4 things you might not know about America’s ‘right to bear arms’

This idea is most famous for being part of the US Constitution and it's often used in the debates around gun ownership - but it has an interesting history that also gives us some clues about its meaning and purpose.

  1. They nicked it from the English
    1. Compared to England, American civilisation is just a baby. Their constitution, which sort of marked the beginning of the US as a nation, wasn’t even written until the 1770s (with a few add-ons in the 1780s and 90s). But 100 years before that, several centuries into our own existence as a country, England guaranteed its people ‘the right to bear arms’ as part of the 1689 Bill of Rights. (Arms is a shorthand version of the word ‘armaments’, which is just another word for weapons.) And technically this right hasn’t ever been specifically taken out of law - but we’ve now passed so many other laws that control and ban the owning of guns that it’s sort of become irrelevant.
  2. It’s got nothing to do with shooting criminals
    1. Most Americans who cling on to their right to have a gun want it to protect themselves from people trying to hurt them or steal their stuff. But that wasn’t actually the original intent of the law - it was about protecting people from their country’s leaders. King James II, who ruled England between 1685-1688, didn’t like people who disagreed with him about religion - so he gave them a huge disadvantage in the fighting that took place during his reign by creating different weapons-ownership rules for Protestants and Catholics. So once he‘d been taken off the throne, the 1689 Bill of Rights was Parliament's way of trying to stop the Royal family having so much unfair and unregulated power over the people. Guaranteeing everyone the right to have their own weapons meant it would be harder for them to be unfairly treated or oppressed by a ruler. Interestingly, when the British ruled the American colonies, they didn’t take this particular right over the ocean with them - instead, they actually banned the people from owning guns to try and stop them from rebelling. So once America gained independence from the British empire, after a long and bloody revolution, they decided that it would be a good plan to always be ready to fight back against a brutal or unwanted government in the future. Which is why they pinched our ‘right to bear arms’ wording and popped it into their constitution, where you’ll find it in the Second Amendment.
  3. They’re pretty much the only country who’ve kept it
    1. Throughout history only nine countries have ever had constitutions that included a specific ‘right to bear arms’ - now there’s only three who still have it (the US, Guatemala and Mexico). And of those three, the US is the only one that doesn’t have tight restrictions on exactly who can own guns, what type they can buy and what they can be used for. And any suggestions of tighter gun control laws, or any changes to the application of the ‘right to bear arms’, are usually met with huge arguments from a large portion of the nation - they feel very connected to the founders of their country who wrote that law into the Constitution, and want to see it protected.
  4. It’s super controversial
    1. There’s a lot of stuff about gun control in the American media at the moment, especially every time another mass shooting takes place. So you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s only recently that people have begun to question this ‘right to bear arms’. But actually, the debate has been going on for more than 2,000 years. The philosopher Plato was firmly against the idea of civilians owning weapons. His idea of a perfect society (set out in his book The Republic) could only work if people were completely obedient to their ruler, so it was essential that they were all disarmed - or else they could rebel and ruin the system. But big brain Aristotle had a different approach. He believed that “Those who possess and can wield arms are in a position to decide whether the Constitution is to continue or not” - which basically means that if people have weapons then they have the strength to challenge the political system if they choose to. And Aristotle thought this was a vital part of a strong and well-functioning society. Those two different approaches to ‘the right to bear arms’ pretty much boil down to a single question - should you fear and obey your government, or should your government fear and obey you?