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“What Did The Framers Really Mean?”: It Wasn’t To Trump The Public Good

Three days after the publication of Michael Waldman’s new book, “The Second Amendment: A Biography,” Elliot Rodger, 22, went on a killing spree, stabbing three people and then shooting another eight, killing four of them, including himself. This was only the latest mass shooting in recent memory, going back to Columbine.

In his rigorous, scholarly, but accessible book, Waldman notes such horrific events but doesn’t dwell on them. He is after something else. He wants to understand how it came to be that the Second Amendment, long assumed to mean one thing, has come to mean something else entirely. To put it another way: Why are we, as a society, willing to put up with mass shootings as the price we must pay for the right to carry a gun?

The Second Amendment begins, “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,” and that’s where Waldman, the president of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, begins, too. He has gone back into the framers’ original arguments and made two essential discoveries, one surprising and the other not surprising at all.

The surprising discovery is that of all the amendments that comprise the Bill of Rights, the Second was probably the least debated. What we know is that the founders were deeply opposed to a standing army, which they viewed as the first step toward tyranny. Instead, their assumption was that the male citizenry would all belong to local militias. As Waldman writes, “They were not allowed to have a musket; they were required to. More than a right, being armed was a duty.”

Thus the unsurprising discovery: Virtually every reference to “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms” — the second part of the Second Amendment — was in reference to military defense. Waldman notes the House debate over the Second Amendment in the summer of 1789: “Twelve congressmen joined the debate. None mentioned a private right to bear arms for self-defense, hunting or for any purpose other than joining the militia.”

In time, of course, the militia idea died out, replaced by a professionalized armed service. Most gun regulation took place at the state and city level. The judiciary mostly stayed out of the way. In 1939, the Supreme Court upheld the nation’s first national gun law, the National Firearms Act, which put onerous limits on sawed-off shotguns and machine guns — precisely because the guns had no “reasonable relation” to “a well-regulated militia.”

But then, in 1977, there was a coup at the National Rifle Association, which was taken over by Second Amendment fundamentalists. Over the course of the next 30 years, they set out to do nothing less than change the meaning of the Second Amendment, so that it’s final phrase — “shall not be infringed” — referred to an individual right to keep and bear arms, rather than a collective right for the common defense.

Waldman is scornful of much of this effort. Time and again, he finds the proponents of this new view taking the founders’ words completely out of context, sometimes laughably so. They embrace Thomas Jefferson because he once wrote to George Washington, “One loves to possess arms.” In fact, says Waldman, Jefferson was referring to some old letter he needed “so he could issue a rebuttal in case he got attacked for a decision he made as secretary of state.”

Still, as Waldman notes, the effort was wildly successful. In 1972, the Republican platform favored gun control. By 1980, the Republican platform opposed gun registration. That year, the N.R.A. gave its first-ever presidential endorsement to Ronald Reagan.

The critical modern event, however, was the Supreme Court’s 2008 Heller decision, which tossed aside two centuries of settled law, and ruled that a gun-control law in Washington, D.C., was unconstitutional under the Second Amendment. The author of the majority opinion was Antonin Scalia, who fancies himself the leading “originalist” on the court — meaning he believes, as Waldman puts it, “that the only legitimate way to interpret the Constitution is to ask what the framers and their generation intended in 1789.”

Waldman is persuasive that a truly originalist decision would have tied the right to keep and bear arms to a well-regulated militia. But the right to own guns had by then become conservative dogma, and it was inevitable that the five conservative members of the Supreme Court would vote that way.

“When the militias evaporated,” concludes Waldman, “so did the original meaning of the Second Amendment.” But, he adds, “What we did not have was a regime of judicially enforced individual rights, able to trump the public good.”

Sadly, that is what we have now, as we saw over the weekend. Elliot Rodger’s individual right to bear arms trumped the public good. Eight people were shot as a result.


By: Joe Nocera, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, May 26, 2014

May 27, 2014 Posted by | Mass Shootings, National Rifle Association, Second Amendment | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Changing The Legal Paradigm”: NRA Money Helped Reshape Gun Laws

In 1977 at a Denver hotel, Don Kates paced a conference room lecturing a small group of young scholars about the Second Amendment and tossing out ideas for law review articles. Back then, it was a pretty weird activity in pursuit of a wacky notion: that the Constitution confers an individual right to possess a firearm.

“This idea for a very long time was just laughed at,” said Nelson Lund, the Patrick Henry professor of constitutional law and the Second Amendment at George Mason University, a chair endowed by the National Rifle Association. “A lot of people thought it was preposterous and just propaganda from gun nuts.”

More than 35 years later, no one is laughing. In 2008, the Supreme Court endorsed for the first time an individual’s right to own a gun in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller. The 5 to 4 decision rendered ineffective some of the District’s strict gun-control laws. And Justice Antonin Scalia’s majority opinion echoed the work of Kates and his ideological comrades, who had pressed the argument that the Second Amendment articulates an individual right to keep and bear arms.

As the Obama administration pushes for gun-control legislation, it will have to contend with the changed legal understanding of the Second Amendment that culminated in Heller. That transformation was brought about in large part by a small band of lawyers and scholars backed by the NRA.

