At a time of renewed debate over guns in America, what does the Second Amendment mean? Read more...
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At a time of renewed debate over guns in America, what does the Second Amendment mean? This book looks at history to provide some surprising, illuminating answers.
The Amendment was written to calm public fear that the new national government would crush the state militias made up of all (white) adult men--who were required to own a gun to serve. Waldman recounts the raucous public debate that has surrounded the amendment from its inception to the present. As the country spread to the Western frontier, violence spread too. But through it all, gun control was abundant. In the 20th century, with Prohibition and gangsterism, the first federal control laws were passed. In all four separate times the Supreme Court ruled against a constitutional right to own a gun.
The present debate picked up in the 1970s--part of a backlash to the liberal 1960s and a resurgence of libertarianism. A newly radicalized NRA entered the campaign to oppose gun control and elevate the status of an obscure constitutional provision. In 2008, in a case that reached the Court after a focused drive by conservative lawyers, the US Supreme Court ruled for the first time that the Constitution protects an individual right to gun ownership. Famous for his theory of "originalism," Justice Antonin Scalia twisted it in this instance to base his argument on contemporary conditions.
In "The Second Amendment: A Biography," Michael Waldman shows that our view of the amendment is set, at each stage, not by a pristine constitutional text, but by the push and pull, the rough and tumble of political advocacy and public agitation.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2014-04-07
- Reviewer: Staff
Though not likely to end controversial debates, Waldman (My Fellow Americans), president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, delivers a balanced review of the history of Second Amendment politics and jurisprudence. He goes back to colonial America to distinguish original from changed meanings of gun ownership in the U.S. It’s a story of sudden, violent rupture—continuity for two centuries, then radical transformation when the NRA, with the help of a “remarkable, concerted legal campaign,” got involved in opposing gun control in the 1970s. As Waldman shows, the idea of individual gun ownership “simply did not come up” at the Constitutional Convention, but when Madison and others wrote a muddled Second Amendment, the seeds for later confusion and claims were laid. Guns, of course, abounded, but without constitutional protection. That laissez-faire situation ended when lawyers, ideologues, and special interests, all benefiting from the backlash against cultural change after the 1960s, campaigned to change constitutional law. Its result was the Supreme Court’s notorious 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, which enunciated new constitutional law—law that even some of the nation’s most conservative jurists condemned. Waldman relates this tale in clear, unvarnished prose and it should now be considered the best narrative of its subject. (June)