America’s Gun Culture and the Right to Bear Arms: A Look at the Past and Present
An in-depth look at the history of Second Amendment and how it has impacted America’s gun culture in modern times.
The Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, FL on Feb. 14 marked the worst mass shooting in 2018 thus far with 17 people killed and 15 others injured. It was not the first school shooting of the year. It was not the first mass shooting of the year. It also was not the last school shooting or the last mass shooting to take place this year.
This event has re-ignited an ongoing debate over gun violence and lack of gun control in the U.S. But guns have been a part of America’s culture since the founding of this country. The Second Amendment grants Americans a right that is unique to most other countries: the right to bear arms. From the dueling days of Colonial America to video games like Call of Duty and movies depicting gun violence in the 21st Century, guns have been embedded into the DNA of the history and culture of this country for hundreds of years. The Second Amendment has validated this culture since the 18th Century.
The Second Amendment 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.
“Overtime the Second Amendment has morphed from a collective right to an individual right. We no longer talk about a well-organized militia. The guy who shot up the high school [in Parkland, FL] did not belong to any national guard or anything like it. It was the individualization of the Second Amendment,” said Dr. Gustav Seligmann, a history professor at the University of North Texas (UNT). “The Second Amendment has created an intellectual paradox for Constitutional interpreters. What you really find at work is that both sides [conservative and liberal] are willing to change and to move on a principle to get to a political end that they want.”
The Supreme Court ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) shows how America’s gun culture and the Second Amendment have evolved to their present-day status. Historically, the Second Amendment had been interpreted only as a communal right to bear arms through the organization of state militias as determined by the Court in U.S. v. Miller (1939).
In Heller, Antonin Scalia delivered the opinion of the five to four majority stating that the Second Amendment right should be exercised individually and belongs to all Americans. He went on to say that if we limit the right to bear arms to only those in the military, it creates a situation that the Amendment was trying to prevent in the first place. The clause should therefore “guarantee the individual right to possess and carry weapons in case of confrontation.”
The more liberal leaning judges, Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen G. Breyer dissented in this case. Justice Stevens wrote that the Second Amendment is not an unlimited right to possess guns for self-defense and the most natural way to read the clause is to read it as a right to bear arms for military purposes. Justice Breyer also argued that historical evidence suggested that even colonial laws regulated the storage and use of firearms in the home.
This case made the determination that the term ‘militia’ should not be limited to only describing those individuals serving in the military. Two years later, in McDonald v. Chicago (2010), the Supreme Court once again reiterated the Second Amendment was an individual right and held that the Fourteenth Amendment can be used to apply the Second Amendment right to the states.
America’s gun culture is not necessarily a direct result of the Second Amendment and it’s difficult to determine whether the outcome would have been different without it. “There are other cultural factors, I don’t think that’s a predominant explanation for why we have more gun violence relative to other nations. I think it’s the accessibility,” said Dr. Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, the Political Science Department Chair at UNT. “When you look at western movies…Hollywood war movies then yes guns are a big part of American culture you might not see elsewhere but it’s having some negative effects on our safety and our society.”
Due to this culture, and the normalization of owning and using guns, many are introduced to guns from an early age. “My dad is the president of the gun range in Mansfield [TX]. I started shooting at six or seven and I still do. You have people who do it recreationally like my family; people who have no intention of shooting anything besides targets,” said Kelsey Shoemaker, a student at UNT. “But people are also making the case for gun owners not owning guns. The actual solution would be minimizing who has a gun. I haven’t asked my dad what he thinks because he’s more conservative and I’m more left on the issue.”
While some, like Shoemaker, are in support of gun control to some degree, others say any type of gun control violates the right guaranteed by the Second Amendment.
“My dad has had firearms ever since I can remember. So it was probably around when I was three-years-old when he took me out in the backyard to shoot for the first time,” said Jason Armitage, a UNT student and the president of Texas Marksmen, a UNT student organization revolving around firearms. “It saddens me today to see these gun control [and] gun regulations being put into place because in my belief each and every one of those is an infringement upon the Second Amendment. I don’t think the issue is the weapon, I think it’s the society, the culture.”
However, experts say that no constitutional right is absolute. Every right granted by the Bill of Rights has a limit and gun control is an example of that limit put on the Second Amendment.
“You certainly have gun rights advocates who say it’s an absolute right that there is nothing the government can do but very few people agree with that including the Supreme Court. It’s just a matter today of there being enough support in our elected bodies to support additional gun control legislation and that is not happening at the federal level,” said Dr. Eshbaugh-Soha. “It’s always a matter of balancing the Bill of Rights; social order, social needs versus individual rights. No right has ever been upheld to be absolute, even in our Constitution and reasonable restrictions and regulations are permissible. In fact, if we were to visit that antecedent clause, the word ‘regulate’ in ‘a well regulated militia’ is included in the Amendment which one could read would explicitly allow for a reasonable regulation of guns.”