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Weekend Reader: ‘The Second Amendment: A Biography’

Memo Pad Weekend Reader

Weekend Reader: ‘The Second Amendment: A Biography’


Today the Weekend Reader brings you The Second Amendment: A Biography by Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. In The Second AmendmentWaldman delves into the hidden history behind the gun debate in America. From the NRA’s founding during the Civil War to its radicalization in recent years, he examines the ideological transformation of what was once an organization promoting the safe and sensible use of firearms. Coinciding with the NRA’s increasing extremism was the rise of a Supreme Court majority willing to overturn centuries of precedent to empower the far right. Waldman focuses not only on our moral responsibility to safeguard society, but the balance between individual rights and the role of government under the Constitution. 

You can purchase the book here.

The NRA bills itself as “the nation’s longest standing civil rights organization.” That’s not exactly how it started.

During the Civil War, Union officers had grown perturbed at the poor marksmanship of their troops. Previously, guns were inaccurate, and target practice a waste of time. Now new technology—breech-loading guns and metal cartridge ammunition—made shooting a prized skill. In 1871, militia and army veterans created a new organization to train American men to shoot safely and accurately: the National Rifle Association. General Ambrose Burnside—yes, the same gent whose name lives to describe his distinctive whiskers—served as ceremonial president for a year. Government helped: New York State bought the NRA a rifle range to hold contests. The organization nearly collapsed when the state withdrew its support. “There will be no war in my time or in the time of my children,” New York’s governor assured the group’s leader. “The only need for a National Guard is to show itself in parades and ceremonies.” So federal officials stepped in, creating the National Board for the Promotion of Rifle Practice in 1901. It gave away surplus guns to clubs sponsored by the NRA. Between the world wars, the federal government provided 200,000 rifles to NRA members at cost. After the defeat of Japan, with its membership swelled, the NRA began to shift its focus. Its publications dwelled on hunting and sports shooting, not paramilitary activity. The group lobbied, and was based in Washington, D.C., but its principal focus was bagging deer, not blocking laws. In the late 1950s, it opened a new headquarters building to house its hundreds of employees. Metal letters spelled out its purpose in 1958: firearms safety education, marksmanship training, shooting for recreation.

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The NRA expressed unease with gun laws. But even as its ranks grew, it did not object to the first federal gun control measure, Franklin Roosevelt’s 1934 National Firearms Act, which banned machine guns and sawed-off shotguns. Its chief lobbyist testified before Congress. “I have never believed in the general practice of carrying weapons,” he told a House committee. “. . . I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.” A lawmaker asked him whether the proposed law violated any part of the Constitution. The witness responded, “I have not given it any study from that point of view.”

Crime remained low, and political violence minimal, in the years of consensus during World War II and the early Cold War. The tumult of the 1960s fractured that calm. Gun violence began to assume the status of a public controversy.

In March 1963, an advertisement appeared in the NRA’s American Rifleman magazine:

LATE ISSUE! 6.5 ITALIAN CARBINE. Only 36″ overall, weighs only 5 ½ lbs. Shows only slight use, lightly oiled, test fired and head spaced, ready for shooting. Turned down bolt, thumb safety, 6-shot, clip fed. Rear open sight. Fast loading and fast firing.

A man calling himself “A. Hidell” clipped the coupon and sent $21.45 to a Chicago-based mail order house to buy the military rifle. Hidell was Lee Harvey Oswald. After the assassination in Dallas, investigations angrily focused on the fact that it was possible to buy a rifle and ammunition sight unseen through the mail. Congress considered new gun laws. An NRA official testified, “We do not think that any sane American, who calls himself an American, can object to placing into this bill the instrument which killed the president of the United States.” Gun owners, however, contacted Congress to bury the bill. Lawmakers vowed an investigation of the gun lobby itself.



  1. tdm3624 June 7, 2014

    “American Rifleman started a new column, “The Armed Citizen,” which profiled vigilantes.”

    The Armed Citizen doesn’t profile vigilantes. It profiles people who have used guns in defense of their homes/families.

    1. cgosling June 8, 2014

      tdm3624 – How many people have actually used guns to protect their homes and families? Dosen’t the ease in obtaining guns actually endanger homes and families from armed attackers? Why not register all guns like we do autos?

      1. kenndeb June 8, 2014

        Registration would only benefit those that do not care about laws. Registration also benefits a government in removing weapons from its populous, just like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao did before they started weeding out “undesirables” such as Jews, blacks, and disabled people, or just about anyone that did not bow down to tyrants. Sounds very much like our current regime.

        1. mah101 June 8, 2014

          Sounds NOTHING like our current administration.

          1. Lynda Groom June 8, 2014


        2. rkief June 8, 2014

          That is why you have a vote. Use it, instead of intimidation with guns, to achieve the type of government you want – and be big enough to admit, if things don’t go your way, that non-gun owners have rights as well.

        3. cgosling June 8, 2014

          kenndeb – I realize your devotion to the NRA is absolute and there is no way anyone can convince you otherwise. Perhaps others, reading your comment which compares the US government to the dictatorships of “Hitler, Stalin, and Mao who weeded out Jews, blacks, disabled people and others who would not bow down to them.”, will realize how misguided you are. Your unreasonable ranting speaks for itself.

          1. Lola Johnson June 8, 2014

            Actually, one of the first things Hitler did upon ascending to power was to return the guns to the citizens. He ran on that promise. They had been

            restricted from owning guns as a part of the Treaty of Versailles after WWI.

        4. charleo1 June 8, 2014

          Ah, go ahead and bow down! It won’t kill ya!

      2. DEFENDER88 June 9, 2014

        Because when a drunk kills someone with a car, we blame the drunk and dont call for bans or confiscation of cars. We punish people and the bad behavior, not the object.

        1. Robert Eckert June 9, 2014

          We do, however, take away people’s right to drive cars, even before they kill somebody.

        2. cgosling June 9, 2014

          Defender88 – Maybe guns should be treated the way cars are. Cars are registered, driving tests are required, licenses are issued, and revoked temporarily and permanently. The use of cars is heavily restricted. They can only be driven certain places, not on sidewalks or into stores, they can’t be too loud, they can’t pollute, they can’t be used recklessly or raced on public roads, they can’t be used for criminal purposes as so designated by federal, state and local laws. The more I think about it, the more I like your comparison of guns to cars.

  2. Lynda Groom June 7, 2014

    I wonder if the book covers Madison’s notes on the Constitutional Convention that are pretty clear on the framing of the 2nd Amendment, and the fear of standing armies that brough it about? Has anyone read the book yet? I would love to here the authors take on Madison’s notes.

    1. Robert Eckert June 9, 2014

      The Constitutional Convention did not “frame” the 2nd Amendment. It is called an “amendment” for a reason, because it was not any part of the original text the Convention drafted.

      1. Lynda Groom June 9, 2014

        Indeed the Bill of Rights was presented and ratified after the Constitutional Convention. However to dismiss Madison’s notes regarding issues that would, in part, become the Bill of Rights misses the point of what is in his notes. Here is a very interesting portion that was presented well before the Constitutional signing on Sept 17, 1787.

        ‘In time of actual war, great discretionary powers are consistently given to the Executive Magistrate. Constant apprehension of War, has the same tendency to render the head too large for the body. A standing military force, with a overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty. The means of defense agst. foreign danger, have been always the instrument of tyranny at home. Among Romans it was standing maxim to exite war, whenever a revolt was appended. Thought all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people.’ James Madison before the Constitutional Convention on June 29, 1787.

        The seeds of what would become the 2nd Amendment can be traced to the above speech and other notes from the Convention taken by Madison.

        1. Robert Eckert June 9, 2014

          No, that is the seed of the clause in the constitution that military appropriations must always be short-term, which is why we have a fight over the NDAA (National Defense Appropriations Act) every year.

          1. Lynda Groom June 9, 2014

            One can only assume that you’ve not taken the time to read Madison’s notes. I strongly suggest you do so.

          2. Robert Eckert June 9, 2014

            Don’t get condescending.

          3. Lynda Groom June 9, 2014

            That was certainly not my intention. I apologize if I offended you. The subject of the meaning and origins of the 2nd Amendment often bring out the best and worst in all of us.

            I wish that the ratification of the second had been this one submitted by Madison.

            ‘The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country.’

            That version would be much easy to comprehend.
            The ratifiers switched the order and the arguments over the meaning still continue to this day.

          4. Robert Eckert June 9, 2014

            In either case, it was clearly understood at the time and for two centuries after that the amendment was about the right of local communities to look after their own security. The “right” to bear arms was entirely coupled to the “duty” to bear them in public service. When the amendment was ratified, it was the law in many places that anyone who did not show up for town musters would have his gun confiscated and given to someone who would. In the Wild West, it was taken for granted that any armed man could be drafted at any time (the marshall would say “I need three volunteers: you, you and you”), and that in a sizable town where there were enough deputies, any outsiders would surrender their guns on entering the town. The rise of regular police forces replaced the former role of town militias, and gave rise to this unfortunate detachment of gun “rights” from responsibilities. The further development of this concept of irresponsible gun ownership into the belief that gun owners have their rights in order that they can overthrow the government is, frankly, an insanity, and nothing that the Founders would have recognized.

          5. Lynda Groom June 10, 2014

            Your last sentence sums it all up very nicely. Indeed the notion that the Founders believed that everyone should own a gun to overthrow their govern is insane.

  3. Dominick Vila June 8, 2014

    When are we going to conclude that the British are not coming, and that those who come are not going to be repealed with handguns or rifles, but with missiles and effective intelligence agencies?
    We are not arming ourselves to repel foreign armies. We have the best military in the world. We are not arming ourselves to protect ourselves against tyrannical governments. Both Republicans and Democrats have left their seats peacefully when voters replace them. We are arming ourselves because we have been convinced that we must be prepared to defend ourselves against criminals and mentally ill people, whose right to arm themselves we protect. We are arming ourselves to the teeth to protect ourselves against each other!
    The root cause of our problem is called paranoia, helped by a tendency to take matters into our own hands.

    1. Independent1 June 8, 2014

      And unfortunately, although millions of us have the misguided notion that arming ourselves makes us more safe, the opposite is true.

      Buying a gun does not make us safer, it simply increases the probability that someone in our house will be killed or injured by a gun by a factor of 5 times for women and children. And it even increases the probability that if we try to use that gun to protect ourselves during a break in or altercation, by a factor of 4.46 times that we may be killed. Studies of gun altercations have proven that people that are armed are killed 4.46 times more often in trying to protect themselves than people who are unarmed. Yes being unarmed may mean you end up being robbed, but it’s far more likely that you’ll end up alive after the experience than if you had a gun on you.

      The NRA’s propaganda that a gun makes you safer, and that millions use a gun every day to protect themselves is a flat out lie. Fact is, that of the 165,000 homicides committed between the years 2000 and 2011 only a little over 1300 of those homicides were justifiable homicides for the purpose of self protection.

      And what’s even more telling, is that the vast majority of gun related homicides occur in red states with high gun ownership rates – rates of 45-60% gun ownership. Which shows clearly that a large number of people being killed by guns are in fact gun owners who either couldn’t get to their gun in time to protect themselves, or were in fact killed because they in fact tried to use the gun the owned for self protection.

      To substantiate some of what I’m saying, here’s an excerpt from an article maintained by the medical department of the state of Utah – the only red state where people are projected to live to age 80:

      The issue of “home defense” or protection against intruders or assailants may well be misrepresented. A study of 626 shootings in or around a residence in three U.S. cities revealed that, for every time a gun in the home was used in a self-defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides (Kellermann et al, 1998). Over 50% of all households in the U.S. admit to having firearms (Nelson et al, 1987). In another study, regardless of storage practice, type of gun, or number of firearms in the home, having a gun in the home was associated with an increased risk of firearm homicide and suicide in the home (Dahlberg, Ikeda and Kresnow, 2004). Persons who own a gun and who engage in abuse of intimate partners such as a spouse are more likely to use a gun to threaten their intimate partner. (Rothman et al, 2005). Individuals in possession of a gun at the time of an assault are 4.46 times more likely to be shot in the assault than persons not in possession (Branas et al, 2009). It would appear that, rather than being used for defense, most of these weapons inflict injuries on the owners and their families.

      And here’s the entire article which contains a lot of not so nice statistics about owning a gun:


  4. cgosling June 8, 2014

    Waldman is correct. This is a good book, well researched. A right leaning Supreme Court enabled a few to make big bucks on guns. NRA members have been brain washed into thinking their rights are being violated and their freedom threatened to a point where they will have to resort to violence. They have spent small fortunes hoarding guns and ammo which, upon their death, will gradually be dispersed to family and friends, and finally sold illegally to abet and aid criminals.

    1. Independent1 June 8, 2014

      Below is the link to an article by ex Supreme Court Justice John Paul Sevens which supports your statement that it is a biased right leaning SCOTUS that has distorted the meaning of the 2nd Amendment:

      Justice Stevens: Supreme Court has Misinterpreted the Second Amendment

      For more than 200 years following the adoption of that amendment, federal judges uniformly understood that the right protected by that text was limited in two ways: First, it applied only to keeping and bearing arms for military purposes, and second, while it limited the power of the federal government, it did not impose any limit whatsoever on the power of states or local governments to regulate the ownership or use of firearms. Thus, in United States v. Miller, decided in 1939, the court unanimously held that Congress could prohibit the possession of a sawed-off shotgun because that sort of weapon had no reasonable relation to the preservation or efficiency of a “well regulated Militia.”

      When I joined the court in 1975, that holding was generally understood as limiting the scope of the Second Amendment to uses of arms that were related to military activities. During the years when Warren Burger was chief justice, from 1969 to 1986, no judge or justice expressed any doubt about the limited coverage of the amendment, and I cannot recall any judge suggesting that the amendment might place any limit on state authority to do anything.


  5. Annemb June 8, 2014

    Excellent article. I now look forward to purchasing my own copy of this book.

  6. Mark Forsyth June 8, 2014

    I can remember being a Cub Scout in the fifties and reading Boys Life Magazine.There usually was a small NRA ad promoting gun safety and shooting competitions on the back pages.Something tells me that the shift in the nature of the NRA coincided or was not far behind a similar shift that took place in the GOP.Both organizations have come a very long far way from what they once were and it seems they are beyond the point of no return.

  7. joe schmo June 8, 2014

    “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.”
    ― James Madison, The Constitution of the United States of America

    “[The Constitution preserves] the advantage of being armed which Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation (where) the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.”
    ― James Madison

    Get over it! We have a 2nd Amendment. It’s been around since the Civil War. Guns are not the problem. People have become crazier probably due to unnecessary drugs, video games, and broken families. Liberal laws allow for no consequence for anyone’s actions. These are just some of the reasons we have the problems we have. Go ahead and try walking down the streets of Watts or Compton at night without anyone around. My bet is you won’t make it to see the morning….. The rules are still the same today as they were yesterday only today we are not fighting the British, French or Indians. Today we fight the crazy’s, drugged out’s, dysfunctionals and gangs. Until we have no more crime I see no point in eliminating guns….Sorry.

    1. cgosling June 8, 2014

      SCOTUS got it wrong. Originally “a well regulated state militia referred’ to what we call today, the National Guard, not individuals hoarding guns to be used against their government. The NRA was created to teach marksmanship and gun safety, not revolution. Gun ownership in the wild west served a protective service until law and order was established. Today, an excess of guns sold illegally and without strict controls such as universal registration endangers law enforcement officers and law bidding citizens. Whats wrong with registration? Federal, state and local governments have not, cannot and never have legally confiscated guns. Most guns bought legally will end up being sold illegally years from now unless those who have died take them to the grave.

      1. joe schmo June 9, 2014

        You see there is a problem with what you say. Gun safety classes used to be a requirement in which to own a gun. At least they were in the state I reside in.

        If you eliminate the 2nd amendment in this country it will anger many people. No matter how you look at it, the 2nd Amendment was put in our Constitution for a reason. The laws and amendments should be maintained. There are also many Liberals that like to hunt. So it is not merely a Conservative issue. Unfortunately, crime has not changed in this country. It is still dangerous for anyone to walk on any city street or alley alone. I wouldn’t even trust being in the woods by myself. Safety is an issue. Like many, I also do not trust our government at the moment so it becomes a no brainer.

        What’s wrong with registration? Come on, I think you can answer that one all on your own. …. People will still get a hold of guns, illegally. If you take the guns away from honest citizens, criminals will still have them and honest citizens will become criminals. It would become a raquet just like drugs. Besides, criminals will resort to other weaponry like knifes, baseball bats, etc…. So in essence your complaints are unwarranted and unrealistic. Case in point, Washington DC has the strictest gun control laws and yet it has the most crime. You cannot check on every single person who owns or has been given a gun. Just as you cannot catch every single illegal crossing over into the US. It would cost the taxpayers tons of money. Something I really don’t want to contribute my tax dollars too. I would rather see the money spent towards unemployment and the economy.

        I think laws need to be stricter and criminals need to be prosecuted more heavily. I also feel we need more mental evaluations and institutions. Institutions were largely eliminated in my state and many who needed to be institutionalized were released. I believe we are finding out that we need more mental evaluations on risky individuals. Again, I would rather see my tax dollars go in securing individuals who are a risk to society. I also believe that those on death row should be eliminated. Our prisons are way too full. I know you wouldn’t agree but I really don’t care because the 2nd amendment just like immigration are 2 things that bring the hackles up for many Americans that is why there has been no resolve. Obama has a tendency to just slip things in and once he is called on a scandal he tries to divert it in some other direction. He is the most corrupt president we have ever had. 2.5 years seems like an eternity but then again, his ideology is not set in stone and can be reversed in the future, thankfully.

      2. Kurt CPI June 9, 2014

        There are two distinct parts to the 2nd Amendment. The first,as you mentioned, is the State militias. The second addresses the right of the people to keep and bear arms. The debate will rage forever whether the second part is in support of the first, or if the two parts (either of which can stand without the other) were summed into a single amendment because they both address removing power from the federal government exclusively control firearms. Both interpretations have merit. A literal read favors the opinion that each and every American has the right to own a gun. It requires an interpretive read to come to the alternate conclusion. That said, I see no problem with background checks prior to gun purchases. Registration has its pros and cons. Certainly from a law enforcement perspective it helps to identify potential suspects if a weapon can be identified in a crime. It also deters people from purchasing guns for others who could not legally purchase one. The bigger problem, in my view, is that it will simply drive the legal trading of guns underground. It will criminalize half the population, as Connecticut discovered, because gun owners strongly believe not only that they have the right to own a gun (they do), but also that if they choose to exercise that right that it’s nobody else’s business. 99.99999% of them are as law abiding as non owners.

        The article attempts to categorize the NRA as having been taken over by skinhead political activists. That’s simply disingenuous. If you read the article ignoring the tone and rhetoric, you’ll find that it spells out the democratic process of change over the last ~150 years.

        The first eight amendments amount to a list of specific areas where government is forbidden to tread. The 9th makes it clear that the first 8 are not an exclusive list. And the 10th further limits federal power to only what is granted to it in the Constitution.

        1. joe schmo June 9, 2014

          So if registration is mandatory, how do you prevent people from getting illegal guns? I think it will make criminals out of honest citizens. It will not deter people from purchasing guns for others who could not legally purchase one. Specifically if they are as corrupt as the person wanting the gun. Won’t work.

          Second point of your post regarding guns is spot on.

          Look, it has the 2nd amendment is part of what we are. December 1791 – Bill of Rights. That is a long long time. I really think it will be extremely difficult to disarm the populace. For now, sorry, won’t happen. I don’t really give a flying F if the first 8 are not exclusive. So let’s just stop changing the Constitution and Bill of Rights shall we. There is a reason why the papers are laid out the way they were proposed.

