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Searching for the Second Amendment

By Bruce Ferguson
March 6, 2013

REGION — “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.”

That’s it. The entire Second Amendment. A single sentence, just 27 words. Despite its brevity and apparent simplicity, the Second Amendment has been subjected to radical reinterpretation over the years. The meaning we assign to it today might have perplexed our founding fathers.

When the amendment was adopted in 1791, memories of the Revolutionary War were still fresh. Citizen soldiers had defeated King George’s army and the value of “a well-regulated militia” was apparent for all to see. And at a time when the young republic was uneasy about establishing a standing army, the constitutional right of ordinary citizens to organize for their common defense was of the utmost importance. “Gun control” in the modern sense of the term was a not an issue. “Arms” meant flintlocks, and every farmer had one.

But the 19th century saw major innovations in arms manufacturing. In 1836, Samuel Colt introduced the percussion cap revolver. The first repeating rifles were available in 1848. By the time the Civil War raged, Americans were able to kill one another with remarkable efficiency. Even today, after two World Wars, after Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, it remains our bloodiest conflict. More than 625,000 men were killed; more than a half million more were maimed or wounded.

As firepower increased and hand guns proliferated, cities, towns and states began to restrict the possession of firearms. Laws prohibiting concealed weapons were adopted in many states including Kentucky, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas. Even the Wild West wasn’t all that wild. Cowboys riding into Wichita, KS had to surrender their weapons before entering town. And if you wanted to wear a six-shooter, you had to get out of Dodge, literally. Carrying a gun in that otherwise wide-open cattle town was against the law. Constitutional challenges to these prohibitions were virtually non-existent.