Second Amendment | Text, Meaning, Definition, & History (2024)

United States Constitution

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Written by

Patrick J. Charles Patrick J. Charles is the historian of the 24th Special Operations Wing of the U.S. Air Force and was a legal analyst for the Immigration Reform Law Institute in Washington, D.C.

Patrick J. Charles

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Top Questions

What does the Second Amendment say?

The original text for the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is, “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.”

Does the Second Amendment allow owning guns for self-defense?

In the 2008 landmark case District of Columbia v. Heller, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that the Second Amendment includes the right of individuals to bear arms for self-defense. In 2010 McDonald v. City of Chicago extended the prior ruling from federal laws to state and local laws. This opinion is controversial.

Who wrote the Second Amendment?

The Second Amendment, ratified in 1791, was proposed by James Madison to allow the creation of civilian forces that can counteract a tyrannical federal government. Anti-Federalists believed that a centralized standing military, established by the Constitutional Convention, gave the federal government too much power and potential for violent oppression.

Which U.S. Supreme Court justices think the Second Amendment recognizes the individual’s right to bear arms in self-defense?

Of the current sitting members of the Supreme Court, Justices Clarence Thomas, John G. Roberts, Jr., and Samuel A. Alito, Jr., voted in the majority opinion of both District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. City of Chicago, the two cases that collectively established the individual’s right to bear arms for self-defense.

Do militias exist in the United States today?

Modern militias are most commonly known as State Defense Forces (SDFs). As of 2010, 23 states and territories maintained their own SDFs. Unlike federal organizations such as the National Guard, SDFs are under the sole jurisdiction of state or territorial governments and cannot be commanded by the federal government.

Is ownership of an assault weapon constitutional?

The Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act in 1994 banned private use of assault weapons, such as certain semiautomatic rifles. This federal ban expired in 2004. Some U.S. states have laws that prohibit assault weapons.

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Second Amendment, amendment to the Constitution of the United States, adopted in 1791 as part of the Bill of Rights, that provided a constitutional check on congressional power under Article I Section 8 to organize, arm, and discipline the federal militia. The Second Amendment reads, “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.” Referred to in modern times as an individual’s right to carry and use arms for self-defense, the Second Amendment was envisioned by the framers of the Constitution, according to College of William and Mary law professor and future U.S. District Court judge St. George Tucker in 1803 in his great work Blackstone’s Commentaries: With Notes of Reference to the Constitution and Laws of the Federal Government of the United States and of the Commonwealth of Virginia, as the “true palladium of liberty.” In addition to checking federal power, the Second Amendment also provided state governments with what Luther Martin (1744/48–1826) described as the “last coup de grace” that would enable the states “to thwart and oppose the general government.” Last, it enshrined the ancient Florentine and Roman constitutional principle of civil and military virtue by making every citizen a soldier and every soldier a citizen. (See also gun control.)

Supreme Court interpretations

Until 2008 the Supreme Court of the United States had never seriously considered the constitutional scope of the Second Amendment. In its first hearing on the subject, in Presser v. Illinois (1886), the Supreme Court held that the Second Amendment prevented the states from “prohibit[ing] the people from keeping and bearing arms, so as to deprive the United States of their rightful resource for maintaining the public security.” More than four decades later, in United States v. Schwimmer (1929), the Supreme Court cited the Second Amendment as enshrining that the duty of individuals “to defend our government against all enemies whenever necessity arises is a fundamental principle of the Constitution” and holding that “the common defense was one of the purposes for which the people ordained and established the Constitution.” Meanwhile, in United States v. Miller (1939), in a prosecution under the National Firearms Act (1934), the Supreme Court avoided addressing the constitutional scope of the Second Amendment by merely holding that the “possession or use of a shotgun having a barrel of less than eighteen inches in length” was not “any part of the ordinary military equipment” protected by the Second Amendment.

For more than seven decades after the United States v. Miller decision, what right to bear arms that the Second Amendment protected remained uncertain. This uncertainty was ended, however, in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), in which the Supreme Court examined the Second Amendment in exacting detail. In a narrow 5–4 majority, delivered by Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court held that self-defense was the “central component” of the amendment and that the District of Columbia’s “prohibition against rendering any lawful firearm in the home operable for the purpose of immediate self-defense” to be unconstitutional. The Supreme Court also affirmed previous rulings that the Second Amendment ensured the right of individuals to take part in the defending of their liberties by taking up arms in an organized militia. However, the court was clear to emphasize that an individual’s right to an “organized militia” is not “the sole institutional beneficiary of the Second Amendment’s guarantee.”

Because the Heller ruling constrained only federal regulations against the right of armed self-defense in the home, it was unclear whether the court would hold that the Second Amendment guarantees established in Heller were equally applicable to the states. The Supreme Court answered that question in 2010, with its ruling on McDonald v. Chicago. In a plurality opinion, a 5–4 majority held that “the right to possess a handgun in the home for the purpose of self-defense” is applicable to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause.

Britannica QuizAmendments to the U.S. Constitution

However, despite the use of “person” in that clause, the McDonald decision did not apply to noncitizens, because one member of the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas, refused in his concurring opinion to explicitly extend the right that far. Thomas wrote, “Because this case does not involve a claim brought by a noncitizen, I express no view on the difference, if any, between my conclusion and the plurality with respect to the extent to which States may regulate firearm possession by noncitizens.” Thomas’s conclusion was also supported by his view that the Second Amendment should be incorporated through the Fourteenth Amendment’s “privileges or immunities” clause, which recognizes only the rights of “citizens.”

The relatively narrow holdings in the Heller and McDonald decisions left many Second Amendment legal issues unsettled, including the constitutionality of many federal gun-control regulations, whether the right to carry or conceal a weapon in public was protected, and whether noncitizens are protected through the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause.

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Second Amendment | Text, Meaning, Definition, & History (2024)

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