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Why is the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution so Controversial?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Second Amendment of the United States Constitution is one the most misunderstood and most widely discussed of the Amendments in the Bill of Rights. Debate over this amendment escalated in the late 20th century, when organizations lobbying for gun control in the United States found themselves debating pro-gun lobbies over its precise meaning. The arguments hinge on what exactly the amendment means and who it is supposed to be referencing. Unfortunately for scholars who are interested in the debate, few Supreme Court cases have tested it, making it even more challenging to analyze the intent of these loaded words.

The text of the Second Amendment reads, in full: “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.” Several other drafts change the capitalization and punctuation, although the text remains the same. The crux of the debate is whether or not it allows individual Americans to own weapons, specifically firearms, and, if so, what sort of firearms they can own.

There are a number of schools of thought on the amendment. The first believes that the law was framed as a State's rights issue, meaning that it was intended to protect the right of individual states to form and arm militias. Others argue that, since members of a citizen militia are required to equip themselves, the amendment protects the rights of individual citizens. A third school of thought is a compromise between the two, suggesting that people are permitted to keep and bear arms that are related to militia duty.

Gun ownership and gun control are sticky issues in the United States. Organizations like the National Rifle Association would like to promote responsible gun ownership for all American citizens who wish to possess weapons, while other groups believe that Americans should only be able to own certain types of guns, or even none all. The somewhat vague meaning of the Second Amendment has made discussion of these issues very challenging, as the contents are open to interpretation.

The debate often challenges the precise definitions of “people,” “arms,” and “militia” in the text in the hopes of getting a clearer idea of the meaning of the amendment. In fact, the concept of protected arms ownership existed in common law when the Constitution was written, and it is entirely possible that the framers left the amendment vague because they assumed that everyone was already aware that individual citizens could own arms. What exactly “arms” are is a subject for debate, however, since swords, spears, and other weapons can also be considered “arms,” and the military weapons in the 1700s were not comparable to those used in modern times.

The debate over the Second Amendment is unlikely to end anytime soon, even though it has been tested in the Supreme Court, because gun control is such a sensitive issue in America. Many scholarly texts have reviewed the content and possible meaning of the amendment, and no matter how a person argues it, he or she can probably find extensively researched scholarly material to back up his or her point of view.

Still, with all the debate, evidence, and opinions on the matter, the question was answered to some extent in a landmark case in 2008: District of Columbia v. Heller. In a 5-4 decision, the US Supreme Court held that, like all other rights covered in the Bill of Rights, the right to bear arms is an individual right. Whether the debate ends with this decision remains to be seen.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon1007157 — On Jun 09, 2022

All of these and other debates, pro or con, to 2nd Amendment is missing the 'big picture', that being the illogical, unreasonable, plus a lack of critical thinking towards the Constitution itself. Though it was well thought out, the basis for the world's first true representative democracy, whether far right or left, most Americans are from birth groomed to not question, with a large percent taking every word literally. Even so, like most laws, it's broad, as well as vague, creating a big weakness, that allows for polarization by self-serving interpretations of the intent.

Ultimately over time, the final interpretation left up to 8 politically appointed Supreme Court judges, with them having no more ability than anyone else to know what the authors meant about 250 years ago. They surely had zero vision of the world today, as to their intent. Example: how at one point in time is something legal by a ruling, then years later, completely reversed (e.g.abortion)? Point being, it's absurd, dangerous, insanity, etc. As the world, technology, population growth, threats, needs, etc., have so drastically changed over 250 years, some Amendments are now simply unsustainable, antiquated, impractical, a detriment to democracy, safety and security. We must amend that, period.

By anon993882 — On Dec 24, 2015

It amazes me how ignorant the majority of people are in reference to the second amendment. It is short, simple and not vague at all. What is the militia? It meant every able bodied citizen between the ages of 15 and 65. The problem is the lack of responsibility in today's society. Firearms are a tool. They don't have a mind of their own, and they are not evil. They will not do anything sitting on a table. It is an object. It does nothing without someone using it.

Just like using a power tool, saw, etc. Just like any tool, it takes knowledge and responsibility to keep from hurting yourself or others. You wouldn't give your child a chainsaw without showing them how to use it, would you? Same with a firearm. Why is this so hard to understand? Because of liberals, that's why. I grew up in Alaska and my grade school had a rifle range in the basement. Parents could sign up their children for firearms safety and marksmanship classes. No one shot themselves or injured anyone. So why don't we have this education today? Again, liberals. Please, grow up, be an adult, take five minutes away from your social media page to educate yourself and take responsibility for your life. It is really that simple.

