A Malady in the American Society: Understanding the Second Amendment of the US Constitution

The rate of firearm deaths per 100,000 people rose from 10.3 in 1999 to 12 in 2017, with 109 people dying every day. About 1.4 million people have died from firearms in the US between 1968 and 2011.”

One of the most important debates raging in American society and polity for decades has been the issue of Gun Control. The nature of the resultant deaths has varied from 21,175 suicides, 11,208 homicides, and 505 deaths due to accidental or negligent discharge of a firearm used with “undetermined intent”. These statistics signify a deep-rooted problem plaguing the question of ownership and control of a gun. A genuine question may arise as to whether this problem is individually only affecting the United States. Seems like it is indeed a cause of concern as compared to 22 other high-income nations, the US Gun-related homicide rate is 25 times higher. Among them, the phenomenon of ‘school shootings’, leading to students preparing for active shooter drills, is huddling in silence as if hiding from an imaginary gunman is a regular phenomenon. This has also been responsible for eleven assassination attempts on the US Presidents, with four “successful” encounters. These heinous incidents have a racist undertone also as research indicates that African Americans, who were only 13% of the US population, were 55% of the victims of gun homicide. Surprisingly, the roots of this problem can be located in the US Constitution itself. The arguments gain a fresh lease of life before every Presidential election with the Democrats demanding stricter gun laws and the Republicans pointing to the Second Amendment and self-defence shooting. President Donald Trump had said that he favoured background checks in the days immediately following shootings in El Paso and Dayton, however, Republican majority opinion regards gun control as a dangerous infringement of personal liberty.

Locating the Origin

To understand the root of this controversy, one needs to travel back in time to the ratification of the Second Amendment to the US Constitution ratified on December 15, 1791. It states “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep or bear arms, shall not be infringed.” It is the wording of this very statement from which most of the controversy has been generated. While a section of Americans believes that the phrase “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms” aligns with the individualist notion, they think that any legislative body prohibiting firearm possession is unconstitutional. On the other hand, the opposition believes in the “Collective Rights Theory” which states that citizens do not have an individual right to possess guns and that local, state, and federal legislative bodies possess the authority to regulate firearms without the infringement of a constitutional right. Most US Courts had until the early 21st century understood it to guarantee the right of states to maintain militias or the right of individuals to keep or bear arms. However, this was to be strictly in connection with their service in a state militia, an interpretation that was consistent with a wide variety of existing restrictions on individual gun ownership and use. The 1939 judgment in the case of United States v Miller too spoke in the same tune. The US Supreme Court held that the Second Amendment didn’t prohibit laws requiring the registration of sawed-off guns under the clause “reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well-regulated militia”.

The 2008 District of Columbia v Heller judgment is considered to be a landmark. The plaintiff in Heller had challenged the constitutionality of the Washington DC handgun ban. In a turn of events that shook global consciousness, the court delivered a 5-4 decision reiterating the history of the Second Amendment establishing an individual right for US Citizens to possess firearms and struck down the DC handgun ban as a violation of that right. It additionally stated that the Court would not disallow regulations prohibiting criminals and the mentally ill from firearm possession. In the 2010 decision of McDonald v The City of Chicago, the plaintiff challenged the constitutionality of the Chicago Handgun ban which prohibited handgun possessions by almost all private citizens. The Court held that this interpretation of the Amendment was applicable against state and local gun control laws as well as against federal statutes. Thus, one can trace how over the course of time, gun control laws have undergone a complete transformation.

The Current American Scenario

A common argument in favour of the unregulated possession of firearms includes the idea that law-abiding citizens can defend themselves against armed criminals. After the mass shootings at a Walmart Store in El Paso, Texas which left 20 individuals dead, there was a marked change in the attitude of young Americans towards Gun Control. A study conducted by Pew Research Centre in 2019, after the Parkland School Shooting in 2018, said that support for gun control was the highest among 18 to 29-year-olds. These findings further suggest that one-third of over 50s admitted to owning a gun. The rate of gun ownership was lower for younger adults at 28%. The Las Vegas attack in 2017 is regarded as one of the deadliest in American history marked by the death of 58 individuals. One of the reasons for these mass shootings can be attributed to the cheap prices at which firearms are available all over the US. The handguns used by Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas shooter, were priced at $200 while assault rifles come at a price of $1500. Some states have taken measures to lessen this social menace. One such example is California which has banned around 75 types and models of assault weapons. There is a divide among the Republicans and the Democrats on the issue of “concealed carry policy”. This refers to the idea of whether allowing ordinary citizens increased rights to carry concealed weapons. One of the most stringent oppositions to gun control comes from the National Rifle Association (NRA), a very powerful interest group in the US. Interestingly, these groups also possess a substantial budget to influence members of Congress on gun policy. A significant Republican section in the United States is reported to be members of the NRA. This corroborates with NRA’s spending going uphill- from $3 million per year to more than $5 million in 2017. The NRA also supports the election campaigns of political candidates who oppose gun controls. They propagate against all forms of gun control arguing that more guns make the country safer.

The Way Ahead

Gun Control laws are expected to reduce the societal costs associated with gun violence. More than 100,000 people are shot in the United States every year, and they generate emergency room and hospital charges of nearly $3 billion. Barack Obama in response to the January 2013 Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting had announced a 4-parter for reducing gun violence: closing background check loopholes, banning assault weapons and large-capacity magazines, increasing access to mental services, and making schools safer. One of the important ideas behind gun safety laws include conducting a thorough background check-up of the person to whom the gun is being sold. Individuals with mental health problems or criminal backgrounds shouldn’t be allowed to possess weapons. Only a dozen of the US’ 50 states require purchase permits (Federal Firearms License - FFL) for handguns. Of those states, only California, Connecticut and Hawaii require permits for the purchase of rifles and shotguns. However, there is a major loophole in the entire body of Gun Control law. According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), anyone can sell a gun without an FFL from their home, online, or even at a flea market or at a gun show as long as he or she is not conducting the sale as part of regular business activity. Thus, selling a firearm from his or her personal collection or gifting a gun is beyond the reach of the law. The baseline being, only those individuals whose “principal motive” is to obtain a profit via the sale will be bound to obtain an FFL. Thus children under the age of 18, a person with felony charges, and mentally ill individuals may also possess guns that were given to them by their parents as gifts. This corroborates with a 2017 survey conducted by Harvard University which estimates that one in every five transactions occurs without a proper background check. It is the need of the hour to amend the constitution with regard to the Second Amendment.

As the US awaits its Presidential elections in 2020, the Biden-Trump clashes rise again on the issue of Gun Control, dividing opinions and voices for and against a gun-free America. It gains relevance as a burning issue as on September 2, 2020, two seventeen-year-olds were killed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This has become a malady with its tentacles spread across America.


Oyeshi Ganguly

An undergraduate student of International Relations at Jadavpur University. Interests range from the Beatles to Manto and everything in between. Travel enthusiast. A philatelist. Harbours an unquenchable curiosity towards everything under the sun.

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