The Second Amendment to the Constitution reads: "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." The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution, was ratified in 1791 only eight years after the United States won its independence from Great Britain in 1783.
Gun rights under English common law and the Second Amendment have an interesting history. The peculiar style of writing used in the Second Amendment has lead to two completely different interpretations of the amendment. These different interpretations have resulted in several legal challenges, most recently District of Columbia v. Heller.
The Founding Fathers of the United States were justifiably concerned about gun rights. In 1686 King James II banned English Protestants from owning guns. This was reversed three years later when William of Orange unseated the king. Great Britain extended gun ownership rights to the Colonists. According to the Legal Papers of John Adams, who served as defense attorney for the British soldiers after the 1770 Boston Massacre, "Here every private person is authorized to arm himself…"
After the Revolutionary War, continuing the right to bear arms was a concern of many colonists. James Madison addressed this with the Second Amendment in the Bill of Rights. The style of writing used in the Second Amendment leaves it open to interpretation. The heart of gun control controversy focuses on divergent grammatical interpretations of the Second Amendment. One side of the argument focuses on the first and second clause; "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State…" The gun control camp construes this as gun ownership being essential to the state’s right to arm a militia.
The pro gun camp views the first clauses as introductory, and not exclusive. They view the last clause as the significant clause "…the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." This interpretation results in the individual's right to own fire arms.
Both camps have their own platform of causes.
Gun control advocates are concerned with public safety. They believe that gun control will decrease crime. Many feel that enforcing a waiting period and background check before allowing the purchase of firearms is a good compromise. They also believe that certain weapons should not be available for purchase by the general public.
Gun rights advocates are concerned with the right to hunt and self protection against crime. Many feel they should be able to buy a gun whenever they want to, with no waiting period and no background check. They also believe that registering weapons may lead to their eventual confiscation. They want to be able to own any kind of gun they choose, including assault rifles.
Courts have generally upheld the individual’s right to bear arms. Most recently, in 2008’s District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court struck down WashingtonD.C.’s law requiring owners of rifles and shotguns to keep them trigger locked or disassembled when not at a firing range or place of business. The court also reinstated the individual’s right to register and possess handguns legally.
Following is a link to the law firm which represented the plaintiff, Heller. The site includes many of the documents pertaining to this case.
Some general links to Second Amendment information
The Federalist Papers
Gun Rights Sites
Gun Control Sites