Of the 10 amendments within the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution, the Second Amendment, ratified in 1791, has been the most publicly contentious of late. With the spate of mass shooting tragedies that made headlines in the past year, the meaning and intentions of the Second Amendment is once again being openly debated.
Why did the Founding Fathers believe so strongly about gun ownership that they included it within the Bill of Rights, which guarantees the freedoms of every American against tyranny?
The Second Amendment reads:
"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."
As Voice of America reports, the framers of the Constitution wanted to ensure the protected basic rights, including the right to bear arms, that they enjoyed as Englishmen. In fact, English laws even required that men practice using their firearms should they ever be called to defend the nation.
When the colonists began to rise up against British authority, early American revolutionaries were denied these basic rights, including that to carry firearms. As Aaron Burger writes for the Christian Science Monitor, the Founding Fathers recognized through the success of their Revolution the potential benefits of an armed citizenry in dispelling a distant government.
Guns also were common; every adult male was expected to know how to use one, even if they didn't own one. Furthermore, firearms available at the time were primitive, with a limited range of only about 50 yards, Lynchburg College history professor Clifton Potter told WSET-TV.
Guns could also only fire a single shot before requiring a reload. (The repeating rifle and the revolver wouldn't be invented until the 19th century.)
The phrase "well regulated militia" has sparked debate over whether the Second Amendment extends the right to maintain firearms exclusively to these organized groups or to individuals. The issue was brought to the Supreme Court's attention in 2008 in the controversial opinion in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller, which intrepreted the amendment in favor of individual ownership rights.
In fact, at the time when James Madison devised the amendment, militias were well defined. They were organized, legally regulated groups controlled by the individual colonies and later the states, according to historian Saul Cornell.
Furthermore, the Founding Fathers regulated firearms even in early America. "States kept track of who had guns, had the right to inspect them in private homes and could fine citizens for failing to report to a muster," Cornell writes.
So even back when a skills with a firearm were expected, the right to own a dangerous weapon wasn't without checks and controls.