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Understanding the Second Amendment

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Opponents of laws regulating the sale, manufacture and use of guns fervently invoke the Second Amendment. In their view, the Second Amendment ("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") forbids the government to regulate guns. Period. End of discussion.

But it is more complicated than that. At the outset, let's put aside the argument that the "well-regulated militia" clause signficantly narrows the scope of the Second Amendment. Although most judges and lawyers endorse that interpretation, the Supreme Court, in its controversial five-to-four decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, rejected that understanding of the text.

So, let's consider that matter "settled." Let's assume, then, that the Second Amendment reads: "The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." Now, that sure sounds absolute. But it's not that simple.

Consider, for example, the First Amendment, which provides: "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech." This also sounds absolute. But does the First Amendment mean that the government cannot constitutionally regulate speech?

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes put that possibility to rest in 1919 with a famous hypothetical. "The most stringent protection of free speech," he observed, "would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic." In other words, even though the text of the First Amendment sounds absolute, it is not.

But how can this be so? Doesn't the text mean what it says? Here's the catch: Even though it is true that "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech," we still have to define what we mean by "the freedom of speech" that Congress may not abridge. The phrase "the freedom of speech," in other words, is not self-defining. And as Justice Holmes demonstrated with his hypothetical, it does not cover an individual who falsely shouts "fire!"in a crowded theater.

But that is only the beginning, for despite the seemingly absolute language of the First Amendment, the Supreme Court has long-held that the government may regulate speech in a great many situations. In appropriate circumstances, for example, a speaker can be punished for defaming another individual, for making threats, for selling obscenity, for distributing child pornography, for inciting a murder, for "leaking" confidential information, for using a loudspeaker at night in a residential neighborhood, for handing out leaflets on a public bus, for erecting a too-large billboard, and for using naughty words on television, to cite just a few of many possible examples.

Thus, although the First Amendment seems absolute in its protection of "the freedom of speech," the Supreme Court has reasonably recognized that it does not guarantee us the right to say whatever we please, whenever we please, wherever we please, in whatever manner we please. The "freedom of speech" is subject to regulation.

The same is of course true of the Second Amendment. Even if we agree that the Second Amendment forbids the government to "infringe" the right to "keep and bear arms," that does not mean that the government cannot reasonably regulate the manufacture, sale, ownership and possession of firearms. Indeed, this is precisely what Justice Scalia said in his opinion for the Court in Heller.

It is time for opponents of gun control to stop mindlessly shouting "The Second Amendment!!" as if that ends the discussion. It does not. Just as there is no First Amendment right to falsely yell fire in a crowded theatre, there is no Second Amendment right to carry an AK-47 there.

And that is only the beginning of what the Second Amendment does not guarantee.