The US has a love affair with guns, and a lot of my overseas friends—many of whom live in less gun-friendly countries—just don’t get it. So let’s start with the text of the US Constitution’s Second Amendment:
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.Second Amendment to the US Constitution
The history of the Second Amendment is pretty well-understood: the British colonists in the original 13 colonies were ticked off at their government, and wanted to break off and form their own government. Britain, somewhat predictably, was not on board with this plan. Britain also had one of the world’s most powerful navies of the day, and was no slouch on the army front either. So the nascent new Americans needed firepower. The British, unsurprisingly, didn’t want their wayward children to have guns. Ergo, when the Constitution was written and the original Bill of Rights drafted, the right to “keep and bear arms” was pretty much a shoe-in.
In school, we’re often taught that the colonists relied on guns to hunt for food. That’s… I mean, it’s true, but it wasn’t the main driver for the Second Amendment. Let’s bear in mind that the Framers are Rich Dudes, and many of them were slave owners. They weren’t tramping through the countryside hunting for dinner. Sure, they may have Hunted, but it was the kind of riding-about-the-countryside Hunting that the European aristocracy did.
What the Rich Dudes did want was a standing army. Lacking a Federal government, they relied on the mostly-volunteer state militias, hence the wording in the amendment. Even Washington’s army was cobbled together mainly from state militias, the newborn Federal government lacking, you know, money and stuff.
State militias in the US are, if you’re wondering, not technically a thing anymore. What we have instead is the Army National Guard, often shortened to just “National Guard.” It’s kind of a collaboration between the states and the US Army. Each state governor nominally has control over “their” chunk of the Guard, although they do have to get Federal permission (from the Prez) to deploy them in certain scenarios. There’s also an Air National Guard.
Over the years, various challenges have been made to the Second Amendment. We actually do have regulations around firearms, although they’re administered on a state level, so they differ from state to state. For example, I live in Nevada, which is a “shall-issue” state for concealed carry permits. That means the state has a certain number of days to reject a concealed carry application, or it must issue the permit. That contrasts with places like California, where it’s decidedly more difficult to get a concealed carry permit. And no, my Nevada permit is no good in California, although it is accepted by some other states. It’s complex.
Like most of the Bill of Rights (our first ten amendments), court cases over the years have put some boundaries around the fairly loose language of the amendments themselves. Freedom of speech is not completely unrestricted, for example, as I discussed in the article on that. The Second Amendment has some scoping rules, too, such as waiting periods, background checks, and other regulations.
At some point, our Supreme Court decided that the “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State” part of the Second Amendment was just window dressing, and said that, essentially, the Second Amendment simply meant, “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.” In other words, you don’t have to serve in a militia or even take a training class in order to have a gun. This feels a little weird to some of us, and perfectly right to others of us, depending on your point of view on the subject.
One argument is that the Framers intended for gun ownership to be widespread, so that Americans could overthrow their government. Obviously, that’s exactly what the Framers were doing at the time: overthrowing their government. In theory, they may have intended for all Americans to be able to overthrow a future American government as well, meaning everyone would need guns. Another perspective is that the Framers were dealing with muzzle-loaded black-powder muskets as one of the most advanced personal firearms of the day; had they been considering our modern fully automatic assault weapons, they might have reworded the amendment. But they wrote what they wrote, and we are where we are, and we can’t actually know what they “might” or “might not” have done.
The wording of the Second Amendment is also pretty sticky. Like, nearly anything other than total lack of restriction is technically an “infringement,” which the amendment explicitly forbids. And so folks who object to any kind of gun regulation of any form really do have a strong legal leg to stand on. Our Constitution, and its amendments, are the highest law of our land, and they’re serious. You don’t bend them lightly, no matter how much you might disagree with them.
Gun ownership is a huge part of the American identity. Like, if you don’t live here, it’s incredibly difficult to understand how deeply embedded gun ownership is in our psyche and culture. Some of it comes from the immense feeling of independence that it also part of the American tradition: we’re each our own person, free to do as we want. We (largely) rail against big government, and we hate having rules put on us. Also, we cherish our Bill of Rights, especially the first two amendments. They’re quite literally part of what defines the United States, and anything that threatens that identity… well, nobody likes their identity being threatened.
And yes, gun ownership in the US is not without its massive problems. It’s a huge political issue, on every side of the question. There’s nothing even approaching a consensus about it, and because it’s enshrined in our Bill of Rights, it would literally take another amendment to make any kind of substantive change—and amendments need an enormous national consensus. And not only do we lack consensus, people on every side of the “gun issue” have passionate feelings about their position, which makes even having debates or conversations difficult, sometimes.
And so we struggle along with what we’ve got.