For more than three decades, the NRA has sponsored legal seminars, funded legal research and encouraged law review articles that advocate an individual’s right to possess guns, according to the organization’s reports. The result has been a profound shift in legal thinking on the Second Amendment. And the issue of individual gun-possession rights, once almost entirely ignored, has moved into the center of constitutional debate and study.

For proponents of stricter gun control, the NRA’s encouragement of favorable legal scholarship has been a mark of its strategic, patient advocacy.

“I think this was one of the most successful attempts to change the law and to change a legal paradigm in history,” said Carl T. Bogus, a professor at Roger Williams University School of Law in Rhode Island and the editor of “The Second Amendment in Law and History,” a collection of essays that challenges the interpretation of the individual right. “They were thinking strategically. I don’t think the NRA funds scholarship out of academic interest. I think the NRA funds something because it has a political objective.”

The Second Amendment states: “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.” Before the Heller decision, the Supreme Court and lower courts had interpreted the language as “preserving the authority of the states to maintain militias,” according to a Congressional Research Service analysis.

“It was a settled question, and the overwhelming consensus, bordering on unanimity, was that the Second Amendment granted a collective right” enjoyed by the states, not individuals, Bogus said. Under this interpretation, the Constitution provides no right for an individual to possess a firearm.

Lund agreed that there was a consensus but said it was “based on ignorance.”

Throughout most of American history, there was little academic interest in the Second Amendment. From 1912 to 1959, only 11 law journal articles were published on the subject, all of them endorsing the prevailing opinion that it “affects citizens only in connection with citizen service in a government-organized and -regulated militia,” according to an analysis by Robert J. Spitzer, a professor of political science at the State University of New York at Cortland and the author of “The Politics of Gun Control.”

The first articles advocating an individual right appeared in the 1960s, and scholarship endorsing that view took off in the late 1970s. From 1980 to 1989, as NRA support began to be felt, 38 articles on the Second Amendment were published in academic journals, 21 of which advocated an individual right. In the following decade, 87 articles appeared, and a clear majority — 58 to 29 — took an individual-rights position, Spitzer’s analysis showed.

To Kates, the explanation for the burgeoning scholarship is obvious. “Gun control became a matter of enormous political controversy, and this focused attention on the Second Amendment,” he said in an interview.

Kates, a Yale Law graduate who describes himself as a liberal, said he began carrying a gun when he spent the summer of 1963 as a civil rights worker in eastern North Carolina.

“I never believed the nonsense that was then current that the Second Amendment had to do with states’ rights,” he said. Alarmed by calls for stricter gun control and outright bans, Kates started the seminars in the late 1970s and ran them for more than a decade with support from various groups, including the NRA and the Second Amendment Foundation, another gun rights organization.

Stephen P. Halbrook attended the Denver seminar in 1977 when he was an assistant professor of philosophy at Howard University and studying for a law degree at Georgetown. Three years later, he published his first article on the Second Amendment in the George Mason University Law Review. He went on to publish more than 20 law review articles and four books dealing with the Second Amendment, some with grants from the NRA, where he has served as an outside counsel.

Halbrook, who has a law office in Fairfax city, said the NRA started funding scholarly research. “I would think that’s important in the sense that scholars, unless you’re independently wealthy, you need to be paid for your time,” he said.

He and others noted that Bogus has received outside funding for symposia and publishing that excludes the individual-rights point of view. Bogus said he was transparent about his funding.

The NRA also began essay competitions for law students with prizes of up to $12,500, with the understanding that the winners would try to place their work in a law review.

Halbrook was one of a number of lawyers — including Kates; Dave Hardy, a legal consultant for the NRA; and David Caplan, a member of the NRA’s board of directors — who were at the forefront of this writing. They drew on their reading of colonial history, the founders’ statements and early American constitutional history to make their case for an individual right.

Hardy said most of this work was published in minor reviews, but the individual-rights argument got a big boost in 1989 when Sanford Levinson, a leading professor of constitutional law at the University of Texas at Austin, published “The Embarrassing Second Amendment” in the Yale Law Journal. He argued that the “legal consciousness of the elite bar” on the Second Amendment might be wrong. He also was sympathetic to the “insurrectionist theory” that citizens have a right to be armed so they can fight their government if it becomes tyrannical. Levinson singled out Kates’s work and cited Halbrook.

Other leading scholars followed, and advocates for the NRA’s position began to speak about a new “standard model.” In 1997, Justice Clarence Thomas acknowledged the growing mass of law review material when he wrote, “Marshaling an impressive array of historical evidence, a growing body of scholarly commentary indicates that the ‘right to keep and bear arms’ is, as the Amendment text suggests, a personal right.”

In 2003, the NRA marked the Second Amendment’s new stature as a subject of serious study when its foundation endowed Lund’s Patrick Henry chair at George Mason University with $1 million. The law school had established a reputation as a bastion of conservative legal thought.

“What they were looking for was a means of legitimating the fact that the Second Amendment had arrived as a legitimate subject of study in constitutional law,” said Daniel D. Polsby, the dean of the George Mason University School of Law.

For advocates of an individual’s right to bear arms, the Heller decision in 2008 was a vindication. In writing the majority opinion, Scalia said, “The second amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm, unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.”

He cited Kates and Halbrook.


By: Peter Finn, The Washington Post, March 13, 2013

March 15, 2013 Posted by | Gun Control, National Rifle Association | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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