Decoding The Second Amendment

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Going to the source often provides valuable answers. But in the case of the Second Amendment, CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Rita Braver finds it leaves unanswered some questions raised in the debate over guns in this country. An archive of The Braver Line is available. Rita Braver's email address is
I keep a copy of the Constitution of the United States in the bag I always carry with all the things that are essential for daily life. The Constitution goes in the compartment next to my passport. Side by side, they are two of the items I might need at any time.

The passport of course, makes sense for someone in my line of work. I've found myself heading to Mexico or Canada or the Turks and Caicos with no notice and no time to swing by home for a chance of clothes. It's easy to pick up a T-shirt and a toothbrush and some underwear on the way to the airport. But you can't get a copy of the Constitution just anywhere. And I never want to be without one of the most comforting documents it's ever been my pleasure to read. (No, no, I'm not saying it's better than the Bible, but that's a discussion for another day.)

Why do I find the Constitution such a cozy security blanket? Well, I love the way the articles so neatly lay out our federal system. I particularly like the 13th Amendment, which outlaws slavery, and the 14th, which guarantees due process and equal protection to any person within the jurisdiction of any state. But my favorite part of the Constitution is the Bill of Rights, those first 10 amendments that preserve the rights and liberties that distinguish our nation from all others.

Still, no matter how often I ponder it, the Bill of Rights seems to hold some unsolved mysteries, the most significant perhaps to be found in the Second Amendment. In case you've been out to lunch for the last few years, that's the one which gives us a right to own guns. And since I have my handy dandy copy of the Constitution, ($1 at the U.S. Supreme Court bookstore, the best dollar you'll ever spend), it seems worth copying out here:

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.

It's one sentence, made up of 27 words. Legal scholars and constitutional historians have argued over it continuously. The pro-gun side tends to focus on that last part of the sentence, the part that says that the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. The gun control side tends to focus on the first part of the sentence, the part that suggests that the only reason for gun ownership is for the purpose of maintaining a "well-regulated militia," a need that has become obsolete in our time.

One solution of course would be to amend the Second Amendment. Find some language that everyone agrees on. Ba idea. For one thing, it would never happen. For another it might give people the idea they could start monkeying around with other amendments, like the first.

So how to read the second. My feeling is, you can't have one part without the other. The framers obviously had in mind creating a citizen soldier army that could bring its guns to fight off the bad guys. But in order to do that, they had to realize that they were making a pretty broad statement about the right to own and use guns. Still, there's that "well-regulated," phrase, that can't be ignored.

It seems that it was always contemplated that anyone who had the right to keep and bear one of those guns should expect to follow some rules. And that is that gun control laws do make sense, but the idea of an outright ban on guns is clearly unconstitutional.

So here we are in the days leading up to the Million Mom March on Washington, a gathering designed to push for more stringent laws. I've been talking to people involved in organizing the march as well as to some who believe the whole thing is a plot to take every gun away from every law-abiding citizen in the country.

I've heard every argument for and against gun control. One side claims that guns are not the problem; the problem is that there are bad people out there breaking the laws already on the books. The other side counters that if it weren't so easy to get guns, those bad people wouldn't be able to do bad things.

Then there's the claim that if you put restrictions on guns, you also have to put restrictions on knives, baseball bats, rocks and other items that can be turned into weapons. The response to that is that your chance of living through an attack from any one of those things is greater than if the weapon is a gun.

And so it goes. Both sides have their arguments down pat. But I can't help but wonder what would happen if some just plain citizens on both sides sat down with some members of Congress, away from the glare of the press and the backroom lobbying by gun control organizations, the NRA and gun manufacturers, and just talked about what they could agree on.

What if they just went into the room with a copy of the Second Amendment and a few blank pads of paper? Could they come up with some laws that could both decrease gun violence and insure the rights of law-abiding gun owners? I think so. Will it ever happen? What do you think?