By Ryan Blodgett
Gun control is as super-charged as political issues come, even more so after this month’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
It’s dealt with by a variety of government actors at many levels — both the states and the federal government regulate guns in lots of different ways. These regulations, however, are restricted by the Second Amendment to the Constitution, though we’re still all in disagreement over what that amendment really means.
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.”
There has been a ton of debate about what exactly that preceding statement means. Most of this debate is about whether the first half of the text of the Second Amendment means anything at all.
Generally, people who favor gun control think that the text’s first half informs the second half, meaning that the “right to bear arms” only applies to “a well regulated militia” as part of a “free state.” People who oppose gun control generally think that this first half is separate from and does not change the meaning of the second half.
The Supreme Court has made a few big rulings on this issue in the last few years. Prior to 2008, the last really big Supreme Court ruling on gun control was United States v. Miller, decided in 1939. In that case, the Supreme Court determined that the government could constitutionally prohibit people from owning sawed-off shotguns (pretty much). The significance of this ruling was that it meant that the government could regulate special weapons (including bazookas) without running afoul of the Second Amendment.
But, it was less clear what regulations could apply to more traditional guns like hunting rifles.
Since the decision in that case, the court system generally thought of the right to bear arms as not being a particularly strong individual right. This changed four years ago when the Supreme Court decided District of Columbia v. Heller.
In Heller, the Court found unconstitutional a federal law that prohibited hand-gun (pistol) ownership in Washington, D.C., and required that any rifles and shotguns in D.C. homes be disassembled or locked up. Finding these restrictions unconstitutional, for the first time in the nation’s history, the Supreme Court recognized an individual right to bear arms, at least for people living on federal land.
Two years later, the Supreme Court decided McDonald v. Chicago and extended the Heller decision to the 50 states. Striking down Chicago’s ban on handgun ownership, the Supreme Court had now determined that the government cannot ban handguns outright.
But, what restrictions does that leave? There are a lot of other ways of regulating guns, if you’re into that. The Supreme Court has said relatively little to prohibit the government from requiring guns be registered, instituting waiting periods, banning certain types of guns (e.g. sawed-off shot guns and assault rifles), and banning felons from owning guns.
In the wake of recent events, some are even pushing for Congress to require gun owners to purchase liability insurance. And after the Affordable Health Act being found constitutional, I suppose now is the time to require insurance for everything.
In any case, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more Second Amendment cases in the Supreme Court over the next few years as Americans and their lawmakers push to regulate (or not regulate) guns.