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Albright: Teaching The Second Amendment

If I were teaching a humanities course this term, I would focus on the Second Amendment: what it does – or doesn’t mean. How some read it narrowly as the right of a group of people, like a militia, to defend against tyranny, while others read into it the right of individuals to own high-tech weapons that can kill a lot of people at the pull of a trigger.

I would want my students to research the statistics of gun possession. According to the Congressional Research Service, Americans own nearly half of the estimated 650 million civilian-owned guns worldwide. Since our gun laws are among the most lenient in the world, and we are reeling from an unprecedented string of school shootings, our students should learn, now, what they need to know to become knowledgeably engaged in this life-or-death issue.

Opponents of stricter gun regulation are, as usual, citing the Second Amendment. But I wonder how many people who insist on the right to bear arms have actually read what the Constitution says about it.
“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.”

A lot of ideas packed into 27 words. But the very first phrase, “well regulated Militia,” is often ignored by a gun lobby our forefathers could never have imagined. And how to define “the people”? “The” seems an important little word here. To me, “the people” sounds collective. Read in that way, the right to bear arms might not necessarily extend to random individuals wielding semi-automatic weapons.

Supreme Court decisions, however, do not turn on grammatical nuance. In District of Columbia versus Heller, in 2008, the Court narrowly struck down a federal law banning handguns in the nation’s capital. The 5-4 majority decided that the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals, not just militias, to arm themselves for self-defense. Dissenters wrote that the government also has the right to ban certain guns in certain areas. They were overruled.

In the 1970s, we held teach-ins at school to protest the Viet Nam War, which was killing our friends. Now, there’s carnage at home, and teachers and students are organizing to confront it, as learners, together. And if that means taking field trips to statehouses - start up the busses.