Are federal efforts to regulate gun ownership constitutional?
Amid the turmoil and bickering throughout the country, it is important to keep an eye on legislation being proposed both in your own state and in Washington D.C. One such bill on the federal level is H.R. 127, sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX). The bill calls for the U.S Attorney General to establish a licensing and registration system that would require gun owners to inform the government of the “make, model, and serial number” of every firearm they own.
The list would be made available to federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, as well as the U.S. military. In order to obtain a firearm license under Rep. Lee’s bill, a person would need to be at least 21 years old and would be subject to a “psychological evaluation,” among other things. The legislation would also ban gun owners from possessing magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds. While this isn’t an exhaustive list of everything Rep. Lee’s bill does, these are some of the main highlights.
As with any piece of legislation, the question must be, “Is this bill constitutional?” Putting aside the question of whether this bill violates gun owners’ civil rights under the Fourth and Fifth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, I simply want to look at the Second Amendment and the scope of gun rights guaranteed to Americans.
The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution clearly states, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary for the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Some say the Second Amendment was meant for the states and allowed for a state-run militia. However, this argument is refuted by both the very wording of the Amendment, as it clearly grants the right to keep and bear arms to the “people,” and by the words of the men who wrote the Constitution.
In a letter to John Cartwright in 1824, Thomas Jefferson wrote the following, “The constitutions of most of our states (and of the United States) assert that all power is inherent in the people; that they may exercise it by themselves…that it is their right and duty to be at all times armed.”
Samuel Adams, speaking to the Massachusetts ratifying convention in 1788, said, “The Constitution shall never be construed to prevent the people of the United States, who are peaceable citizens, from keeping their own arms.”
Others say that the Second Amendment was for hunting, and that argument is often used to justify various forms of gun control legislation. Rep. Lee’s bill bans people from possessing a magazine that contains more than 10 rounds (because no one needs more than 10 rounds to hunt). Once again, this completely ignores historical context showing that the Framers gave us the Second Amendment for more than hunting or personal defense.
Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, who served on the high court from 1812 to 1845, wrote the following in his Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States in 1833, “The right of the citizens to keep and bear arms has justly been considered as the palladium of the liberties of a republic; since it offers a strong moral check against the usurpation and arbitrary power of rulers.” Both quotes show the true meaning of the Second Amendment; to safeguard all the other God-given liberties afforded to every American under our Constitution.
Obviously, none of this is to say that we can’t bar a convicted felon from owning a firearm, or that we shouldn’t keep someone from possessing a nuclear weapon. There are extreme cases with most of our freedoms that aren’t protected by the Constitution (freedom of speech doesn’t mean you can threaten to murder someone, for example).
What it does mean, though, is that our Founding Fathers intended for law-abiding citizens to keep and bear arms as a means of preserving our liberty. That is an important right and responsibility, and one we must ensure people like Rep. Lee can’t undermine.