Book Review: The Second Amendment: A Biography by Michael Waldman


Author: Michael Waldman
TitleThe Second Amendment: A Biography
Narrator: John Glouchevitch
Publication Info: Tantor Audio (2018)
Summary/Review:

The Second Amendment: A Biography is a thorough history of “the right to bear arms” in America from colonial period to today.  Bearing arms has always been seen necessary for hunting and self-defense, but in Colonial America the greatest purpose of gun ownership was the duty of serving in a citizen militia for mutual defense.  The idea of militias was highly regarded in the culture of the time since its membership included the most prominent members of the community whereas the regular army drew from the dregs of society. There was a fear of standing armies being a temptation for tyrannical rulers, so the civilian militia was seen as the ideal.

When the Constitution was sent to the states to be ratified, many opponents complained that it did not include a bill of rights and submitted over 100 suggestions for inclusion in a list of rights.  The Framers of the Constitution for the most part didn’t consider a Bill of Rights necessary since they were already encoded in most state constitutions, and by the time the first Congress met the push for a Bill of Rights had faded away.  Ironically, James Madison was among the leaders who didn’t see a necessity for a federal Bill of Rights, but as his constituents were particularly adamant about the issue, he took it upon himself to whittle down and combine the many suggestions into the Bill of Rights we know today.

Waldman takes the time to discuss how this process of revision, combinations, and debate lead to the awkwardly worded Second Amendment that we know today.  He also cites records of the drafting to show that the concerns underlying the Second Amendment were related to individual gun ownership and self-defense as many activists insist today. Waldman examines the quotes the Second Amendment activists use from leaders like Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry and shows that they are used out of context or are irrelevant to the Second Amendment.

The idea and practice of the militia evolved over time with the Civil War prompting a major growth in a federal military.  By World War I, the United States had the standing army many early Americans feared, and militias had all but evaporated.  Even within these changing times, courts still interpreted the Second Amendment as a communal rather than individual right. When the Franklin Roosevelt administration introduced bans on machine guns and sawed-off shotguns, event the president of the National Rifle Association wrote in support of sensible gun regulations.

The great societal upheavals of the 1960s – especially expanded civil rights for Black Americans and urban riots – lead to a backlash among conservative white people who began emphasizing the right to firearms for individual defense. At a NRA convention in Cincinnati in 1977, the more conservative members revolted against leadership and moved the organization to be the activist gun rights lobbying organization we’re familiar with today.

At the same time, judicial appointees from the Nixon and Reagan (and later the Bushes) made the courts more conservative in their interpretations of the Second Amendment.  Waldman focuses particularly on Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and his idea of following the original intent of the Framers. Waldman demonstrates that original intent is actually a reactionary and activist position. Over Scalia’s long career on the Supreme Court, he went to being an outlier on the idea of Constitutional originalism to being in a judiciary where such interpretations were widespread.  Which leads to the landmark case of District of Columbia v. Heller where the Supreme Court affirmed for the first time that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to bear arms.

Waldman’s book is very detailed and provides a lot of interesting context for a thorny topic.  Regardless of where you stand on the issue, I expect this book will show you that there are a lot of things about the Second Amendment that are not what you thought.  This is a good book to read as we continue to grapple with the issues that come at the conflict of individual rights and communal responsibilities.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

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