The 2nd Amendment in the Classroom

The aftermath of another American mass shooting in Orlando means the gun control debate along with the interpretation of the 2nd Amendment is again front and center in the media.  How to handle this in the class?  The best bet is to allow your students to construct an interpretation by going back to the historical roots of the 2nd Amendment.

Before that is done, I would recommend students to be skeptical of the initial reports regarding the motives of a mass shooting.  Amid the confusion, the rush to get the story first, and now the need for everyone to get their hot takes in on social media, an awful lot of misinformation gets flung around the first few days after such an incident.  As documented in Dave Culler’s book Columbine, the initial reports that the shooters were part of the goth clique Trench Coat Mafia turned out false.  In fact, most of the Trench Coat Mafia had graduated the prior year.  However, in a classic case of circular reporting, an erroneous statement by a student was repeated throughout the day of the shooting by several media outlets.  The truth will often take days, weeks, months, sometimes years to illuminate.

That being said, it should be stressed to students that they build their own interpretations of the 2nd Amendment and not rely on someone to do it for them.  The full amendment has to be analyzed by the class:

“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.”

An excellent start to this exercise is to have the class read the 29th Federalist Paper by Alexander Hamilton and the 46th Federalist Paper by James Madison.  These papers, written four years before the Bill of Rights were enacted, form the foundation of this amendment.  Before the class embarks on this endeavor, it’s a good idea for the students to discuss their current preconceptions of the 2nd Amendment to give a baseline how their understanding progresses throughout this lesson.

Title page for Federalist Papers. Credit: Library of Congress.

After the students have read the papers, a class discussion should ensue.  I like to compare this to my three stints on jury duty.  Some in the jury always wanted to vote right away.  Its been my experience a discussion first would bring to my attention angles of the case I had not considered.  And that is likely to be the case here as this is the student’s first attempt reading these documents.

The followup discussion should address the following themes:

Do the Federalist papers address individual self-defense or argue the right of states and/or federal government to form standing militias?

What was the importance of public militias during the time the constitution was drafted?  Do those reasons apply today?

In the era of industrialized warfare, could an armed militia protect the public from a tyrannical government given the asymmetry in firepower?  Examine some recent case studies such as the Soviet Union, Syria, and North Korea.

Are the popular arguments, pro or con, for gun control covered in any sort of context in the Federalist Papers?  Are media commentators knowledgeable on the topic?

And finally, ask your students how the assignment has changed their perceptions of the 2nd Amendment?

Having students construct their understanding of the 2nd Amendment does not mean whatever comes to their minds is to be taken as fact.  Their statements should undergo critical review by the rest of the class.  The class has to comprehend any criticism is not intended to be personal, but as a quality control measure on their understanding of the context of the Federalist Papers.  As a teacher, you must address the fact that any criticism should be based on what was read in the assignment and cannot devolve into ad hominem attacks.  The use of such attacks is an admission the student has lost the argument and did not integrate what was read as required to participate in the discussion properly.

The teacher in a sense acts as a referee during the discussion.  The classroom is not intended to be an ideological bubble, the students will get plenty of opportunity to experience that in today’s society.  A conflict of thought and ideas are healthy in the classroom.  The teacher should ensure the student’s arguments exhibit a solid understanding of the Federalist Papers and are not cherry-picking or taking out of context any of the readings.  Unlike social media, a student’s place in the discussion is earned with reading comprehension and a critical understanding of the material.  The loudest voice should not win in the classroom.

History has a certain advantage as original documents can be understood at the high school level.  This is opposed to science where journal articles usually require advanced training to grasp.  The internet makes the Federalist Papers easily available to each student and that was not the case when I was in high school.  In a controversial topic such as gun control, constructionist learning techniques allows the student to build their own understanding rather than rely on an authority figure to do it for them.  And this is a skill set that will serve your students well in the future.

*Image on top of post is an engraving of the Battle of Lexington.  Credit:  John H. Daniels & Son/Library of Congress.

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