Constitutional expert explains original meaning of Second Amendment

The debate on gun control has caused many to question the wording of the Second Amendment and what our forefathers really meant when they wrote it.

Constitutional expert Robert McWhirter dissects the amendment and why it was first devised. The right to bear arms was ratified in December 1791, and the exact wording the right is worded as such:

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.

The term “militia” in today’s terms is most similar to the National Guard. The militia was extremely important when this was first constructed. They were the biggest security force for the government and filled a variety of roles, McWhirter says. Individuals were encouraged to own guns because it was the most reasonable way to overthrow the tyranny of government. McWhirter explains that today it wouldn’t help with that so much considering how much stronger the country’s military is now compared to then.

There wasn’t much talk or debate when it was created. McWhirter says there was more discussion on the Third Amendment about the government not being able to ask people to host soldiers in times of peace or war. It’s something that’s not even relevant to the people in the 21st century. In fact, the history of the Second Amendment has roots in race problems and preventing any revolts led by black people.

“That was the purpose of the militia,” McWhirter says. “The southern states would not often send their arms to the continental army because they wanted to make sure they were there to suppress any slave rebellion.”

The one thing that was regulated in the late 18th century was how black powder, or gun powder, was stored. Because it was extremely volatile, the owner had to follow rules on how to store it. However, they could own as much of it as they wanted to.

“The part of the country with the greatest tradition of gun control is the Deep South,” McWhirter says. “All black people were prevented from owning guns… At first it was indentured servants, and then it became purely race centered. Now it’s an argument for the individual right… Anything black people were denied, that’s now a right.”

The writers of the constitution could have never predicted the kind of technology revolving around guns that there is today. McWhirter says it’s hard to know what rules they would have enforced. The forefathers understood the right in context of a regulated militia. There’s no say on how people in the 1790s would govern gun control in the 2010s.

Sponsor message:

In this segment:

Robert McWhirter: Constitutional Expert

Sponsor message:

Sign up to receive the Arizona PBS Insider

Get up-to-the-minute information about your favorite programs and learn more about Arizona PBS news and events.

Benedict Cumberbatch stars in 'The Child in Time,' a haunting tale of a lost child

The Child in Time on Masterpiece

In this adaptation of Ian McEwan’s masterpiece, premiering Sunday, April 1, at 8 p.m., an everyday moment triggers a crisis in the lives of a happy couple.

'Nova' schedule for spring 2018

Nova "The Great Math Mystery"

This spring, "Nova" explores Roman catacombs, how weather works and other secrets of the universe. Join us each Wednesday at 8 p.m.

'Downton Abbey' producers bring all-new drama 'Jamestown' to PBS Passport


Follow the lives of three courageous, dynamic women who decide to leave their dark pasts behind in England and make the journey of a lifetime across the ocean for a new life in 17th century America.