Conservative critics of the Civil Rights Movement accused allegedly liberal courts of abandoning legal precedents and applying new, activist interpretations of the law when enforcing desegregation, voting rights and equal access to opportunities and services. Judging from the continuing use of “judicial activism” as a slur to liberal nominees to the bench, one might assume that conservative appointees never pursue activist agendas. The history of the gun control debate in America provides ample evidence to the contrary. Nearly two hundred years of American jurisprudence saw little use of the Second Amendment as a defense for individual liberties. Instead, the courts saw the amendment as protecting the collective rights of the states to form local militias distinct from a standing national army. However, in 1960 a student paper in a prominent law review raised the question of whether the Second Amendment protected an individual’s right to bear arm. Eventually the argument was picked up by gun rights organizations which faced tighter gun control laws as the nation became increasingly tough on crime. By the Reagan era, what had once begun as a purely academic question had become a touchstone of the political right. The appointments of numerous conservative judges by Ronald Reagan and the Bushes helped establish a more favorable judicial environment for individualist interpretations of the Second Amendment. In October 2001, the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals became the first federal court to rule that the Second Amendment protected an individual’s right to bear arms. Despite rebuttals by other federal courts, the U.S. Supreme Court adopted the same argument in its split decision to strike down the District of Columbia’s gun laws in June 2008.
Constitutional scholar and political commentator Robert Spitzer, examines the issue of gun control in this documentary history. Beginning with the 1689 British Bill of Rights, Spitzer reviews the legal precedents for gun rights in the United States. He presents 55 types of documents in 8 chronologically arranged chapters. Each article begins with a note on the document’s date, provenance and significance. The excerpts conclude with a historical analysis and suggestions for further reading. Among the founding documents discussed are the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Federalist Papers. Views of the early republic are revealed in the Bill of Rights, loyalty oaths and hunting regulations. The early decisions of both state and supreme courts are explored. The changing attitude of the court in the twentieth century also is traced. The political element in the debate on gun control is presented in reviews of recent gun laws, party platforms and changes to state constitutions. In short, Spitzer provides an excellent collection of primary documents for the study of gun control in the United States. His pointed commentary helps the reader understand the significance of each artifact. With many suggestions for further research, this guide will be useful in high school, public and college libraries.