One simple sentence in the US Constitution has caused more debate and been the cause of more controversy than any other. That sentence appears in the Second Amendment and is written as follows:
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.
For the first time in 68 years, the US Supreme Court will tackle the meaning of that one simple statement. Specifically, they will attempt to clarify the meaning of one simple comma. You see, there are two ways to interpret the Second Amendment. One popular interpretation, and the one lower courts have used since 1936, is that the right to keep and bear arms is restricted to a state run militia. The other interpretation supported by libertarians and those that favor private gun ownership is that the right to keep and bear arms is granted to the individual not the militia.
The Supreme Court has not ruled on this issue in 68 years but has agreed to do so now, offering a decision in July 2008 - just in time for the November elections. With individual rights being weakened considerably every day, ostensibly under the guise of safety, the Supreme Court's decision could have staggering implications.
What most people seem to forget in this entire debate is the attitude of the framers of the Constitution. The basic belief of the men that wrote this document, and those that wrote the second amendment, is that the people have a fundamental inalienable right to overthrow the government. They said precisely that in the Declaration of Independence:
That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
The framers of the Constitution, in drafting the Second Amendment, sought to ensure that the people would always have the means to overthrow a corrupt government. It is not to a well regulated militia that the right to keep and bear arms is granted. After all, the militia belongs to the state and by definition bears arms. In 1787, the individual state militias collectively constituted the US military. Of course the militia has the right to keep and bear arms! No, the right granted in the second amendment is granted to the People, and it is granted as a defence against the state run militia. It is not to the militia that the right is granted, but rather it is because the militia must exist that the people must retain that right.
When you study the Bill of Rights, you find a series of protections granted the people as a direct response to abuses that had been perpetrated against the colonies at least since the start of the Seven Years War (French and Indian War in the US.) The Bill of Rights was intended to prevent the fledgling US government from engaging in the same civil rights abuses, and the second amendment was no exception. That amendment was introduced to directly counter the British practice of disarming the colonists in the years leading up to the American Revolution.
Which way this court will rule is anybody's guess. The Supreme Court has not been overly sympathetic to the rights of the individual in recent years. Especially in the aftermath of 9/11, the Court has ruled increasingly in favor of the Government over the rights of the individual, and the protections written into the Bill of Rights have been continuously eroded. That is the danger we face with this Court taking up the 2nd Amendment challenge at this time. Should the People lose the right to keep and bear arms, then all other amendments in the Bill of Rights become worthless.
Now more than ever we should heed the motto written on the cover of "An Historical Review of the Constitution and Government of Pennsylvania":
Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.
Let us hope the nine justices that sit the Supreme Court are familiar with that phrase.