do with the militia,” historian Nathan Kozuskanich wrote in The Second Amendment on Trial: Critical Essays on District of Columbia v. Heller. The Heller case, a 2008 US Supreme Court 5-4 decision written by Justice Antonin Scalia, reinterpreted the Second Amendment as securing an individual right of gun ownership for self-defense, and kicked off the massive gun sales boom of the past fourteen years.
Historians Kozuskanich and Saul Cornell identified “a shadow realm of ideological think tanks that nurtured and supported much of the revisionist scholarship used by the Heller majority.” The NRA was one of the biggest funders, endowing a chair at the George Mason Law School “devoted to advancing the individual rights view of the Second Amendment” and paying the three leading gun rights advocates to write several dozen academic articles in the 1990s. Their work is heavily cited in Scalia’s decision. Incidentally, the George Mason Law School was renamed the Antonin Scalia Law School in 2016, with a $20 million contribution from an anonymous donor and $10 million from the Koch Foundation.
There are now more than 393 million guns in the hands of people in the US (likely more with the upswing in gun purchases during the pandemic and the regular surges in sales after mass shootings and Democratic presidential administrations). That’s 120 guns for every hundred people, far more than any other country in the world.
In the Heller decision, Scalia called handguns “the quintessential self-defense weapon” and imagined the gun owner as a heroic defender of justice. A handgun “can be pointed at a burglar with one hand while the other hand dials the police,” he wrote, sounding like both a commercial for the gun industry and a jurist who wanted his own man card reissued.
Scalia’s decision never once considered suicides by firearm (the leading cause of all gun-related deaths, at 24,292 in 2020) and the additional carnage that year: unintentional deaths (small by percentage, only about 1 percent of gun-related murders, but 535 such deaths in 2020, enough to be a national tragedy in its own right), 611 gun-related deaths involving law enforcement, four hundred of undetermined circumstances, and, of course, 19,384 gun-related murders.
So what is the Second Amendment for? Created in 1791, it was for well-regulated militias of white males to purportedly check federal power, and unofficially to put down rebelling slaves and push Native Americans off their land. Now, to boost an industry and Republican politics of fear, the Second Amendment has been redefined as an individual right for anyone to own guns. Gun owners — white owners still preferred — have become unregulated.
Historians estimate that 6,800 Americans were killed in combat in the Revolutionary War, less than one-sixth of the 45,222 that died from gun-related injuries in the US in the single year of 2020. The Second Amendment is literally killing us so the gun industry can make bank. It’s time to rethink how we protect ourselves from tyranny.