In 2008, Chicago resident Otis McDonald filed a suit in U.S. District Court challenging a citywide ban on handguns. In two years’ time, this case would reach the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, making McDonald v. Chicago the most recent decision reaffirming American entitlement to gun ownership. On behalf of the majority, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that the right to bear arms is “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition,” and was considered “no less fundamental by those who drafted and ratified the Bill of Rights.”
However, is the “tradition” that Justice Alito cites basis enough to uphold such controversial liberties? In 2010 alone—the same year during which the McDonald v. Chicago decision struck a blow to the regulation of firearms nationwide—31,076 Americans died as a result of gun violence. Decidedly, the heightening contention surrounding the Second Amendment and its implications merits an objective evaluation of its worth in modern America. A true understanding of the Second Amendment begins in 1791. The Revolutionary War was fresh in the mind of the American citizen; following years of abuse at the hands of British soldiers, few ideas provoked greater paranoia than that of a standing army with which the new government could potentially execute its despotic will. Hence, the Second Amendment was born, eliminating the need for a permanent military by allowing for the establishment of militias comprised of part-time troops.
Logic dictates that if the circumstances which a law seeks to regulate no longer exist, the law is rendered obsolete. This is the case of the Second Amendment. Two hundred and twenty seven years in the future, and not only does the United States maintain a standing military, but the populace no longer fears that such a force would be employed to institute tyranny. Furthermore, militias fell out of use not even a century after the Bill of Rights was ratified. A basic grasp of these such historical influences that motivated the inclusion of the Second Amendment clearly demonstrate why it has no place in present-day America. Unfortunately, this truth behind the Second Amendment has been ignored. Today, it is rarely considered with the crucial historical context that imbues it with its meaning. Because the Bill of Rights was written with language distinct to its time, a modern and literal interpretation of this document falsely projects upon it certain values that were not intended by its original author.
To argue that James Madison was dedicated to protecting the right to own an AR-15—when he wrote the Second Amendment in the era of the musket—is preposterous and historically negligent. Revisiting Justice Alito’s claim that curtailing firearm regulatory capacities in the aforementioned McDonald v. Chicago ruling was justified by “tradition,” it is now clear that his Honor was mistaken. In fact, the rationale that Alito applied here is common among many Americans who erroneously attribute the historically rooted Second Amendment to the modern opinion that unhindered access to firearms is a basic liberty. An impartial assessment of what was truly intended by “those who drafted and ratified the Bill of Rights” reveals that an accurate contemporary interpretation of the Second Amendment would involve releasing it to history, where it belongs.
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