What was the second amendment about? Two things. One is that the early Americans wanted to always be in a position to overthrow the government. They had done it before and they might need to do it again. The other is that they wanted to secure their right to fight the Indians, locally and at once, without getting permission from any central authority. Much of the bad feeling between the colonists and the British Crown stemmed from the Crown making treaties with Indian nations and attempting to enforce them. As the colonists saw it, if they were liable to be murdered in their beds, then they shouldn't have to wait for any central government's permission; they should be able to call up a local militia and go clear the savages out.
That's the context of the second amendment. Here's the wording:
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.
Short and sweet. We're talking about the security of a free state, not the security of individuals, and moreover, we're talking about militias. Protection of the home against thieves, rapists, or robbers was not a primary, or, so far as I can see, even a secondary interest of the law. It's about raising troops: and it has one eye to uppity Indians, and the other to uppity central governments. If you and your neighbors want to stock a local armory with some cannon and muskets, says this amendment, then no one can stop you, so long as you're well-regulated, which means, I take it, that you have a captain and officers and behave reasonably. You can't just tear about the country pillaging; you have to be responding to threats to the security of the state.
This emphasis on militias will strike the reader as odd, if he's not aware of one further piece of context, the one that makes all of this come into focus and make sense: this law was intended for a country that had no standing army. Early Americans disagreed with each other about as much – probably more – than we do, but on one point they were nearly unanimous. A standing army, they thought, would never do. It was an invitation to tyranny. It's difficult for a modern American to comprehend just how unmilitarized this country was, before the 20th Century. For all intents and purposes, in between wars, the army simply disappeared.
To my mind, the second amendment has been overtaken by events. The Indians have been thoroughly subjugated, where they haven't been exterminated. The second amendment, as license for local warfare, has been so thoroughly successful it isn't needed any more. Nobody frets about Indian uprisings any more, or is ever likely to again.
As far as overthrowing the central government is concerned, events have been even more decisive. As the speed with which an enemy could reach and attack us increased – it would have taken months or even years for any credible enemy but the Indians to bring an army within reach of us, in the 18th Century; now it would take a few hours – it became obvious that we needed a standing army, and moreover, we assumed an ever-escalating number of foreign commitments and interests that needed military weight behind them.
We now have, not just a standing army, but a perfectly enormous one. It's replete with intelligence and surveillance capabilities that are far beyond the means of any private citizen. Its equipment is the envy of the world. It could crush any internal uprising with ease, no matter what kind of small arms our civilians might be toting. We long ago lost the ability to rise against the central government. Even if we were a people of great hardihood, fortitude, determination, and discipline – and we are no longer notable for any of those qualities – we could not stand against the resources and expertise and organization of the U.S. military.
So the second amendment has lost its political meaning. It retains only those subsidiary meanings about the private ownership of weapons that it has accreted over the years. The right it was concerned with was the right to conduct local, ad hoc warfare. I don't know if I would ever have thought that was a legitimate right, even in the 18th Century: I have a rather conservative cast of mind, and a preference for slow and orderly decision-making. But in any case, I don't think it has much light to cast on present-day issues of gun control, which are not about militias, but about whether people have a right to own convenient means for rapidly killing large numbers of their fellow-citizens in domestic – and totally unregulated – situations. I don't think the second amendment addresses this. It's a new situation, and it requires a new conversation.