These words, written into our Constitution via the Bill of Rights in December of 1791, have been the stuff of debate in the centuries that have followed their adoption.
"None but an armed nation can dispense with a standing army. To keep ours armed and disciplined is therefore at all times important." --Thomas Jefferson, 1803
"It is more a subject of joy [than of regret] that we have so few of the desperate characters which compose modern regular armies. " --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1813In the times that the Bill of RIghts were written, regular national armies were looked at with some large amount of mistrust. It was not unusual to see a country's legitimate ruler overthrown by an army under the command of a particularly ambitious general. And soldiers as a whole were not the most reputable of people, so in the world of the late 18th Century, in a country with no more than a fledgling regular army, it was the local militias that were the country's primary protection.
For the first two hundred years of our county's existence, the courts, both the Supreme Court and lower courts, broke the amendment into two clauses ... the "militia clause" and the "bear arms" clause. For most of our country's history, it was the "militia clause" that was deemed the operational of the two. According to the Supreme Court, the amendment conferred on state militias a right to bear arms - but did not give individuals a right to own or carry a weapon.
Then came 1977. Prior to then, the National Rifle Association (NRA) had been a non-political organization whose main focus was to educate gun owners and promote gun safety. But that changed at the 1977 board meeting of the NRA.
A coup d’état at the group’s annual convention in 1977 brought a group of committed political conservatives to power. … The new group pushed for a novel interpretation of the Second Amendment, one that gave individuals, not just militias, the right to bear arms. It was an uphill battle. (From The Nine by Jeffrey Toobin)It was then that the US gun culture was born. This was also a time in which the conservatives in the Republican Party were starting to gain strength as well as electing a president from their ranks, Ronald Reagan in 1980. With his appointments to the Supreme Court, it too had become conservative. In 2010, Justice Scalia wrote his opinion in the majority ruling on a Second Amendment case; "Nowhere else in the Constitution does a 'right' attributed to 'the people' refer to anything other than an individual right."
Today, while fully automatic firearms are banned for the general population, a ban on semi-automatic weapons was allowed to expire in 2004. Today, President Obama created a commission to be chaired by Vice-president Biden to recommend actions to take to prevent tragedies such as occurred at Newtown, Connecticut from happening in the future. The re-instatement of the semi-automatic ban will probably be among the suggestions.
Whatever is reported out of that commission, it is certain that it will need to be a combination of many things including gun control and mental health issues.