The History of Gun Control and the Second Amendment

The U.S. Supreme Court docket is anticipated inside days to rule on the validity of a New York state legislation that locations strict limits on carrying handguns, New York State Rifle & Pistol Inc. v. Bruen — and the choice may rewrite the heated American debate over gun management.

Opponents of the legislation, which requires these looking for a concealed-carry license to show that they want it for self-protection, argue that the statute is barred by the Second Modification to the Structure. However the truth that the Justices are actually contemplating overturning the New York legislation — which has been in impact for greater than a century — is a vivid indicator of how the justices’ view of the Second Modification has taken a dramatic flip within the twenty first century, and the way what had been as soon as unanimous choices that the modification’s attain is proscribed have become rancorous debates at a sharply divided court docket.


The Second Modification was added to the Structure as a part of the Invoice of Rights in December 1791. It reads: “A properly regulated militia, being essential to the safety of a free State, the appropriate of the folks to maintain and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

That was not a controversial provision, merely codifying a broadly held view on the legitimacy of a citizen militia and repeating a assure included within the British Invoice of Rights of 1689 and the sooner U.S. Articles of Confederation.

What gun controls had been and weren’t allowed was so uncontroversial that it was 1939 earlier than the primary case by which the U.S. Supreme Court docket dominated on whether or not the Second Modification utilized to a selected legislation curbing gun possession. Actually, the Supreme Court docket had been in enterprise for 85 years earlier than it received its first case involving the Second Modification in any respect. After which it was solely a peripheral subject.


1875’s United States v. Cruikshank had its origins in disputes over the result of the 1872 gubernatorial election in Louisiana — disputes that led to such violence that greater than 100 Blacks had been killed. The federal authorities charged a few of the white vigilantes with violating an 1870 statute making it illegal to conspire to deprive anybody of their constitutional rights. A part of the fees had been that the defendants had taken away the arms with which the Blacks had been defending themselves.

The justices unanimously freed the vigilantes, saying that the constitutional curbs on seizing weapons don’t apply to actions of people. The Second Modification, they mentioned, doesn’t give anybody the appropriate to personal firearms, it merely prohibits governmental motion to remove their weapons.

However the opinion by Chief Justice Morrison Waite went a lot additional. The Second Modification, he wrote “means not more than it shall not be infringed by Congress. This is among the amendments that has no different impact than to limit the powers of the nationwide authorities.”

In different phrases, he mentioned, the Invoice of Rights creates no boundaries to firearms regulation by state or native authorities.


Subscribe to our Historynet Now! e-newsletter for one of the best of the previous, delivered each Wednesday.


The Supreme Court docket — once more unanimously — reaffirmed that place 11 years later. The case needed to do with the validity of a $10 superb.

It was imposed on Herman Presser, a member of a bunch of Chicago employees of German background organized to counter the armed personal guard squads shaped by native employers. He headed some 400 of the members as they marched by way of Chicago streets carrying rifles.

That violated a state statute in opposition to any personal militia not licensed by the governor. Presser insisted that prosecuting him infringed on his Second Amendments proper to bear arms, however the justices had been having none of it. Reiterating the Cruikshankstance, in Presser v. Illinois Justice William B. Woods wrote unequivocally: “[T]he modification is a limitation solely upon the facility of Congress and the nationwide authorities, and never upon that of the state.”


From the start of the republic, states had positioned some limits on gun homeowners, similar to forbidding carrying them in crowded locations. However with the Supreme Court docket assurance that such statutes had been legitimate, within the final a long time of the nineteenth century, the recognition of such legal guidelines in state legislatures actually took off.

Twenty-eight states had some curbs on the place weapons might be carried, and 15 barred minors from proudly owning weapons. In 1875, Wyoming truly banned all personally owned firearms from “any metropolis, city or village.”

None of those state statutes had been challenged on the Supreme Court docket.


It was 53 years earlier than the Supreme Court docket once more dominated on a Second Modification case. United States v. Millerwas the primary time the Justices seemed instantly at a Second Modification problem to a gun management legislation; with out dissent they continued to emphasise that the modification leaves a lot of leeway for presidency regulation.

