The first articles advocating an individual right appeared in the 1960s, and scholarship endorsing that view took off in the late 1970s. From 1980 to 1989, as NRA support began to be felt, 38 articles on the Second Amendment were published in academic journals, 21 of which advocated an individual right. In the following decade, 87 articles appeared, and a clear majority — 58 to 29 — took an individual-rights position, Spitzer’s analysis showed.
To Kates, the explanation for the burgeoning scholarship is obvious. “Gun control became a matter of enormous political controversy, and this focused attention on the Second Amendment,” he said in an interview.
Kates, a Yale Law graduate who describes himself as a liberal, said he began carrying a gun when he spent the summer of 1963 as a civil rights worker in eastern North Carolina.
“I never believed the nonsense that was then current that the Second Amendment had to do with states’ rights,” he said. Alarmed by calls for stricter gun control and outright bans, Kates started the seminars in the late 1970s and ran them for more than a decade with support from various groups, including the NRA and the Second Amendment Foundation, another gun rights organization.
Stephen P. Halbrook attended the Denver seminar in 1977 when he was an assistant professor of philosophy at Howard University and studying for a law degree at Georgetown. Three years later, he published his first article on the Second Amendment in the George Mason University Law Review. He went on to publish more than 20 law review articles and four books dealing with the Second Amendment, some with grants from the NRA, where he has served as an outside counsel.
Halbrook, who has a law office in Fairfax city, said the NRA started funding scholarly research. “I would think that’s important in the sense that scholars, unless you’re independently wealthy, you need to be paid for your time,” he said.
He and others noted that Bogus has received outside funding for symposia and publishing that excludes the individual-rights point of view. Bogus said he was transparent about his funding.
The NRA also began essay competitions for law students with prizes of up to $12,500, with the understanding that the winners would try to place their work in a law review.
Halbrook was one of a number of lawyers — including Kates; Dave Hardy, a legal consultant for the NRA; and David Caplan, a member of the NRA’s board of directors — who were at the forefront of this writing. They drew on their reading of colonial history, the founders’ statements and early American constitutional history to make their case for an individual right.
Hardy said most of this work was published in minor reviews, but the individual-rights argument got a big boost in 1989 when Sanford Levinson, a leading professor of constitutional law at the University of Texas at Austin, published “The Embarrassing Second Amendment” in the Yale Law Journal. He argued that the “legal consciousness of the elite bar” on the Second Amendment might be wrong. He also was sympathetic to the “insurrectionist theory” that citizens have a right to be armed so they can fight their government if it becomes tyrannical. Levinson singled out Kates’s work and cited Halbrook.
Other leading scholars followed, and advocates for the NRA’s position began to speak about a new “standard model.” In 1997, Justice Clarence Thomas acknowledged the growing mass of law review material when he wrote, “Marshaling an impressive array of historical evidence, a growing body of scholarly commentary indicates that the ‘right to keep and bear arms’ is, as the Amendment text suggests, a personal right.”
In 2003, the NRA marked the Second Amendment’s new stature as a subject of serious study when its foundation endowed Lund’s Patrick Henry chair at George Mason University with $1 million. The law school had established a reputation as a bastion of conservative legal thought.
“What they were looking for was a means of legitimating the fact that the Second Amendment had arrived as a legitimate subject of study in constitutional law,” said Daniel D. Polsby, the dean of the George Mason University School of Law.
For advocates of an individual’s right to bear arms, the Heller decision in 2008 was a vindication. In writing the majority opinion, Scalia said, “The second amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm, unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.”
He cited Kates and Halbrook.