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Jill Lepore: What the history of the NRA can tell us about our relationship to the Second Amendment

The debate over gun control today seems to invariably fall back upon the Second Amendment, and whether its validity still stands in the face of such advanced weaponry. Yet, as Lepore points out in her article Battleground America, this debate skips over a crucial point: the validity of our interpretation of the Second Amendment itself. Have we, then, interpreted the famous words, “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”, correctly? Lepore, and about one hundred years of American, and specifically NRA, history, would argue not.

Lepore constructs a genealogy of the National Rifle Association which demonstrates that the Second Amendment may not be as fixed as we think. The organization, formed in 1871, was barely political – and when it engaged in politics, it did so in favor of areas of gun control: permits for concealed weapons, waiting periods for handgun buyers, and, most interestingly, an act that banned private ownership of automatic weapons. Its motto was “Firearms Safety Education, Marksmanship Training, Shooting for Recreation” – as Lepore remarks, “it didn’t say anything about freedom, or self-defense, or rights.”

This favor toward, or at least acceptance of, gun control lasted a century: after Kennedy’s assassination and the introduction of further restrictions on gun ownership, Frank Orth, executive vice-president of the NRA, testified that ““We do not think that any sane American, who calls himself an American, can object to placing into this bill the instrument which killed the president of the United States.” Facing the 1968 Gun Control Act, the official NRA position was that “the measure as a whole appears to be one that the sportsmen of America can live with.” What, then, changed? How did an organization move from this leniency toward gun control to an outright war against it? And how did the gun control debate come to be centered around the legitimacy of the Second Amendment?

Up until around the 1970s, the general interpretation of the Second Amendment was that the word “Militia” was to be emphasized most: the right to bear arms did not belong to the individual, but to the military group. This was the official stance of the Supreme Court in 1939 – that the right “is not one which may be utilized for private purposes but only one which exists where the arms are borne in the militia … and intended for the protection of the state.” In the 1970s, when the NRA, headed by a new group of conservatives deeply invested in politics, realized the political power an attack on gun control could give an organization. It was at this stage that the current conception of the Second Amendment – one which focuses on the rights of the individual – first came into being. The NRA’s motto, formerly focused on safety, became, “The Right of the People to Keep and Bear Arms Shall Not Be Infringed”, and a movement was born.

This movement gained more momentum with Reagan’s election, under whom a legal study was commissioned to prove that the Second Amendment referred to individual rights. The NRA began funding more and more studies to present this new interpretation – Lepore writes that sixteen out of the twenty-seven law-review articles published between 1970-89 that argued for the individualist interpretation were written to lawyers with direct ties to the NRA or other gun organizations. The idea that the Second Amendment bestowed rights upon individuals was solidified with the 2008 Supreme Court ruling, a triumph for Antonin Scalia, that “the Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia.”

And so this interpretation – this arbitrary, money-fueled interpretation – entered the cultural conscience, until the general public forget its predecessor. And yet this interpretation does not have to be the final one – it certainly has not been the historical one. Former Chief Justice Warren Burger described it as “one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word ‘fraud,’ on the American public by special-interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.” In the face of more and more gun violence, while we ask ourselves the power the right of the Second Amendment should have in a world so different from the one in which it was written, we can ask ourselves as well to whom this right is bestowed, and see how drastically this changes the conversation.


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