Some legal scholars believe the amendment protects a right to keep and bear only those firearms that are necessary for ongoing service in a state militia. Other equally distinguished scholars hold the view that the amendment guarantees individual Americans the right to possess and use firearms, even when the guns are not related to service in a militia.
The US Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments Tuesday in a potential landmark case that could settle the question once and for all.
The high court last addressed the issue almost 70 years ago in a case called US v. Miller. But that decision left the debate unresolved.
The Supreme Court's jurisprudence has been marked by a surprising lack of clear and decisive action on the Second Amendment. As a result, many of the legal briefs in the current case instead of emphasizing prior decisions of the high court offer competing versions of American history, focusing on the debates, writings, and experiences of the nation's founding era.
An unprecedented case
It presents what Georgetown University Law Center Professor Randy Barnett calls a "clean case."
"There is really no precedent standing in the way of the court enforcing the original meaning of this provision," Professor Barnett told reporters recently. "That's what makes this a historic case. That's what makes it a case that none of us … have probably witnessed in our lifetime and may never witness again."
But that's also what makes it unpredictable, according to other analysts.
The justices must decide what the authors of the Second Amendment meant when they wrote and approved these words: "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."
In addition to settling a historic debate, how the high court reads those words will hold important implications for the constitutionality of gun control measures across the US. It could also inject the fiery issue of guns into the 2008 campaigns for president and Congress.
The debate over gun rights and gun-control exists at a major fault line in American political culture. One side views guns as a threat to public safety; the other views them as a protection of personal safety and national liberty.
Dick Anthony Heller, a special police officer at the Federal Judicial Center, wanted to keep a handgun in his Washington home for self-defense. But the city government refused to issue him a permit, citing the city's stringent gun laws.
Mr. Heller sued in early 2003, charging that the handgun ban and other measures violated his Second Amendment right.
A federal judge threw the case out in March 2004, ruling that since Heller was not a member of a militia he had no constitutional right to firearms. But that judgment was reversed 2 to 1 last year by a panel of the US Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The appeals court found that the right to arms established in the Second Amendment is broader than a narrow link to a militia.
In appealing to the Supreme Court, lawyers for the city argue that the Second Amendment protects only militia-related firearms rights, not the personal use and possession of firearms. The city's lawyers say the first clause of the amendment limits the scope of the entire amendment.
Lawyers for Heller disagree. They characterize the amendment's first clause as a preamble to the rights-securing language in the second clause. "The preamble cannot contradict or render meaningless the operative text," writes Heller's lawyer, Alan Gura, in his brief to the court.
In the Constitution, when the framers refer to "the people," they are discussing individual rights, Mr. Gura says. By conferring a right to "keep" arms, the people thereby enjoy a right to have arms in their homes and use them for personal protection, he says.
Lawyers for the District of Columbia say the Second Amendment was not written to create an armed populace. It was designed to address concerns about national power to arm – or disarm – the state militias. "The amendment prevents Congress from interfering with the right of the people of each state to arm a well-regulated militia composed not of professional soldiers, but of the people themselves," writes Todd Kim, solicitor general of the District of Columbia, in his brief to the court.
Other gun laws may be affected
District of Columbia v. Heller requires the high court to confront a series of questions. First, what kind of right does the Second Amendment secure, a collective, militia-related right or an individual right?
Second, if it secures an individual right, is that right violated by a handgun ban and other strict gun-control measures such as those enacted in Washington?
To answer the latter question the high court would have to decide what level of constitutional scrutiny to apply to the city's gun-control laws. Will they use the strict scrutiny applied to protect the free speech rights of the First Amendment and other fundamental rights? Or will they use the lower level of scrutiny generally applied against government regulations?
This is the aspect of the case that could jeopardize gun-control measures in other parts of the country.
Some analysts say that even if a majority of justices rule that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to arms, their ruling will not necessarily undercut most existing gun-control laws.
A similar handgun ban in Chicago would probably be unconstitutional, they say, but widely adopted gun-control measures like background checks and machine gun restrictions would most likely survive.
"The issues in this case are not about eliminating all reasonable restrictions on firearms," says Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz, who authored a friend of the court brief on behalf of Texas and 30 other states urging the high court to strike down the handgun ban.
"Instead, they are about does the Second Amendment protect a real right," he says. A decision in the case is expected by late June.