The road to Heller

Michael Waldman traces the Second Amendment's life, from militias to the NRA to the newfound right to have handguns at home.

The 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elemen­tary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in which Adam Lanza used a semiautomatic rifle to kill 26 people, including 20 children, instantly reignited a debate over gun control. Within hours, an online petition was generated through the White House’s We the People platform demanding that the Obama administration “immediately address the issue of gun control through the introduction of legislation in Congress.”

At the same time, gun sales spiked across the country. The National Rifle Association held a press conference a week after the incident at which its executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, declared that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” and he urged Congress to direct its attention away from gun control laws and toward putting armed police officers into every school. “Politicians,” LaPierre insisted, “have no business and no authority denying us the right, the ability, and the moral imperative to protect ourselves and our loved ones from harm.” He did not invoke the Second Amendment as the source of this “right,” but he didn’t have to. The Second Amendment and its reference to the “right to bear arms” have, through the efforts of the NRA, become intimately associated with opposition to gun regulations.

In the midst of this debate, Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law, has closely examined the historical context in which the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were drafted and ratified. He convincingly argues that the Second Amendment does not address or protect an individual right to own guns. Its purpose, instead, was to preserve state militias and assuage public concern that the newly established federal government would disarm them. In that era, the citizen-soldier stood as a powerful symbol of state sovereignty, and the survival of the militia system in the new government was viewed by many as an essential safeguard against oppression of the states by a federal standing army.