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An individual right: Obama and the 2nd Amendment
In his Wednesday press conference on gun control, President Obama said something hugely important. He said that he agreed with the historical understanding of the Second Amendment, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008, that it protects an individual (not a collective) right to keep and bear arms.
"Look, like the majority of Americans, I believe that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms," he said. That might sound perfectly ordinary to most Americans. It is the whole point of the Second Amendment, after all. But that is not how the political left has misinterpreted the amendment for a long time.
According to many on the left, the Second Amendment was written only to guarantee the existence of militias, which are now obsolete, so stripping American civilians of their firearms is perfectly OK. "The Supreme Court on Thursday all but ensured that even more Americans will die senselessly with its wrongheaded and dangerous ruling," The New York Times wrote about the Supreme Court's ruling in D.C. v. Heller, which overturned Washington, D.C.'s ban on most handgun ownership. According to the Times, "the Second Amendment only protects the right of people to carry guns for military use in a militia."
Writing of militias in Federalist 29, Alexander Hamilton put it this way: "if circumstances should at any time oblige the government to form an army of any magnitude, that army can never be formidable to the liberties of the people while there is a large body of citizens, little, if at all, inferior to them in discipline and the use of arms, who stand ready to defend their own rights and those of their fellow-citizens."
The Founders did not conceive of militias as a cost-effective way to have an army. The militia was the people, usually every able-bodied man. It existed not just to serve the state in lieu of a standing army, but to check the power of the state by ensuring that every individual would be trained and armed to defend his own rights against possible encroachment by the state.
When Heller was decided in 2008, then-Sen. Obama agreed with it, saying, "I have always believed that the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals to bear arms ...." On Wednesday, he reaffirmed that belief and said the right approach to gun control is to take small steps that might be effective in reducing the odds of another mass killing, but to do so without infringing on the individual right to keep and bear arms.
Gun sales since Obama took office are evidence enough that millions of Americans doubted his commitment to the Second Amendment. We are about to find out if his actions will match his rhetoric.
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