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Legal Thinkers Debate the Interpretation of Second Amendment at UConn

Mar 3, 2016

Advocates and critics of gun control sparred last week at the University of Connecticut over how much regulation is allowed under the Second Amendment, and whether the amendment was written primarily for individuals or militias.

Dozens of people gathered in the Konover Auditorium to watch legal historian and Fordham University professor Saul Cornell debate attorney Stephen Halbrook. Associate Dean of the University of Connecticut School of Law Richard Kay moderated.

Halbrook, who has argued and won three Supreme Court cases on gun control, argued for protecting individual citizens’ right to own and use firearms.

“What was adopted was in plain English then and it’s in plain English today,” Halbrook said. “It’s that people have a right to keep and bear arms. And if you’re criminalizing the keeping and bearing of arms, common arms, the types that are used by law-abiding people nationwide, if you’re criminalizing that, that’s an infringement of the right. And what needs to be done is to focus on misuse of firearms consistent with the right.”

Halbrook cited a recent Supreme Court ruling which he said supports the idea that banning a commonly used handgun is a violation of the Second Amendment. That is, individuals, not just militias, have a right to bear arms. Rather than gun bans and stricter regulation, Halbrook advocated for going after criminals and preventing them from obtaining guns.

Cornell challenged Halbrook, saying that the founding fathers wrote the Second Amendment with militias in mind, not individual citizens.

“I actually looked at every single usage of the phrase ‘bear arms’ in every surviving newspaper, pamphlet, book, and broadside, and 95 percent of those occurrences fit a military definition,” Cornell said. “You don’t bear arms when you go hunting. ‘Bear arms’ in the 18th century, the dominant understanding, not the exclusive understanding, but the most typical understanding, was clearly a military understanding.”

Cornell, citing gun death statistics, called for federal gun regulations supported by majorities in opinion polling, such as universal background checks for firearm purchasers.

Both Halbrook and Cornell contributed material to the Supreme Court in the case District of Columbia v. Heller. Over the course of the evening, their debate sped through such diverse topics as the influence of the gun lobby, the black market for guns, and the wording of the Second Amendment:

Questions from the audience straddled the two sides of the debate. One person asked if the law should change to recognize the massive shifts in technology since the 18th century. Another, Luis Hernandez of Hartford, a veteran and member of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, came out to hear the discussion and voice his opinion.

“I’m from Cuba. I actually lived through a revolution. I know what it’s like to be disarmed, to have no hope and no capability,” Hernandez said. “We assume here in the United States we can’t ever have another revolution. We hope they never happen, but as history has shown us, it happens, and it can still happen. We do not want people in the future, our children who really can’t speak for themselves now, not to have the capability to be able to defend themselves.”

Already home to some of the strictest gun regulations in the country, gun control advocates in Hartford are bracing for a fight with the NRA this legislative session. A proposed bill to make it easier for cops to request a gun owner’s permit is facing active opposition from the gun rights group.

Ross Levin is an intern at WNPR.