By anon945898 — On Apr 15, 2014

Gun laws won't protect law abiding citizens because people who don't follow laws won't follow that one.

By jessiwan — On Oct 28, 2013

@st7672: I like your idea of "equal fire-power" for the militia, however that said, it just bothers me a bit. I think its slightly nutty to put these things, mortars, surface-to-air missiles and what-not in the hands of pretty much just about anyone. On the other hand, you are absolutely right, because without these things people won't be able to stand a chance against the armed forces of a government that has gone tyrannical. There must be a better solution.

@anon310384: “This simple contradiction is lost on all and seemingly never discussed by any." Please explain and elaborate on what this "contradiction" is.

@anon314192: “Why should we put the Founders on a pedestal?...” You shouldn't just disregard everything the Founding Fathers said. I agree that it was bad and sad that these people kept slaves, however we are supposed to exercise our faculties and decide for ourselves what bits and parts of the Constitution are good and should be kept and what other parts should be discarded.

@anon323343: Please explain what you meant by “give up one's time for militia duty.” You meant all men should train in a militia?

@anon327714: “Because we have to reconcile the well regulated part with the infringement part, and any reading of it that does not take both into account is incomplete, and I would argue, dangerous to our security." Please explain this part. I read it a few times but still don't get it.

Anyway, on topic: I think it's pretty clear to anyone who's the least bit honest that to the Founding Fathers, the Second Amendment was created/drafted/whatever because they wanted people to be able to defend themselves against the government, should the latter turn tyrannical. But they never explicitly said that individual people couldn't bear arms. In my opinion, we should change the Second Amendment, and broaden it to give the right to bear arms to both militias as well as individuals. As a physically weak person, I sometimes can't help but think that having access to some sort of firearm could "even the playing field" between me and a physically imposing aggressor. It might potentially save my life, if I were living in one of the more violent cities in the USA. So even though in my country, it is quite hard to get your hands on a firearm (I think, never tried), nevertheless I think it is a right that I would really appreciate.

Also, I just want to say that I agree with whoever said that granting the right to bear arms to people does not mean they should have nukes. Nukes are for whole-sale, large-scale, indiscriminate mass killings of enemy combatants as well as innocent civilians alike. It is beyond a (personal) arm; it is a weapon of mass destruction. When the Founders framed the Second Amendment, they were only thinking about (personal) arms -- you know, the kind that could/can be aimed at soldiers and enemy combatants specifically, but which do not kill or harm innocent people indiscriminately, if used properly.

I have another thing to add. I think a lot of negativity surrounding this whole gun issue comes from people who are bothered by mass shootings that resulted in the deaths of innocent lives. I also agree that when a firearm is used to kill innocents, it is bad. However, I believe there is a way around this. Why don't we make firearms very conspicuous looking, so that if some crazy kid is trying to sneak one into a school to kill people with, he will be spotted from a distance and subsequently stopped and disarmed? And making firearms conspicuous looking does not really diminish their usefulness when one is trying to fend off the agents of a tyrannical government, because they know you are going to shoot at them. So it doesn't really matter whether your firearms are seen by them or not. Speaking of which, I still can't wrap my mind around the whole Sandy Hook thing. How could the kid not have been seen by others going into the school with a gun?

Also, people on both sides of this whole debate seem to be doing a bit of "dancing" around the topic that I just brought up. Why not just be honest and upfront and tell your debate opponents that you want firearms to fend off agents of the government? Tell them that given the way the government has been gradually eroding our rights and liberties and becoming increasingly tyrannical (cite examples here), you genuinely feel the need to arm yourself against the feds? That you have good reason to believe they might be out to harm you?

I think there is a bit of taboo here. But if you can conquer this fear, and manage to tell other people honestly what your worries are, people might be persuaded to see your side, or become sympathetic to you.

By anon337791 — On Jun 07, 2013

When is humanity going to learn from their mistakes and realize that it is sheer insanity to allow individuals (some a bit cleverer than others who are not mature or responsible enough to decide whether justice can be taken in their own hands?

Ban all weapons from the disposition of ignorant human citizens!

By anon337554 — On Jun 06, 2013

I would say the debate is only with those of special interests who have an agenda. The Second Amendment is clear; in fact, I would submit the most clear of all the amendments.

