“To Keep and Bear Arms”: The 2nd Amendment Throughout American History


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Gun ownership is hotly debated across the political spectrum. To get a sense of how gun ownership perspectives have changed throughout American history, UHS News researched the origins of American gun ownership and how legal perceptions of the 2nd Amendment have shifted throughout American history.

The 2nd Amendment was written in 1791. Historians describe the 2nd Amendment being written to allow the United States not to need a standing army because it was young and limited on funds.

For over a century after its inception, interpretations of the 2nd amendment did not significantly shift. In 1876, a Supreme Court case known as the United States v. Cruikshank decided the 2nd Amendment “has no other effect than to restrict the powers of the national government” and its regulation of firearms. In a similar finding, an 1886 Supreme Court decision called Presser v. Illinois concluded the 2nd Amendment only limited the power of congress and the national government to control firearms, not individual states.

In 1939, the Supreme Court case United States v. Miller held that the Second Amendment did not protect the right to possess all weapons types. The Court upheld a federal law regulating sawed-off shotguns [one kind of gun easily concealed and often used by criminals]. The Court reasoned that since that type of weapon was not related to keeping up a militia, the 2nd Amendment did not protect the right to own it. 

In the 1960s, a Black activist group from Oakland, California, known as the Black Panthers began to patrol their neighborhoods with loaded guns. The citizens of these Oakland ghettos believed the Oakland Police Department was not going to protect them, so they actively protected themselves. In reaction, California passed the Mulford Act with the explicit purpose of preventing people from carrying a loaded weapon in public.

The Black Panthers demonstrating at the California State Capitol building in 1967 with loaded firearms in hand.

2008’s District of Columbia v. Heller, the United States Supreme Court issued its first decision since 1939, interpreting the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution.  The Court ruled that the Second Amendment states an individual right to possess a firearm for lawful purposes such as self-defense. It also ruled that two District of Columbia provisions, one that banned handguns and one that required lawful firearms in the home to be disassembled or trigger-locked, violated this right.

The current perception of gun ownership is built on centuries of public conversation and judicial interpretation. It is important to remember the judicial system’s role in constitutional interpretation and not just assume our modern understanding of our founding documents have been the same throughout history. 

John Livingston
John Livingston
John Livingston is a senior at ukiah high. He loves running,biking and being outdoors. He started a landscaping business. He likes to read and write about crime.

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