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What Does the Second Amendment Mean Today?

58 Pages Posted: 27 Apr 2000  

Michael C. Dorf

Cornell Law School

Multiple version iconThere are 2 versions of this paper

Date Written: March 2000


A growing body of scholarship argues that the Second Amendment protects a right of individuals to possess firearms, regardless of whether those individuals are organized in state militias. Proponents of the individual right view do not merely disagree with those who champion the competing view that the Second Amendment poses few if any obstacles to most forms of gun control legislation by the state or federal governments. They appear to believe that the Second Amendment has been subject to uniquely shabby treatment by the courts and, until recently, academic commentators.

This Article argues that the Second Amendment has not been unfairly orphaned. The courts and commentators that reject the individual right scholars' claims are justified in doing so by the application of the same criteria of interpretation commonly applied to other constitutional provisions, including: doctrine; text; original understanding; structural inference; post-adoption history; and normative considerations. In contrast to the individual right view, under the "collective right" interpretation, the Second Amendment protects some right of state militias against undue federal interference but no right of individuals against either federal or state regulation. This Article is sympathetic to the collective right view but acknowledges that the Second Amendment is, and has always been, somewhat puzzling. Motivated in large measure by the Founders' distrust of standing armies, even on the broadest reading, the Second Amendment does nothing to prevent the federal government from maintaining a standing army. So, too, the right of rebellion that has served as the principal normative justification for a right to possess firearms has been emphatically rejected by our constitutional history.

Suggested Citation

Dorf, Michael C., What Does the Second Amendment Mean Today? (March 2000). Columbia Law School, Public Law Working Paper No. 6. Available at SSRN: or

Michael C. Dorf (Contact Author)

Cornell Law School ( email )

Myron Taylor Hall
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853-4901
United States


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