Below scrutiny was the very first important federal curb on gun possession. The 1934 Nationwide Firearms Act, handed in response to bloody prison gang shootouts, imposed no bans; it did demand that varied weapons (these principally utilized by criminals) be registered for a $200 price. Two males arrested for bringing an unregistered sawed-off shotgun from Oklahoma into Arkansas argued that the legislation was an invalid incursion on their proper to bear arms.

However the choice discovered that proper was a really slender one. The opinion by Justice James C. McReynolds interpreted the modification as making use of solely to a defensive militia, and located {that a} sawed-off shotgun doesn’t have “some cheap relationship to the preservation or effectivity of a properly regulated militia.”


It was not till 1995 that there was a touch that new personnel on the court docket may be bringing with them a special studying of the Second Modification. It got here in United States v. Lopez, a problem to the conviction of Alfonso Lopez Jr. for bringing a hid handgun and bullets to his highschool in San Antonio, Texas — a violation of a 1990 federal legislation banning possession of any firearm “at a spot that the person is aware of, or has cheap trigger to imagine, is a college zone.”

The excessive court docket threw out the conviction and held the legislation invalid as reaching past the powers the powers Congress claimed it needed to regulate commerce. The Second Modification was not at subject in any respect.

However Lopezis a big a part of gun rights historical past as a result of it was the very first time the Supreme Court docket struck down a firearms management legislation. And the justices’ 5-4 vote confirmed that the unanimity that had characterised the earlier gun management choices had been shattered.


In 2008, these hints that the Supreme Court docket was shifting away from its slender studying of the constitutional limits on gun management grew to become unequivocal actuality. With one other 5-4 choice, the justices tremendously broadened the Second Modification prohibitions and threw into doubt greater than a century of precedents.

That case, Washington, D.C. v. Heller, invalidated a broad gun management legislation within the District of Columbia that barred possession of handguns and required that different firearms be registered and saved unassembled, even within the proprietor’s dwelling. Robert A. Levy, a lawyer who sensed that the Supreme Court docket was able to modifications its views of gun management legal guidelines, had rounded up a various group of six native residents to problem the legislation.

On the excessive court docket, a five-justice majority agreed with Levy’s shoppers. The opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia particularly rejected the interpretation that the Second Modification was solely about proudly owning firearms that might be utilized by a militia, calling that language solely a “prefatory clause.” Actually, he wrote, “the Second Modification proper is exercised individually and belongs to all People” whether or not or not they’ve an intention of collaborating in a militia.

In different phrases, as a common rule, neither the federal nor state or native authorities can put curbs on particular person gun possession.

“The court docket in Heller virtually hits the reset button on the Second Modification,” Duke College legislation professor Joseph Blocher, co-director of the college’s Heart for Firearms Legislation, mentioned.

Scalia did go to pains to clarify that that rule was not absolute — that some gun controls had been legitimate, albeit solely slender ones.

“Nothing in our opinion ought to be taken to forged doubt on the longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally unwell, or legal guidelines forbidding the carrying of firearms in delicate locations similar to faculties and authorities buildings,” he wrote.


Heller is the usual by which all gun management measures are actually judged. In two instances that it took up earlier than the present one assessing the New York gun carry legislation, the Supreme Court docket made that clear. As a result of the District of Columbia is a federal enclave, some argued that Heller didn’t apply to the state and native legal guidelines. However in 2010, once more in a 5-4 choice, the court docket held that the identical normal applies to all jurisdictions, thereby invalidating a Chicago coverage that for 50 years had successfully banned the acquisition of handguns. And in 2016, in a case the justices thought was so clear-cut that they didn’t want to listen to oral arguments, the excessive court docket invalidated a Massachusetts ban on stun weapons, even thought it had been upheld by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court docket, that state’s highest court docket.

historynet magazines

Our 9 best-selling historical past titles function in-depth storytelling and iconic imagery to have interaction and inform on the folks, the wars, and the occasions that formed America and the world. Sale! Save $7.99 in your subscription right this moment!