The Bill of Rights and Guns

Explores the origins of the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms. Also explores relevant Supreme Court decisions and engages students in the current debate over gun regulation.

How Has the Second Amendment Been Interpreted?

Clock 50 minutes

For much of American history, the Supreme Court had very little to say about the Second Amendment until 2008 when the Court heard arguments in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller. Richard Heller challenged the city’s total ban on handguns on Second Amendment grounds. The Court agreed with Heller finding the ban unconstitutional.

Founding Principles

Inalienable / Natural Rights image

Inalienable / Natural Rights

Freedoms which belong to us by nature and can only be justly taken away through due process.

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.

Property Rights image

Property Rights

The natural right of all individuals to create, obtain, and control their possessions, beliefs, faculties, and opinions, as well as the fruits of their labor.

Overview

For much of American history, the Supreme Court had very little to say about the Second Amendment. It was only addressed in a small handful of cases, but in 2008, the Court heard arguments in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller. Richard Heller challenged the city’s total ban on handguns on Second Amendment grounds. The Court agreed with Heller, finding the ban unconstitutional and holding that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms unconnected to militia service. The impact of this decision will continue to be analyzed for many years.

Objectives

Students will:

  • Examine the text and history of the Second Amendment.
  • Understand the Supreme Court’s ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008).
  • Evaluate arguments for and against the constitutionality of selected gun control provisions.
  • Assess the constitutionality of the District of Columbia’s gun law at issue in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008).

Materials

  • Handout A: Background Essay – How Has the Second Amendment Been Interpreted?
  • Handout B: A Total Ban on Handguns?
  • Handout C: District of Columbia v. Heller (2008)

Standards

  • NCHS (5-12): ERA II, STANDARD 1A; ERA 10, STANDARD 2E
  • CCE (9-12): VB1
  • NCSS: STRANDS 2, 5, 6, AND 10

Background 10 min. (day before)

  1. Have students read Handout A: Background Essay – How Has the Second Amendment Been Interpreted? After reading, students should write a one paragraph response to the question: In light of the Second Amendment, what kinds of limits on gun ownership are constitutional?

Warm-up 15-20 min.

  1. Distribute and put up an overhead of Handout B: A Total Ban on Handguns?
  2. Have students read each statement and mark whether they believe each stated law would be constitutional or unconstitutional. Note that the task is not to determine whether the rule is a good idea, but only whether it is constitutional or not.
  3. After students have worked through all the statements, go over each one as a large group. Invite students to share their reasoning, and to ground their arguments in the Second Amendment.

Note: several of the statements are based on historical examples: Virginia law permits one handgun purchase per month (3); Felons cannot own firearms in any state (4); Various states prohibit people who have been confined for mental illness or subject to a domestic restraining order from buying guns (5);Under the English Bill of Rights (1689) Catholics could not own guns (6); The final statement (8) is based on the DC law overturned in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008).

Activities 20-30 min.

  1. Ask students to recall what they learned in Handout A about the case of District of Columbia v. Heller (2008). Students should recognize that the case challenged the District of Columbia’s law banning virtually all handguns, and that the law was overturned by the Supreme Court.
  2. Cut out and distribute one card per student from Handout C: District of Columbia v. Heller (2008).
  3. Have students read the statement on their cards. Then have them paraphrase it in their own words.
  4. Ask students to stand up and mingle with their classmates and find students who have the same statement on their card. They should do this by sharing their paraphrases only. Students should end up in six groups.
  5. Once in their groups, write the following questions on the board. Students should discuss them within their groups, and then as a large group.
    1. Is this a statement for or against the constitutionality of the District of Columbia’s gun law? Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?
  6. To wrap-up, explain to students that the statements against the constitutionality of the District’s gun law were from the Supreme Court’s majority ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008). The statements in favor of the law’s constitutionality were from the dissenting opinion in that case. In students’ opinions, was the Court’s ruling correct?
  7. Ask students how the Court’s reasoning compared with their own reasoning in the Warm-Up activity.

Homework

  1. Have students write a model firearms law that they believe would be constitutional under the Second Amendment. They may choose to make no restrictions on guns, impose strict limits, or to find some middle ground—but they should be prepared to justify their law using constitutional arguments.
  2. Have students find a recent article about gun control legislation at the state or federal level. What is the legislation about? Who supports it, and why? Who opposes it, and why? Would you support or oppose this legislation? Use constitutional arguments to justify your decision.

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