"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".
My students and I saw it just a few days ago, the faded writing on the Bill of Rights displayed in the National Archives still visible. I was puzzled for a while, as in the document this is actually the fourth amendment, but it turns out the first two weren't ratified, thus pushing the famous arms amendment up to number 2 in the ranks.
I've read it a number of times, and it still seems to me that the so-called right to bear arms is very dependent on the maintenance of a militia to defend the state. It is not, thus, an individual right at all. It is very much a concession granted in the interests of state defence.
So how has this seemingly obvious interpretation become so sullied that the second amendment now becomes synonymous with individual freedom and democracy? So ingrained into the American psyche as a key element of freedom that no matter how many kids are shot in schools, the right to buy any type of weapon for individual use can never be controlled?
It turns out this is a recent phenomenon. And it's down to an organisation called the National Rifle Association, itself the front group for gun manufacturers.
As early as 1876 the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment was not a granting of the right to bear arms (United States v Cruickshank). A 1939 ruling (US v Miller) maintained the link between arms and a militia. Only more recently has the Second Amendment been given such broad latitude as to imply a defence of the individual right to bear arms, most noticeably in the 2008 District of Columbia v Heller ruling.
It beats me how the so-called "originalists" - the right-wing judges who claim to adhere to the very wording of the constitution and its amendments - can possibly interpret the 2nd in any other way than the one written above - as the need to preserve a "well regulated" militia. They say the commas should be ignored and that the two clauses, on militia and the right to bear arms, are not really linked. Doesn't read that way at all, so I guess originalists are more like creativists after all. Which is just one of the many tragic ironies of the gun control debate in America.
The NRA's chief, Wayne LaPierre, has given an uncompromising defence of arms in the wake of the Florida school killings, at the CPAC conference. He trotted out the old line that all you need to stop bad men with guns is good men with guns. Do lots of "good men" hold guns? Would "good men" want to be always ready to shoot to kill I wonder?
The NRA has been so successful in its defence of the right to have guns - and thus the immediate use of a lethal killing machine right by your side as and when you want it - that it has radically altered the culture of America. From the president down, dozens of lawmakers - nearly all Republican - dance to the NRA tune. Not just because of NRA money, though some do receive lots of that, but because they have bought wholly in to a culture that now identifies the right to own the means to kill with freedom.
The kids who are campaigning so prominently and admirably for gun control now won't win. Not yet anyway. They're up against lawmakers who can witness any number of mass killings and still refuse to ban the one thing that cause them. If they do want to change, they have to be in for the long haul. That's what the NRA did, and they were so successful they even got Supreme Court Justices to re-interpret the second Amendment for them. Money and culture is still powerfully behind gun possession in America, and don't expect it to change anytime soon.