Politics

What does the Second Amendment mean anyway?

It’s only a sentence long; 27 words that barely take up a full line on the Bill of Rights.

Here’s a look at the Second Amendment, its phrases parsed and placed in legal and historical context.

Our guides will be Constitutional experts:

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A well regulated militia

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What is a militia?

At the time of the American Revolutionary War, militias were groups of able-bodied men who protected their towns, colonies, and eventually states.

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What did it mean to be well regulated?

“Well-regulated in the 18th century tended to be something like well-organized, well-armed, well-disciplined. It didn't mean ‘regulation’ in the sense that we use it now... It means the militia was in an effective shape to fight.”

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being necessary to the security

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What type of security was referred to here?

To get to that, consider the climate of the United States at the time. The country had just fought a war, won its independence and was expanding west.

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of a free State,

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What did a free state mean?

“This is referring immediately to ‘state’ as in one of the states of the original colonies. James Madison had the 1777 Virginia Declaration of Rights by his side when he wrote the Bill of Rights and he essentially copied and pasted language from it.”

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the right of the people

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What kind of rights?

“When we think about ‘rights,’ we think of them as regulations and exemptions. Back at the birth of our nation, they had a different quality. They were more moralistic.”

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Who are the people?

Even the term “people” — the most basic catch-all — has limitations. After all, when the Constitution was written, slaves were considered property and women were not allowed to vote.

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to keep and bear Arms,

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What are Arms in this context?

“...most historians think that it would be remarkable news to the framers of the Second Amendment that they were actually constitutionalizing a personal right to self-defense as opposed to trying to say something significant about the militia.”

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shall not be infringed.

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What does it all mean?

Words like “militia” and “rights” are loaded with historical context and nuance that can act as a Rorschach test, leading even the best-intentioned interpreters to different conclusions. If there were any clear answers, these 27 words wouldn’t be so incendiary.

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