More than 35 years later, no one is laughing. In 2008, the Supreme Court endorsed for the first time an individual’s right to own a gun in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller. The 5 to 4 decision rendered ineffective some of the District’s strict gun-control laws. And Justice Antonin Scalia’s majority opinion echoed the work of Kates and his ideological comrades, who had pressed the argument that the Second Amendment articulates an individual right to keep and bear arms.
As the Obama administration pushes for gun-control legislation, it will have to contend with the changed legal understanding of the Second Amendment that culminated in Heller. That transformation was brought about in large part by a small band of lawyers and scholars backed by the NRA.
For more than three decades, the NRA has sponsored legal seminars, funded legal research and encouraged law review articles that advocate an individual’s right to possess guns, according to the organization’s reports. The result has been a profound shift in legal thinking on the Second Amendment. And the issue of individual gun-possession rights, once almost entirely ignored, has moved into the center of constitutional debate and study.
For proponents of stricter gun control, the NRA’s encouragement of favorable legal scholarship has been a mark of its strategic, patient advocacy.
“I think this was one of the most successful attempts to change the law and to change a legal paradigm in history,” said Carl T. Bogus, a professor at Roger Williams University School of Law in Rhode Island and the editor of “The Second Amendment in Law and History,” a collection of essays that challenges the interpretation of the individual right. “They were thinking strategically. I don’t think the NRA funds scholarship out of academic interest. I think the NRA funds something because it has a political objective.”
The Second Amendment states: “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.” Before the Heller decision, the Supreme Court and lower courts had interpreted the language as “preserving the authority of the states to maintain militias,” according to a Congressional Research Service analysis.
“It was a settled question, and the overwhelming consensus, bordering on unanimity, was that the Second Amendment granted a collective right” enjoyed by the states, not individuals, Bogus said. Under this interpretation, the Constitution provides no right for an individual to possess a firearm.