December 12, 2007
• Darwin Award 5
Gun Control (3/4/2002)
Why doesn’t the ACLU support an individual’s unlimited right to keep and bear arms?
The ACLU has often been criticized for “ignoring the Second Amendment” and refusing to fight for the individual’s right to own a gun or other weapons. This issue, however, has not been ignored by the ACLU. The national board has in fact debated and discussed the civil liberties aspects of the Second Amendment many times.
We believe that the constitutional right to bear arms is primarily a collective one, intended mainly to protect the right of the states to maintain militias to assure their own freedom and security against the central government. In today’s world, that idea is somewhat anachronistic and in any case would require weapons much more powerful than handguns or hunting rifles. The ACLU therefore believes that the Second Amendment does not confer an unlimited right upon individuals to own guns or other weapons nor does it prohibit reasonable regulation of gun ownership, such as licensing and registration.
The national ACLU is neutral on the issue of gun control. We believe that the Constitution contains no barriers to reasonable regulations of gun ownership. If we can license and register cars, we can license and register guns.
Most opponents of gun control concede that the Second Amendment certainly does not guarantee an individual’s right to own bazookas, missiles or nuclear warheads. Yet these, like rifles, pistols and even submachine guns, are arms.
The question therefore is not whether to restrict arms ownership, but how much to restrict it. If that is a question left open by the Constitution, then it is a question for Congress to decide.
“The ACLU agrees with the Supreme Court’s long-standing interpretation of the Second Amendment [as set forth in the 1939 case, U.S. v. Miller] that the individual’s right to bear arms applies only to the preservation or efficiency of a well-regulated militia. Except for lawful police and military purposes, the possession of weapons by individuals is not constitutionally protected. Therefore, there is no constitutional impediment to the regulation of firearms.” — Policy #47
ARGUMENTS, FACTS, QUOTES
“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.”
— The Second Amendment to the Constitution
“Since the Second Amendment. . . applies only to the right of the State to maintain a militia and not to the individual’s right to bear arms, there can be no serious claim to any express constitutional right to possess a firearm.”
— U.S. v. Warin (6th Circuit, 1976)
Unless the Constitution protects the individual’s right to own all kinds of arms, there is no principled way to oppose reasonable restrictions on handguns, Uzis or semi-automatic rifles.
If indeed the Second Amendment provides an absolute, constitutional protection for the right to bear arms in order to preserve the power of the people to resist government tyranny, then it must allow individuals to possess bazookas, torpedoes, SCUD missiles and even nuclear warheads, for they, like handguns, rifles and M-16s, are arms. Moreover, it is hard to imagine any serious resistance to the military without such arms. Yet few, if any, would argue that the Second Amendment gives individuals the unlimited right to own any weapons they please. But as soon as we allow governmental regulation of any weapons, we have broken the dam of Constitutional protection. Once that dam is broken, we are not talking about whether the government can constitutionally restrict arms, but rather what constitutes a reasonable restriction.
The 1939 case U.S. v. Miller is the only modern case in which the Supreme Court has addressed this issue. A unanimous Court ruled that the Second Amendment must be interpreted as intending to guarantee the states’ rights to maintain and train a militia. “In the absence of any evidence tending to show that possession or use of a shotgun having a barrel of less than 18 inches in length at this time has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well-regulated militia, we cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument,” the Court said.
In subsequent years, the Court has refused to address the issue. It routinely denies cert. to almost all Second Amendment cases. In 1983, for example, it let stand a 7th Circuit decision upholding an ordinance in Morton Grove, Illinois, which banned possession of handguns within its borders. The case, Quilici v. Morton Grove 695 F.2d 261 (7th Cir. 1982), cert. denied 464 U.S. 863 (1983), is considered by many to be the most important modern gun control case.