Gun Control on Trial: Inside the Supreme Court Battle over the Second Amendment

By Brian Doherty | Go to book overview

1. The Roots of the Second Amendment

The Supreme Court decision in District of Columbia v. Heller declared that Americans have a right to use weapons for self-defense in their homes. That right is protected by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the second of what is known as America's “Bill of Rights.”

This declaration shocked, saddened, even “outraged” (as per Chicago's Mayor Richard Daley) many. However, most who objected to this ratification of an individual right to own weapons think of themselves as friends of the Bill of Rights and American liberty. The New York Times, for example, champion of the First Amendment, condemned the Court's majority as, in effect, cold-blooded killers, lamenting, “The Supreme Court… all but ensured that even more Americans will die senselessly with its wrongheaded and dangerous ruling.”

But the principle laid out in Heller would have seemed perfectly natural to nearly any American of the founding era. To most, it would have been so obvious that the government can't legitimately disarm a free people that even spelling it out would have seemed bizarre and pointless. That the right existed—even if, say, a Quaker might decline to practice it—was as well understood as any social or political convention could be. The only shock that would have arisen out of the Heller decision from an early American patriot would have been amazement that laws such as the ones struck down could have existed for so long without being overthrown.

Indeed, one of the advantages promised by the right to bear arms, which the Second Amendment protects, was that the U.S. government would never dare become tyrannical, since the people as a body would always have superior firepower. Even leading Federalist James Madison, who initially opposed the very idea of a Bill of Rights, promoted this idea. Its power to form a standing army notwithstanding, the federal government, Madison noted in Federalist 46, would always be facing “a militia amounting to nearly half a

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Gun Control on Trial: Inside the Supreme Court Battle over the Second Amendment
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents ix
  • Acknowledgments xi
  • Introduction: Heller Makes History xiii
  • 1. the Roots of the Second Amendment 1
  • 2. the Genesis of Heller 23
  • 3. the Politics of Gun Control 43
  • 4. Gun Stories, Gun Culture, and Gun Prejudice 71
  • 5. Guns by Numbers and Heller's Day in Court 85
  • 6. the Heller Aftermath 109
  • Selected Bibliography 117
  • Table of Cases 119
  • Index 121
  • About the Author 127
  • Cato Institute 128
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