The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution is one sentence long: “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.”
Commonly referred to as the “right to bear arms” amendment, it could as easily be called “the state militia” amendment. Clearly the Founding Fathers had something in mind about the state militia, or the National Guard as we now call it, when the amendment was proposed and passed. Otherwise they could have simply provided that “the right of the people to bear arms shall not be infringed” as some argue today.
For most of our history the connection between the right to bear arms and the militia was acknowledged and respected. In recent years there has been a rigorous and well-funded political campaign to put the emphasis on individual gun ownership. For anyone interested in the transition in our history, I recommend that you read The Second Amendment: A Biography by Michael Waldman (New York: Simon & Shuster, 2014). Waldman traces the amendment from its inclusion in the Constitution where there is no evidence to support any conclusion but that it was intended to authorize state militia until 2008 when a single case before the Supreme Court turned that history upside down. In an opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court declared that the Constitution confers a right for an individual to own a gun irrespective of the reference to a militia. Ironically, it was Justice Scalia who was known for his “originalism” in interpreting the Constitution in the terms of what was meant when it was written who upset 218 years of history to create an interpretation that has led to the defeat of many gun safety measures. As recently as 1991 the then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Warren Burger had called the idea of individual gun rights in the Constitution a preposterous “fraud.”
Paralleling the change in judicial interpretation was the rise of the National Rifle Association (NRA) as a lobbying and advocacy organization representing gun and ammunition manufacturers well beyond recreational hunters. The NRA fueled the judicial actions as well as the political actions to defeat anyone who sought to slow down the sale of arms and ammunition.Their political clout was evident in the refusal of the Congress to pass modest gun safety measures after the horrific shooting in Orlando of 100 persons with half of them dying. At the same time there has been a shocking trend of gun violence with mass shootings and shootings involving children happening with frightening regularity.
I continue to believe that government has a public safety responsibility to keep guns out of the hands of violent individuals. That’s why I have introduced bills to expand background checks for gun purchasers. I also support banning the sale of assault rifles to individuals. I participate actively in the Reston-Herndon Alliance to End Gun Violence (www.facebook.com/Alliance-to-End-Gun-Violence-Reston-Herndon) and the vigils at NRA headquarters on the 14th of every month. When the public insists that their elected officials support gun safety measures, we can return to the original intent of the Second Amendment.
Ken Plum is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.