If you ask the typical American citizen the definition of the second amendment, their answers are invariably, “the right to bear arms.” One that does not study history would be left with the impression that those five words make up the entirety of it. However, that short phrase is only a segment within the larger wording and overall meaning.
“A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state.” This precedes “the right to bear arms.” Despite this fact, the majority of the text seems to have failed to prove itself relevant to the American public today.
Does this result in its meaning being slightly changed? Perhaps.
With the new open carry debate being brought to the center of Texas politics, it begs us to question a few points. Could our constitutional rights outlined in the Bill of Rights be applied to this debate and if so has the interpretation changed over time?
Your Founding Fathers Frame of Mind
Your Bill of Rights was created in a time of significant uncertainty. We were the Guinea Pigs of the world if you will, at least in terms of our political make up. A time where trust between government and the people was incredibly delicate.
Therefore the Bill of Rights were considered by some to be an excess or repetitive, by others a much needed safety net. Nevertheless, the context is the giveaway to the amendment’s intent. The second amendment’s purpose was to create a barrier against your own government (yes, your American government, as well as any other similar threat) from ever becoming a tyrannical power, without the people’s ability to form a resistance. Hence the first section, preceding the “right to bear arms,” speaks of a militia being essential for a free state (democracy).
Of course, there is no argument there were many frames of mind surrounding the writing. Firearms were widely used during the time period in question, and there is no argument against self-defense being an issue that would have had influence.
Yet, if one looks at the political climate at the time, it is very telling. The oppression by English rule, leading to our independence, as well as the fear of the same tyranny by our own government leads us to the suggestion that it was not the burglar across the street being the catalyst for establishing the right of weapon ownership. No. The potential “burglar” was a strong centralized government, one in which we were on the road to becoming.
A scary thought for the average American at that time. The result ending with a Bill of Rights to act as a contract.
Simply stating that our newly formed government will acknowledge the people’s rights, therefore giving them a means to retain their popular sovereignty, in case tyranny ever tried to prevail.
Do Your Rights Change Over Time?
I always try to convey to my students, the reason your Constitution is so broad in its outline, not specifying every possible application of such is simply because James Madison did not know he would have to address the issues of assault weapons, texting while driving, or terrorism.
The framers had the foresight to know unforeseen issue would arise. The broadness of your constitution was done with a purpose, that being so we could interpret, re-interpret, and apply it to the fit the issues of the current time period.
The same argument may be applied to the Bill of Rights, although specific in terms of their subjects, broad enough to encompass future changes.
As a result you have amendments.
Expanding from there, citizens have further state and local laws, complimenting federal laws. The challenge is knowing how the vision of our core rights fit into our present day and time. Common sense would state that an open carry state law does not violate the second amendment.
Does the second amendment have any relevance to an open carry state law? Is it in the spirit the founding fathers were trying to promote through the wording? Or is this simply a debate of our own time period with no relevance to the past?
Open Carry and the 2nd Amendment
I would argue there is no doubt the definition of the second amendment has changed over time for most Americans. We are all products of our time period and view the issues of our day through our own lens. Not through the lens of the past. So, rather than protecting against tyranny, do we today own guns to scare off our neighbors from robbing us or causing harm?
I think the average citizen’s definition of the second amendment is the answer to that question. Does this evolved understanding stay true to the vision of the Bill of Rights?
Although, that question will continue to be up for debate, I believe that yes, it is still within the belief of protecting your individual rights.
Yet, are you safer by revealing that right on a minute-by-minute basis to children and families walking down street? As your five-year-old child asks, “Mommy or Daddy, why does that man have a gun here? Is he a policeman? He isn’t, then should we be scared? Is he dangerous? How do I know who to trust with a gun and who not?” What will your answer be, more importantly, how would you as a knowledgeable adult even know?
My first rifle was given to me when I was young. That being said, my parents taught me gun safety and I was never allowed to take it out on my own until a much older age.
I am a strong advocate of gun ownership and gun rights to this day. Yet, as a state, is parading our weapons, “sticking them in each other’s faces,” a true necessity to foster a society of genuine safety and respect?
I would suggest the reasons put forth do not justify the risk and uncertainty it would cause. History proves change does not occur without a catalyst. In some instances it creates great outcomes. What is the favorable outcome in this context? To have the right of not just carrying a gun, but now showing it to everyone possible. If there is a situation where there is a need to reveal a handgun, then let it be so.
Is there a purpose for revealing a weapon, without a purpose? The framers of the constitution viewed the use of guns from the social norms of their era. Thereby, we could conclude their thoughts would be altered to fit the climate of today.
Regardless, perhaps this is not a debate for students of the founding fathers, but students of common sense. Let us interpret our rights, with wisdom.
Dale Schlundt holds a Master's Degree in Adult Education with a concentration in American History from the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is currently an Adjunct Professor for Palo Alto College and Northwest Vista College. Dale has written two books, Tracking Life's Lessons: Through Experiences, History, and a Little Interpretation and Education Decoded (A Collection of My Writings).