According to a 2003 Gallup/NCC poll, most Americans believe that the Second Amendment protects individual firearm ownership. Points in their favor:
- A clear majority of the Founding Fathers unquestionably believed in a universal right to bear arms.
- The last time the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the civilian militia interpretation of the Second Amendment was 1939--almost 70 years ago, at a time when policies enforcing racial segregation, banning birth control, and mandating recital of the Lord's Prayer in public schools were also considered constitutional.
- The Constitution is a document, not a piece of software. Regardless of why the Second Amendment justifies its own existence, the fact remains that it still exists as part of the Constitution.
- The Eighteenth Amendment established Prohibition; the Twenty-First Amendment overturned it. The American people have the means, through the legislative process, to overturn the Second Amendment if it is no longer considered worthwhile. If it's obsolete, why hasn't this happened?
- The Constitution aside, bearing arms is a fundamental human right. It is the only means the American people have to reclaim control of their government, should it one day become irredeemably corrupt.
The Gallup/NCC poll also found that of the 68% of respondents who believed that the Second Amendment protects the right to bear arms, 82% still believe that the government can regulate firearm ownership to at least some extent. Only 12% believe that the Second Amendment prevents the government from restricting ownership of firearms.
The same Gallup/NCC poll cited above also found that 28% of respondents believe that the Second Amendment was created to protect civilian militias, and does not guarantee the right to bear arms. Points in their favor:
- While the Founding Fathers may have supported the ownership of slow, expensive powder-loaded rifles, it's doubtful that they would have been able to conceive of shotguns, assault rifles, handguns, and other contemporary weaponry.
- The only U.S. Supreme Court ruling that actually focused on the Second Amendment, U.S. v. Miller (1939), found that there is no individual right to bear arms independent of national self-defense concerns. The Supreme Court has spoken only once, it has spoken in favor of the civilian militia interpretation, and it has not spoken since. If the Court has held a different view, it has certainly had ample opportunity to rule on the matter since then.
- The Second Amendment makes no sense without the prospect of civilian militias, as it is clearly a propositional statement. If I were to say that I'm always hungry after dinner and so I eat dessert every night, and then one night I turned out not to be hungry after dinner, then it would be reasonable to assume that I might skip dessert that night.
- If you really want to overthrow the government, bearing arms probably isn't enough in 2006. You'd need aircraft to take the skies, hundreds of tanks to defeat ground forces, and a full navy. The only way to reform a powerful government in this day and age is through nonviolent means.
- What the majority of Americans believe about the Second Amendment is unsurprising, because a majority of Americans have been misinformed about what the Second Amendment accomplishes and how federal courts have traditionally interpreted it.
The individual rights interpretation reflects the view of the majority of Americans, and more clearly reflects the philosophical underpinnings provided by the Founding Fathers, but the civilian militia interpretation reflects the views of the Supreme Court and seems to be a more precise reading of the text of the Second Amendment.
The key question is to what degree other considerations, such as the motives of the Founding Fathers and the dangers posed by contemporary firearms, may be relevant to the issue at hand. As San Francisco considers its own anti-handgun law, this issue is likely to resurface by the end of the year. The appointment of conservative justices to the Supreme Court may also shift the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Second Amendment.