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How Has the Second Amendment Been Interpreted?

60 min

Students will:

  • Examine the text and history of the Second Amendment.
  • Understand the Supreme Court’s ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008).
  • Evaluate arguments for and against the constitutionality of selected gun control provisions.
  • Assess the constitutionality of the District of Columbia’s gun law at issue in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008).

  • Handout A: Background Essay – How Has the Second Amendment Been Interpreted?
  • Handout B: A Total Ban on Handguns?
  • Handout C: District of Columbia v. Heller (2008)

  1. Distribute and put up an overhead of Handout B: A Total Ban on Handguns?
  2. Have students read each statement and mark whether they believe each stated law would be constitutional or unconstitutional. Note that the task is not to determine whether the rule is a good idea, but only whether it is constitutional or not.
  3. After students have worked through all the statements, go over each one as a large group. Invite students to share their reasoning, and to ground their arguments in the Second Amendment.

Note: several of the statements are based on historical examples: Virginia law permits one handgun purchase per month (3); Felons cannot own firearms in any state (4); Various states prohibit people who have been confined for mental illness or subject to a domestic restraining order from buying guns (5);Under the English Bill of Rights (1689) Catholics could not own guns (6); The final statement (8) is based on the DC law overturned in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008).

  1. Ask students to recall what they learned in Handout A about the case of District of Columbia v. Heller (2008). Students should recognize that the case challenged the District of Columbia’s law banning virtually all handguns, and that the law was overturned by the Supreme Court.
  2. Cut out and distribute one card per student from Handout C: District of Columbia v. Heller (2008).
  3. Have students read the statement on their cards. Then have them paraphrase it in their own words.
  4. Ask students to stand up and mingle with their classmates and find students who have the same statement on their card. They should do this by sharing their paraphrases only. Students should end up in six groups.
  5. Once in their groups, write the following questions on the board. Students should discuss them within their groups, and then as a large group.
    1. Is this a statement for or against the constitutionality of the District of Columbia’s gun law? Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?
  6. To wrap-up, explain to students that the statements against the constitutionality of the District’s gun law were from the Supreme Court’s majority ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008). The statements in favor of the law’s constitutionality were from the dissenting opinion in that case. In students’ opinions, was the Court’s ruling correct?
  7. Ask students how the Court’s reasoning compared with their own reasoning in the Warm-Up activity.

  1. Have students write a model firearms law that they believe would be constitutional under the Second Amendment. They may choose to make no restrictions on guns, impose strict limits, or to find some middle ground—but they should be prepared to justify their law using constitutional arguments.
  2. Have students find a recent article about gun control legislation at the state or federal level. What is the legislation about? Who supports it, and why? Who opposes it, and why? Would you support or oppose this legislation? Use constitutional arguments to justify your decision.