In an interview, he floated ideas like licensing and mandatory training for gun owners, as well as a buyback program to reduce the more than 300 million guns estimated to be in circulation nationwide. But like its forebears in gun-control advocacy, Guns Down isn’t touching the Second Amendment itself—at least not yet. “That’s a conversation the movement is going to have and the country is going to have,” Volsky told me.
Like the nine other additions to the Constitution that form the Bill of Rights, the precise wording of the Second Amendment emerged from considerable debate. James Madison considered proposals from state ratifying conventions and leaned heavily on the declaration of rights from his own state of Virginia. But the language ratified in 1791 is indisputably awkward:
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.
Did the amendment mean to protect state militias, or did it grant a much broader right “to keep and bear arms” for every individual? For most of the country’s history, Michael Waldman writes in his 2014 book, The Second Amendment: A Biography, there wasn’t much debate: “For 218 years, judges overwhelmingly concluded that the amendment authorized states to form militias, what we now call the National Guard.”
In 2008, that all changed. Writing for a 5-4 Supreme Court majority, Justice Antonin Scalia—the conservative who filled the vacancy created by Warren Burger’s 1986 retirement—authored the decision in District of Columbia v. Heller that interpreted the Second Amendment as granting an individual the right to bear arms. The ruling struck down D.C.’s handgun ban and provided a landmark victory in the decades-long push by the conservative legal community and gun-rights supporters.
But unlike the Court’s decision in Citizens United two years later on campaign financing, it did not prompt calls for a constitutional change, nor did it alter the gun-control movement’s core strategy of trying to build consensus for “common sense” restrictions on gun access. Then as now, most gun-control advocates begin just about any call for action by restating their support for the Second Amendment. It’s a required preamble of sorts, a way of telling gun owners, I come in peace.
“I always start off and say, ‘I’m not against guns,’ so people don’t just turn you off immediately,” said Representative Robin Kelly of Illinois, a Chicago-area Democrat who has helped lead gun-control efforts for the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “I just feel like if you’re trying to make your point, people won’t even hear you if they think you’re against guns or you’re against the Second Amendment.”
The simplest reason why there hasn’t been a movement to change the Second Amendment is the daunting process for amending the Constitution, which requires a two-thirds majority vote in each chamber of Congress and ratification by three-quarters of the 50 states. The 27th and most recent amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1992, and none of the efforts since—including bids to ban same-sex marriage or require Congress to balance the budget—have come close to success.