Interpreting the Second Amendment
First things first: I’m not that Jeff Cooper. About a year ago, I googled myself and discovered that I share my name with a veteran of World War II and the Korean War who is now editor-at-large at Guns & Ammo magazine and an established presence on the web. Some people I’ve encountered on the web have been bemused to see vaguely liberal ideas coming from someone with my name. I'm me--a law professor born more than a decade after the armistice in Korea.
Now that we have that out of the way: The Second Amendment is once again in the news, following the Justice Department’s change in position in briefs filed with the Supreme Court last week. Justice now takes the position that the Second Amendment acknowledges an individual right to possess firearms, not simply a collective right to maintain a militia. The announcement has provoked a fair amount of predictable wailing from gun control advocates. As for myself, I tend to agree that the right set forth in the Second Amendment is an individual right. I don’t think that’s the end of the story, however.
I’ll confess my limitations up front. I teach law, but not constitutional law, and I’m not familiar with the scholarly literature on the Second Amendment. I claim no special expertise, in other words, and no doubt much of what I say is unoriginal. I’m not completely without qualification here, though: I write and teach about interpretive theory (focusing on statutory, not constitutional, interpretation), and in a prior life I was a graduate student in American history focusing on the revolutionary and early national periods, with a particular interest in the ratification of the Constitution. And besides, one of the beauties of a weblog is the ability to opine without the full scholarly background that would be required of a law review submission. So here we go.
The Second Amendment states: "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." (Don't be distracted by the oddly placed commas--modern conventions regarding punctuation and capitalization were not observed in the late eighteenth century, even by highly educated people.) It is frequently argued that the reference to "the people" refers to the populace collectively, rather than to individual persons.
I don't find that argument particularly persuasive. There are, to be sure, some places in the constitutional text in which "the people" appears to contemplate a collective meaning. The Tenth Amendment, for example, states: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." This reference certainly seems to contemplate collective action--it's hard to imagine seriously that it was meant to suggest individual persons exercising governmental authority. Other provisions in the Bill of Rights, however, clearly contemplate individual rights when they refer to "the people." As Eugene Volokh argues (and I won't complain about the lack of permalinks since I don't have them on my site yet either), the Fourth Amendment's assertion of "[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures," makes little sense if it does not offer protection to individuals. And the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of assembly similarly requires that individuals be able to gather together with like-minded others; the right is ineffective if it does not have an individual component.
Yet there is something unique about the Second Amendment: it is the only one of the Bill of Rights with a purpose clause. The phrasing isn't as direct as it might be--it does not say, for example, "Because a well regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free State. . . ." But the language cannot be ignored, and the language clearly contemplates not an individual purpose, but a collective purpose: the maintenance of a militia. The American experience before and during the Revolution and the debates over the Constitution's ratification in 1787 and 1788 confirms the importance of this purpose. One of the Anti-Federalists' complaints about the Constitution was that it authorized a standing army; this, they argued, combined with the other strong powers granted to Congress in Article I and to the President in Article II, provided a means not only for the proposed federal government to enact oppressive laws but also to enforce federal power by arms. No, replied the Federalists, because if Congress attempts to impose a tyrannical regime, the states and the people collectively will resist, as they did during the Revolution. Although not resolved in the ratification debates, the dispute ultimately led to the adoption of the Second Amendment and explains the amendment's reference to the militia. So the right exists, but for a particular purpose.
A thought experiment: Suppose that the First Amendment's protection of freedom of speech contained a preamble and was written: "A free and open debate on issues of public concern, being necessary to the maintenance of a free State, Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech." Would First Amendment law have developed differently? I think that it probably would. To be sure, even in the absence of a preamble, "core" political speech receives stronger protection than, say, pornography or commercial speech. But surely the inclusion of the preamble would strengthen the arguments in favor of stricter regulation of "peripheral" forms of speech, even though some protection would have to be given to provide breathing room for core political speech.
What does this suggest for the Second Amendment? In order for the collective purpose of the Second Amendment to be met, the right of "the people" individually to possess firearms must be preserved. But not for hunting. And, arguably, not for self-protection, although some protection of this purpose might fall within the breathing room the observance of which is necessary to meet the amendment's purpose. It would seem, however, that the Second Amendment leaves substantial room for governmental regulation of the individual possession of arms for purposes other than participation in a militia.
This leaves unanswered, of course, exactly what is meant by "arms." Arguably, for the right to have meaning in today's world, individuals would require more than simple firearms to fend off a standing army. After all, many Palestinians seem to possess firearms--we always see them on television firing into the air in celebration after a suicide bombing--and there were descriptions of fierce firefights during the recent Operation Defensive Shield, and yet the armed Palestinians don't seem to have been terribly effective against Israeli tanks. But serious Second Amendment scholars don't argue that the amendment guarantees the right to possess rocket launchers . . . do they?
(I realize that I have failed to consider the meaning of the words "well regulated." I've left open a number of other arguments as well, and I've failed to address some interesting arguments made by Professor Akhil Amar in his book, The Bill of Rights. Unfortunately, my scholarly work beckons--plus, there's a huge pile of final exams stacked in the corner, waiting to be graded.)