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U.S. News
2: The right to bear arms

Wednesday, November 27, 2002


The original debate over the Second Amendment in 1789 did not focus on whether people should have the right to keep guns for themselves. In a nation abutting an unexplored frontier, guns were no more unusual a sight in a home than was a broom. Several states -- Pennsylvania was among the least ambiguous in its language -- proposed words explicitly granting the right to possess weapons for self-defense, defense of the state and hunting game. What the Congress debated, though, was whether citizens could be forced to carry a gun in military service. The amendment as first written contained language exempting religious objectors from bearing arms, language that was dropped after lengthy debate. Elbridge Gerry, a congressman from Massachusetts, worried in 1789 "that this clause would give an opportunity to the people in power to destroy the Constitution itself" by making state militias impossible. As finally adopted, the amendment seemed to predicate the right to bear arms on the need for a militia. It was not until 1803 that scholars expounded on the question of the Second Amendment as an individual right.

When she took up arms herself a few years back, Catherine Montest of Coraopolis "was scared to death" at the idea of carrying a gun. Her job in industrial sales sometimes took her to places she found worrisome. Her husband encouraged her to get training and now, on some travels, she takes along a handgun. "I've got these two really neat kids that I would like to come home to," she explains today. Like many in the midst of the debate over handguns, Montest believes the founders intended the Second Amendment as a guarantor of individual liberties. "You look at these amendments and they all speak to individual rights. It's not second by mistake. They put it up there right behind the First Amendment because it was that important. I don't think they randomly numbered them."

Amendment II: 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.

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