In the wake of the horrific Isla Vista, California, mass killing, Americans have once again engaged the debate over gun proliferation. Victims’ families issue primal cries for regulation of these deadly weapons and gun activists respond by waving the Constitution and declaring their “fundamental right” to bear arms is sacrosanct. Indeed, such right-wing luminaries as Joe the plumber, who not long ago shared the stage with the Republican nominees for president and vice president, said explicitly:
“Your dead kids don’t trump my constitutional rights.”
Iowa Republican Senate candidate Jodi Ernst, known for her violent campaign ads in which she is seen shooting guns and promising to “unload” on Obamacare, had this to say when asked about Isla Vista:
“This unfortunate accident happened after the ad, but it does highlight that I want to get rid of, repeal, and replace [opponent] Bruce Braley’s Obamacare. And it also shows that I am a strong supporter of the Second Amendment. That is a fundamental right.”
This argument is set forth by gun proliferation advocates as if it has been understood this way from the beginning of the republic. Indeed, “fundamental right to bear arms” is often spat at gun regulation advocates as if they have heard it from the mouths of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson themselves. But what none of them seem to acknowledge (or, more likely, know) is that this particular legal interpretation of the Second Amendment was validated by the Supreme Court all the way back in … 2008. That’s right. It was only six years ago that the Supreme Court ruled (in a 5-4 decision with the conservatives in the majority, naturally) that there was a “right to bear arms” as these people insist has been true for over two centuries. And even then it isn’t nearly as expansive as these folks like to pretend.
For instance, that gun-grabbing hippie Justice Antonin Scalia went out of his way in that decision to say that beyond the holding of handguns in the home for self-defense, regulations of firearms remained the purview of the state and so too was conduct. He wrote that regulating the use of concealed weapons or barring the use of weapons in certain places or restricting commercial use are permitted. That’s Antonin Scalia, well known to be at the far-right end of the legal spectrum on this issue. Most judges had always had a much more limited interpretation of the amendment.
Justice John Paul Stephens discussed his long experience with Second Amendment jurisprudence in his book “Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution,” and notes that when he came on the Supreme Court there was literally no debate among the justices, conservative or liberal, over the idea that the Second Amendment constituted a “fundamental right” to bear arms. Precedents going all the way back to the beginning of the republic had held that the state had an interest in regulating weapons and never once in all its years had declared a “fundamental right” in this regard.
So, what happened? Well, the NRA happened. Or more specifically, a change in leadership in the NRA happened. After all, the NRA had long been a benign sportsman’s organization devoted to hunting and gun safety. It wasn’t until 1977, that a group of radicals led by activists from the Second Amendment Foundation and the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms took control and changed the direction of the group to one dedicated to making the Second Amendment into a “fundamental right.”
What had been a fringe ideology was then systematically mainstreamed by the NRA, a program that prompted the retired arch conservative Chief Justice Warren Burger to say that the Second Amendment:
“Has been the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word ‘fraud,’ on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime”