How one NRA meeting in 1977 changed everything about the Second Amendment

Jeffrey Toobin, author of the book “The Nine” and contributor to the New Yorker, knows an insane amount about the Supreme Court. Knowing as much as he does about the Supreme Court, he also knows an insane amount about how the Constitution has been interpreted by its Justices over the last couple hundred years.

Today he points out that the Second Amendment was not always interpreted to mean that everyday citizens should be allowed to carry guns.

The Constitution says, “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.” But Toobin points out:

The courts had found that the first part, the “militia clause,” trumped the second part, the “bear arms” clause. In other words, according to the Supreme Court, and the lower courts as well, the amendment conferred on state militias a right to bear arms—but did not give individuals a right to own or carry a weapon.

It sort of sounds like semantics, but the right of “the people” in general to form armed militias was seen as different than the right of each individual person to arm himself.

So where along the way did it change? According to Toobin, it started changing where lots of laws do: At the board meeting of lobbyists—in this case, the N.R.A. Toobin writes:

A coup d’état at the group’s annual convention in 1977 brought a group of committed political conservatives to power. …The new group pushed for a novel interpretation of the Second Amendment, one that gave individuals, not just militias, the right to bear arms. It was an uphill battle.

But it was a battle won, and won so convincingly we don’t even remember it being different. Antonin Scalia upheld this new view in his majority ruling on a Second Amendment case in 2010: “Nowhere else in the Constitution does a ‘right’ attributed to ‘the people’ refer to anything other than an individual right.”

With the ideological battle won, HuffPo notes that the firearm industry now contributes over $30 billion to the economy annually—at the cost of tens of thousands killed by guns every year, of course.

There are also a handful of cases going back to 1875 with the Supreme Court ruling that the Second Amendment doesn’t prevent the federal or state governments from imposing serious restrictions and controls on how guns fit into society. From the sounds of it, the federal government is gearing up for a fresh round of gun control after letting the last semi-automatic weapon ban expire in 2004.