The Bill of Rights Belongs to All

February 19, 1994

Advocates of strict new gun control laws recently rallied in Annapolis. Protesters staged a counter rally, and one was quoted as saying, "The Second Amendment belongs to us." It does and it doesn't.

It does in the sense that it "belongs" to all American citizens; it doesn't in the sense that it protects gun owners' rights exclusively, at the expense of everybody else.

This argument comes up every time the public starts demonstrating the will to enact new restrictions on gun ownership and use. The National Rifle Association and other such groups recite the Second Amendment like a mantra. Yet, in fact, the final arbiters of what the Constitution means -- the federal judiciary -- have consistently determined that the Bill of Rights does not even come close to preventing gun laws.

Here is the exact language of the amendment: "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."

Most people read that to mean people in the militia -- the 18th century equivalent of the national guard -- have a right to keep and bear arms. But even if you give that language the most expansive, pro-individual gun owner interpretation, it is still clear that the drafters of the amendment expected guns and their owners to be "regulated," as former Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger pointed out a few years ago.

A generation before the conservative Mr. Burger expressed his opinion on the issue, another conservative justice, James Reynolds, wrote an opinion for the Supreme Court declaring that the federal government could enact laws that, in effect, prohibit the ownership of certain guns. States may have even more authority to enact gun control laws than the federal government; some state courts have ruled that the Second Amendment does not apply to state lawmakers at all.

Restrictions on gun owners proposed by the governor, various legislators and gun-control groups differ in scope, but all are well within the acceptable limits most courts and lawmakers have been endorsing for at least a century. The Second Amendment, like the other nine amendments that make up the Bill of Rights, belongs to us all. And while it protects gun owners specifically, it only protects them from being unfairly regulated -- not unregulated. Proper regulation is not infringement.

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