It states as a matter of fact that the people have the right to bear arms and what is even more important, has the word "infringe." In no other place in the Constitution is that word used, which points to just how serious the framers were about this particular amendment.

Not even the First Amendment, which everyone holds so dear, has that absoluteness that the word "infringe" offers the Second Amendment. Specifically, "infringe" means you can not alter or put restrictions on something.

The opinion above is a moot point when you consider the how the Second Amendment is written and the words used.

You can use all the conjecture you like. You can try to get into the minds of those long since dead, but it is not fact. The Second Amendment contained in the Constitution was debated and approved in its present form because that is what they meant. Period.

By anon330178 — On Apr 14, 2013

One thing the author did not address is the meaning of the phrase "well regulated". It has nothing to do with restrictions or legislation or anything we think of as 'regulations'.

The phrase 'well regulated' in the parlance of the day simply meant "in proper working order" or "functioning as intended".

An update to the text that would eliminate this confusion would read something like this:

"An efficient and effective 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 notion that the framers were so naive that they could not have possibly imagined firearms technology would progress is patently absurd. The same argument applied to the first amendment would make only physical written documents and unamplified public talk the only type of speech that would enjoy protection.

The second amendment is not vague or ambiguous at all, unless you intentionally distort semantics and ascribe meanings to words that are not historically accurate in their meaning.

By anon327714 — On Mar 29, 2013

Re: post 12 (and some others) There is no "individual right to bear arms" in the second amendment, as much as you would like there to be. The amendment states that the right belongs to "the people," which is a collective body, made up of, but distinct from, individual persons. There are in fact other amendments that refer either directly or indirectly to individual persons, or to the people, but without the qualifications posed by the prefatory clause in the amendment. Not only is it the only amendment where the authors felt it necessary to include a statement that defines the intent and application, it is also interesting to note that previous drafts referred to the right to bear arms expressly as an individual right, but the amendment as ratified left this language out.

Also the "shall not be infringed" part of it is not entirely clear either, because you can't just break up the amendment into pieces and disregard those you don't like. You speak about infringement as if it is absolute, without discussing what constitutes infringement, and without putting it in the context of a well regulated militia for the purposes of the security of a free state. This makes it fairly complex, as this article points out, because we have to reconcile the well regulated part with the infringement part, and any reading of it that does not take both into account is incomplete, and I would argue, dangerous to our security.

By anon326754 — On Mar 23, 2013

Ban all lethal gun types made after the ratification of the constitution. Everyone can have their guns (constitutional); it just will not be a mass killing machine. You just have to think before you shoot, because you only have one shot before you have to reload.

By anon323343 — On Mar 04, 2013

What is lost in this argument is the requirement of the text of a well-regulated militia. Regulation is a portion of your second amendment right as much as ownership.

Be prepared as citizens to stand up for proper regulation as you are ownership. If you will not show up to give of your time for militia duty, then be prepared to give up your right to your weapons. This is a simple, explicit portion of the amendment and those who are unwilling to put in the time should be willing to give up your weapons! Anything less is hypocrisy in its truest fashion.

Do not demand something as a right that you are not willing to invest the time to keep.

By anon315110 — On Jan 22, 2013

And I must say, when the constitution was written America was being taxed by England without any representation in the English Parliament, and England was a despot government -- tyrannical. And our Founding Fathers risked their lives and their families' lives, and many thousands died, to ratify our Constitution -- a government that protected our rights given to us by our Creator.

They, our founders, and our Constitution gave us the greatest empire, republic, country, that the world has ever known in the history of humankind. We started the industrial revolution, the journey to equal rights for all and the concept of actually owning your own property.

And so many people today think that the founders are outdated and ignorant. They were not. They tried to create a country that could allow individuals to succeed under their own determination. They did create that great country -- a country that is unrivaled in advancing human progress. A country that other countries could aspire to. And they have. And now, liberal socialist ideas of the past -- yes, of the past -- have chipped away at that grand experiment called America, and now we are not so inspirational.

By anon315105 — On Jan 21, 2013

The point is not about laws being dissolved. Laws are necessary. Laws and rights are separate yet together. What I mean is this: laws should be in place to protect our rights, not to dissolve them. These are rights that are intrinsically within us, given to us by our creator, which no one or no government should be able to take away. One of those rights is the right to protect ourselves from anyone who would take any of our rights away, including a government, thief, home invader, kidnapper, terrorist, etc.

