By Adam Winkler, a professor at UCLA School of Law.
I’ll never forget the scene outside the Supreme Court building the day of oral argument in District of Columbia v. Heller. Scores of reporters and camera crews were there to cover the hundreds of protestors who turned First Street into a lively theatre of debate over the meaning of the Second Amendment. A man with a bullhorn boomed, “More guns!” In response, gun rights supporters in the crowd hollered, “Less crime!” “More guns!” “Less crime!” A group of gun control proponents whispered among themselves and the next time the man with the bullhorn chanted “More guns” they yelled, “More crime!” As in the gun debate more generally, however, the gun controllers were easily drowned out by the more numerous and vocal gun rights advocates.
Although the language of the Second Amendment has confused generations of lawyers, the protestors in front of the famous marble steps of the Supreme Court knew exactly what it meant. To gun rights supporters, the amendment clearly guaranteed individuals the right to own guns and placed strict limits on gun control. To proponents of gun control, the amendment merely provided for state militias and had little relevance for ordinary gun laws. Although the two sides reached very different conclusions, they shared a common view of the right to bear arms. Both sides believed an individual right to have guns was fundamentally incompatible with gun control. We must choose one or the other.
Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America shows that, contrary to the extremists on both sides, we’ve always had both a right to bear arms and gun control. The founding fathers who wrote the Second Amendment had gun laws that the modern gun lobby would never accept. Not only did they prohibit free blacks and slaves from owning guns to promote public safety, they also restricted the gun rights of political dissenters. They required ordinary citizens to buy military style firearms — an early version of an “individual mandate”—and ordered them to appear for mandatory “musters” where their guns would be inspected and registered on public rolls. To them, the Second Amendment was not a libertarian license. We the people were the militia, but that militia was required to be “well regulated.”