Less than a month after the December 2012 Newtown massacre, the National Rifle Association’s then-president, David Keene, warned that the new White House task force on gun violence would “do everything they can to strip Americans of their right to keep and bear arms, to essentially make the Second Amendment meaningless.” Three weeks ago, after a killer shot three people and wounded eight near Santa Barbara, California, conservative activist “Joe the Plumber” posted an open letter to the victims’ families. “Your dead kids,” he wrote, “don’t trump my Constitutional rights.”

Twenty-seven wooden angel figures are seen placed in a wooded area beside a road near the Sandy Hook Elementary School for the victims of a school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut December 16, 2012. (Reuters/Mike Segar)
Image: Reuters/Mike Segar

As America grapples with a relentless tide of gun violence, pro-gun activists have come to rely on the Second Amendment as their trusty shield when faced with mass-shooting-induced criticism. In their interpretation, the amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms—a reading that was upheld by the Supreme Court in its 2008 ruling in District of Columbia. v. Heller.

In his new book, The Second Amendment: A Biography, Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, digs into this discrepancy. What does the Second Amendment mean today, and what has it meant over time? He traces the history of the contentious clause and the legal reasoning behind it, from the Constitutional Convention to modern courtrooms.

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