Really, children and toddlers, owning guns? That is ridiculous. We are talking about citizens, individuals. That would be people who understand those rights.

Age is not necessarily a gauge for that. I know nine year old children who have had adult instruction and can shoot a gun and are more responsible than some adults. If our citizens were not armed in the past we would still be under the rule of England.

By anon314701 — On Jan 19, 2013

Personal freedoms are important! Nowadays you have to be 21 just to own a handgun! What have happened to the times, that law should be dissolved. All folk, including children and toddlers should be allowed to own guns. That's how it was when the constitution was written, and that's how it needs to be now.

By anon314388 — On Jan 17, 2013

The second amendment is not vague at all. It states that bearing arms by individuals is a right. At the beginning of the Constitution, it clearly states that we are all endowed with certain inalienable rights, among them are life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The words, "among them," means that there are more (e.i. There were lots of fruit at the grocery store, peaches were among them.) The right for individual citizens to bear arms are, according to the constitution,an inalienable (that means cannot be separated from us, it is part of us) right. So for citizens of the United States, and there would be no United States without the Constitution, we have a right, that cannot be separated from us, to bear arms.

The second point is the term "infringed." This is crystal clear. Our right can not be infringed upon. No one or no entity, such as the government has a right to infringe on the individual citizen's rights. The Constitution does not say the government has any right to have any power over the individual's right to bear arms.

The framers of the Constitution realized that times would advance. They studied past empires extensively, the Roman Empire in particular. They studied human nature and realized that human nature tends to grab power over others. Government is made up of humans, thus human nature is in play in the government. The government's tendency is to become more powerful. And it is much more powerful every day.

You can't whip your child, teachers can't discipline students. We give up more of our hard earned income every day. The government chips away at our freedoms little by little. The framers understood this. They also new that to ensure our inalienable rights and our freedom, we must be able to arm and protect ourselves from any oppressors.

You know, the killer of Sandy Hook tried to buy a gun weeks before he murdered those innocent children who couldn't protect themselves. He was not allowed to buy one. So he stole the guns he used. He was a criminal when he stole the guns. No matter what laws you pass, criminals will break the law. Limiting law abiding citizens from protecting themselves will only give criminals easier targets.

By anon314192 — On Jan 16, 2013

Why should we put the Founders on a pedestal? Some of them owned slaves. Times change. The weapons now are different from what existed in their time. The Constitution should be crapped and redone.

By anon310384 — On Dec 22, 2012

The perspective that the Second Amendment and health care are “handicaps” offers a very clear position of compromise and it is likely a compromise most do not recognize. For numerous reasons, people wish to make decisions without consideration of the consequences. People feel anger, betrayal and outrage for the actions our government takes because they clearly see a government imposing its will or whimsy on other innocent people or countries all the while disturbed at the amount of power and influence the United States has over others in the world. Now these same people wish to give this same government even more power so that somehow they or others will be safer. Somehow in their eyes, a government that has acted at best inappropriately or at worst criminally for the last 200 years should be rewarded and given even more power and control over their life.

This simple contradiction is lost on all and seemingly never discussed by any. Even stated here in the simplest of terms, the concept will be ignored so that the rationalizations can continue with little or no thought by those few who may read this post.

If the US is a dangerous place, it is because it is populated with citizens who simply refuse to think. The Second Amendment is intended to allow the people of this country the ability to protect themselves. These same people who wish to give their rights to protect themselves away to the government seem to do so with a compromise of reality. In their mind, the same government who fought an unjust war in Iraq and Afghanistan, who literally went into communities and homes and forcibly captured and detained American citizens, Japanese and German-Americans, somehow deserves to be trusted implicitly for their own protection and health.

The reason “the rest of the world” does not allow people to own guns without special permission is because those governments can do whatever they choose to do to their citizens whenever they choose to do so. It seems that the true issue being discussed here is that there are those among us who simply want American citizens to be as vulnerable and exposed to the power and influence of others as they see the rest of the world, with respect to the U.S.

By anon309117 — On Dec 14, 2012

The Second Amendment is one of the biggest, if not the only, handicaps, together with the private health system, of the USA. It is a law that has brought extreme consequences and one example is the recent deaths in Connecticut of the kids in the school. With the Second Amendment, everyone has the right to a weapon and no one actually knows if the person who has the weapon is a psychopath and could suddenly wake up one day and kills students and whoever else they please.

