One of the most heated debates in American politics revolves around one sentence in the Constitution: “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.”
In our politically polarized society, the topic of gun control raises reflexive outcries of “no to guns,” and “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” The loudest advocates on both sides of this argument are currently manifest in the March for Our Lives movement and National Rifle Association sponsors, though controversy surrounding interpretation of the Second Amendment has perplexed the American public for decades. What’s more, the debate is split between the Democratic Party, which typically advocates for gun control, and the Republican Party, which typically defends unlimited firearm access.
However, stances on gun control do not need to be black and white. In fact, there are many interpretations of the Second Amendment that fall between the complete abolition of firearms and the uninhibited right to gun ownership. Political parties and interest groups make the American people think that there are only two polarized sides to the issue, but we should be exposed to the full spectrum of stances and theoretical perspectives.
One of the main issues with interpreting the Second Amendment is discerning what exactly “a well-regulated militia” refers to. Collective rights theory, a well-recognized legal interpretation, finds that the phrase refers to the importance of a state’s right to military defense, not the individual’s right to own firearms. This perspective explains that the Second Amendment does not give individuals the right to freely possess and use firearms. Collective rights theory is based on the fact that the language in the Second Amendment deems the bearing of arms “necessary to the security of a free state” rather than to the security of a free public.
As states do not have their own armies, most people have overlooked this argument, instead interpreting the law to protect individuals’ rights to own firearms. Individual rights theory is the opposite of collective rights theory, stating that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms,” implies that the founding fathers intended for all Americans to be able to own guns. The NRA and anti-gun control advocates base their argument in individual rights theory.
Only 8 percent of American adults believe that “almost everyone” should be able to legally own guns, whereas 9 percent say that nearly no one should, according to a Pew Research study. Noticeably, most Americans believe that there is a middle ground to the right to gun ownership. The technological advancement of firearms has strongly influenced the public’s view on how unlimited their rights to bear arms should be, with many believing that modern firearms should be held to a different standard than the guns available at the time the Second Amendment’s was written. Guns were lethal weapons in 1776 but could not do nearly as much damage as today’s high-capacity weapons can. Sixty-eight percent of urban and suburban residents believe that high-capacity magazines should be federally banned, according to Pew Research Center.
The Second Amendment can be interpreted through many lenses: emphasizing states’ rights, with a focus on the individual or with contemporary innovation and design in mind. Before adopting others’ opinions about our constitutional rights, I hope that we can all read and think deeply about the rhetoric itself, listen to a broad range of theories without judgement and, ultimately, critically think about the rights we have as Americans.
Arianna Scavone is a junior majoring in communication and law, history and culture. Her column, “Healing the Divide,” runs every other Thursday.