The Second Amendment: A Biography
The Second Amendment: A Biography by Michael Waldman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The second amendment — along with all the ideas and proposals that surround it — is a contentions issue in America today. For a lot of single-issue voters, it is the single most important issue. As the gun manufacturers, enthusiasts, and the NRA flex their muscles, we’ve seen that they can use the Amendment to turn elections and control policy.

Growing up in America’s South, it’s always been axiomatic that the second amendment granted a personal and inviolable right for a private citizen to possess, carry, and use firearms. It has always been a little less clear if that right could ever have any restrictions placed upon it at all — usually a theoretical restriction might be allowed, but the one under discussion is always a bridge too far.

So you can imagine my surprise when I learned that a case could be made that the Founders did not intend the second amendment to confer an individual right, and indeed that this interpretation is largely the creation of relatively recent efforts to implant the idea into our collective consciousness — popular, legislative, and judicial.

Given my background, this is a fairly startling idea. Waldman, however, managers to argue that case competently and, with some caveats, has me convinced.

These caveats are fairly large, however, and are worth noting. First, and most obviously, Waldman is clearly approaching this issue from the stance that guns could (and should) be regulated sensibly. As such, he is no doubt biased to make the case that the second amendment protections for an individual are not nearly as strong as his political opponents assert.

Second, the impetus for Waldman writing this book was the Supreme Court’s ruling in 2008 that the second amendment does indeed confer the individual right that Waldman argues against. Since the Court is the ultimate arbiter of what the Constitution does or does not mean, Waldman is simply factually incorrect: the second amendment says that private citizens have broad rights to possess firearms. Waldman’s book thus becomes an interesting historical discussion about the changing interpretations of our founding document through the years. But its principle thesis, in a legal sense, is wrong.

I was going to say that I would like to see a good conservative rebuttal to Waldman’s premise. But it turns out that Justice Scalia has already written that rebuttal — and it is authoritative.

So instead of proving a point, Waldman’s book can instead be looked at as illuminating a path. If, as he asserts, a large contingent of special interests can rewrite history and create a right where there was none, perhaps a similar group can use similar methods to rewrite our society’s understanding of the second amendment once again. It’s a compelling idea: a revolution composed elections and books and academic papers. And, like the revolution that Waldman chronicles, it may be achieved without a single shot fired at the opposition.