It is unacceptable and this makes the USA a dangerous place, and also put the country in a bad light from people looking at it from outside and ruins the potential of going there to study, work or live.

The law of people just having a gun like that is unbelievable. There is a reason why gun ownership is, in the rest of the world, strictly reserved to law enforcement or people with special permission.

By BigShot22 — On Jul 27, 2012

The police argument is an infantile one. So the spin is that you are not bearing arms to protect the security of the State, but fight against it?

The police are not the only armed governmental entity. Presumably the federal government itself would have to be guarded against. That does indeed mean that tanks, aircraft carriers, attack helicopters, nuclear weapons and anything else the average Wall Street titan, or groups of titans, could afford, would very much be protected according to this absurd argument.

Scalia and his ilk are just nuts. Constructionist one minute and absurdly and self-servingly interpretive the next.

By st7672 — On Mar 01, 2012

With all due respect anon92497, Post 4, I believe you are reading things into the Second Amendment that are not there. It makes clear that the right to bear arms is essential to the security of the state.

The Second Amendment does not say that a citizen's right to bear arms is limited to what you describe as "personal arms." Instead, it states explicitly that the right to bear arms should not be infringed in order to ensure the security of the state. This clearly implies that citizens have the right to bear weapons of war.

In the absence of that, how can militias provide for the security of a free state? The founders were deliberately vague about the kind of "arms" that citizens should be allowed to possess because they understood that times change. A militia limited to rifles and handguns might be able to operate effectively in the 18th century but clearly this no longer the case in the 21st.

Taken literally, the intent behind the Second Amendment is clear enough. Perhaps you believe in "interpreting" (reading things into) the Constitution in lieu of being a strict constructionist?

By st7672 — On Mar 01, 2012

The 2nd Amendment makes it clear that the reason why people must be granted the right to bear arms is that "a well-regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state". It is possible to disagree with the premise, but it is clear that the founders felt that the requirements of a militia and the fact that it is essential for national security is what lies behind the right to bear arms.

The founders were deliberately vague about the kind of "arms" that citizens should be allowed to possess because they understood that times change. A militia limited to rifles and handguns might be able to operate effectively in the 18th century but clearly this no longer the case in the 21st. In today's world possession of grenades, anti-tank guns, rockets, mortars, surface-to-air missiles etc. are minimum requirements for a militia. Absent this kind of weaponry, it does not stand a chance.

One could make a strong case that allowing people to possess these kinds of weapons would be extremely dangerous and a menace to society. Perhaps the 2nd amendment''s claim that a "militia is essential to the security of a free state" is no longer true because in today's world it is simply too dangerous. Instead, allowing people to possess those kind of arms would actually pose a serious threat to the existence of a free state. However, the Second Amendment is fairly explicit. Does it need to be amended?

By anon92497 — On Jun 28, 2010

Nothing concerning the historical context as set forth in the Federalist Papers, the expansive written views of the founders, the actual text and the meaning of words support the leftist notion that an individual means of self defense can or should be modulated or regulated by politicians of any stripe.

Does the the right to bear arms entitle one to acquire artillery, surface to air missiles, nuclear weapons, aircraft carriers etc.?

This absurd argument does not recognize the difference between personal arms (knives, swords, hand held firearms,etc., and weapons of war which are designed primarily to kill or subdue all members of an enemy force indiscriminately.

It's quite easy to discern the difference. If the police are entitled to carry any type of weapon (a weapon which would be presumably designed to protect life in a discriminatory manor) then the citizen is or should be entitled to carry the same weapon.

We must remember that the police are not entitled to use their weapons in any manner except to protect innocent life. The same exact mission as that of the armed citizen.

The right to keep and bear arms has nothing to do with hunting; we have no right to hunt. It underwrites only two important principles:

1) The right and duty of all citizens to protect their own lives as well as those of other threatened citizens.

2) It underwrites the collective security of a free people by providing them with the means of overthrowing any government assuming arbitrary authority. This as exemplified by the sad history of wholesale government induced carnage against their unarmed citizens.

By anon92006 — On Jun 25, 2010

You don't like the constitution? Then I suggest moving out of the country. I'm not giving it up. Ever.

By anon86949 — On May 27, 2010

What this implies is that the constitution is so vague, imprecise and laden with ambiguity that it should be scrapped. Perhaps it was just a temporizing measure from the onset and that the framers knew that it couldn't last forever, just long enough to start something that was more than a defense treaty.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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