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Much of the discussion in these pages the last few weeks has centered on the scope of Second Amendment rights.
Many seem unaware that the notion of an "individual right" to bear arms is a relatively new concept in our history. The Supreme Court declared only in 2008, in District of Columbia v. Heller, that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual's right to own a gun. Until then, years of lower-court decisions and precedent had held that the intent of the amendment was to tie the right of gun possession to militia service.
The court had only considered the Second Amendment in depth once before. In a 1939 case, United States v. Miller, the court unanimously declared that legislation concerning gun control was constitutional because the Second Amendment was written "with obvious purpose to ... render possible the effectiveness of such forces" (i.e., militias). The court recognized the right of militias to bear arms, not individuals. Indeed, if the Second Amendment were designed to give citizens an individual right to bear arms, why even include the clause regarding militias?
This line of thinking held across the political spectrum for decades, and in fact, until the 1976 party platform, the Republican Party consistently supported gun restrictions to keep crime down.
Only since the early 1980s have the mainstream of the GOP and National Rifle Association begun to argue in the courts and in the public sphere that the Second Amendment confers an individual right that must be protected at all costs.
First Published January 14, 2013 12:00 am