We hope 2013 brings a civil, intelligent, and constructive national debate about gun policy. Past debates often failed to get traction because Americans have a fundamental disagreement about the meaning of the Second Amendment. Emotions and anger take over – and rational discourse disappears.
But we all now owe the 26 little children and teachers murdered in the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, a sincere effort to bring light rather than heat to this debate. It does not advance progress for one side to insist that all guns should be confiscated while the other side argues “good guys” should shoot the “bad guys.”
What exactly is the right the Second Amendment protects? In the Supreme Court’s 2008 Heller decision, Justice Antonin Scalia was clear writing for the majority: The Second Amendment does not protect “a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any way whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”
The “right to bear arms,” Scalia wrote, only applies to “the sorts of weapons … in common use at the time” of the Second Amendment – which was 1791. What was “in common use” then?
As Craig R. Whitney describes in his new book, Living With Guns, Congress passed the Uniform Militia Act in 1792 – requiring all free, able-bodied white males under age 45 to muster with a local militia and equip themselves “with a good musket or firelock.”