Examining the Right to Bear Arms

As national headlines simmer on gun violence and gun rights, Tony Sierzega 2014 has been spending his summer examining the Second Amendment. More precisely, he is looking at the legal scholarship and politics behind the individual and collective right interpretations of this section of the United States Constitution.  “My goal is to gain a clearer understanding of the theories of each side,” says Sierzega, “and the implications of these theories regarding the future of American gun culture and policy.” After the 1939 U.S. v. Miller decision, the U.S. Supreme Court for the most part ignored the topic of guns. But in 2008 its District of Columbia v. Heller decision ruled in favor for advocates of the individual-right theory. This shift has cultural, in addition to legal implications.

“It broadens “gun rights” while making “gun control” much more difficult,” says Gerard Fitzpatrick, Professor of Politics and faculty adviser for this research. “Arguably, a step in the wrong direction in light of the many recent events involving gun violence.”

Tony Sierzega

Tony Sierzega 2014

So far, the work has been really interesting, says Sierzega, a double major in Politics and History. “The articles show an almost bitter feud between different scholars and it is just fascinating to see these legal theorists offer their vastly different interpretations of the deliberation process of the Founding Fathers.”

Since the adoption of the Constitution, Sierzega says, the Second Amendment was considered a “dead amendment” and interpreted as protecting the right of the people to bear arms collectively in relation to a state militia. “The federal and state governments had been largely successful in passing gun control legislation, and one of the only major Supreme Court decisions involving guns, U.S. v. Miller, supported the collective-right theory. In the late 1960s and 1970s a change began. Many legal scholars began publishing articles and advocating for the individual- right theory, a theory that previously had not been taken very seriously.”

His research looks into how this theory gained popularity for the next twenty years and the Court’s 2008 D.C. v. Heller decision endorsed the idea that the Second Amendment protected the individual’s right to bear arms. “Basically I have been researching why this evolution of the theory happened and if the Court’s Heller decision was accurate. Finally, I will be looking to see if the collective right theory is officially dead and describe the impact this will have on the potential for the federal government to pass gun control legislation.”

He hopes to turn his paper into his honors research project this fall.