          1. Kurt CPI June 10, 2014

            The first 8 limit SPECIFIC federal power. the 9th says the first 8 don’t define EVERY limitation, that indeed there are more limitations to federal power that are not defined by the first 8. The 10th expands on the 9th by further reducing the power of the federal government to only those items granted to it specifically by the Constitution. You should give a flying F, because if it weren’t for those those amendments we’d have long ago been reduced to a Soviet-style republic.
            As far as your comments on registration, many of the spontaneous acts of violence by unstable people have been preceded by legal purchases of guns. Background checks would possibly make it impossible for these people to have legally purchased guns (background checks are different than registration). And it can be argued that someone would be less likely to legally purchase a gun for for someone who failed a background check if their name were attached to it. I never said I supported registration, only presented the argument for. I agree with you that it would have virtually no effect on common crimes committed using guns, or “going postal” crimes. I support the second amendment in its literal form. I also support all of the other Bill of Rights amendments. Read them again and see if you give a flying F, they’re all about protecting your freedoms.

          2. joe schmo June 10, 2014

            Well, I suppose you can go on all you like about the Amendments and I did go back and reread the first 8. And, as far as I see it, even though the Constitution and Amendments were well intentioned, our president, a Constitutional attorney has found every loop hole he possibly can to turn us into a ‘Soveit-style republic.’ Of course, some new president down the line can reverse all he has corrupted but for now the damage has been done. And here we sit at each others throats.

            I see your point. Sure I am all for background checks but there are times when people show up clean with no prior convictions and still end up harming others. If a criminal or someone who is insane really wants to find a weapon, they most likely can and will. Even if the 2nd Amendment is removed, we still have Mexico below us. Drug trafficking is a huge money maker and it has only gotten worse. What do you suppose will happen if we totally eliminate guns in this Country. Mexico will have a new racquet, won’t they.

            As for our Liberal system and the treatment of children. I throw this in because I think we have released the reigns on our young people. Freedom of expression is great in a sense but there are times we need to pull in the reins and reprimand. An example, I have no children, however; I have worked with large animals most of my life. They are like children. If you let these large animals have their way with little discipline, they become aggressive and literally will kill you. I have learned to be consistent, loving yet I reprimand when necessary. Society has become somewhat dysfunctional in this way. Non consistency and lack of attention have spawned unstable personalities. Let alone the drugs their parents did when they were younger. There is more autism now than there ever was in the past. Why do you think that is? And don’t blame it on the environment. We had more pollution when I was a child and no one ever thought about killing anyone for the sheer pleasure of it. Dysfunction, liberal upbringing, lack of discipline, divorce and ignoring children leads to children who would most likely act out in violent ways. I’m not saying all children, but, certainly some. Perhaps society should care more. How to get more involved is hard to say. Maybe you all will come up with a better idea.

            As for now, I appreciate your candor and understand where you are coming from. This is the way it should be between parties. That is, to come to some understanding.
            Thank you:)

          3. cgosling June 10, 2014

            Joe – If Obama is the most dishonest president we have ever had, then where does bush fit in on your ranking? He and his cronies have caused untold war deaths, injury and expense. You must have overlooked him on your list of dishonest presidents. Are you sure you don’t have a little bias?

          4. joe schmo June 11, 2014

            I’m right there with you on Bush. I stick up for what I believe is fair and just for our Country. The only thing I care for that Bush stood for was our troops, and then that is debatable because he got us into a senseless war which I was against…..

    2. JPHALL June 9, 2014

      The second amendment didn’t arise during the Civil War. “The amendments were introduced by James Madison to the 1st United States Congress as a series of legislative articles. They were adopted by the House of Representatives on August 21, 1789, formally proposed by joint resolution of Congress on September 25, 1789, and came into effect as Constitutional Amendments on December 15, 1791.” (See Wikipedia).

      1. joe schmo June 9, 2014

        Right you are….a long long time. So let’s just leave it as it is shall we….

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