Challenging Conversations: The Second Amendment

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Admittedly, I have a difficult time talking with students about our Founders’ intentions when they penned the 2nd Amendment. 


As a graduate teaching assistant in April 1999 I started paying more attention to gun violence after the massacre at Columbine High School. I knew that gun violence existed before that tragic day in Littleton, Colorado, but in my middle-class upbringing, the random killing of innocents was a topic relegated to “dangerous” urban areas. There was almost no discussion of gun violence in the white suburban community in which I was raised, nor in the town where I lived in 1999. Columbine, however, gave me nightmares. As an educator-in-training, the idea of being a teacher charged with protecting children from the terror of bullets was to me then, and remains today, horrifying. Columbine, sadly, was not an anomaly. According to the Washington Post more than 300,000 children have experienced gun violence at school since 1999. 


Students are often curious about the intent of the 2nd Amendment when it was ratified late in the 18th century. In a previous blog I wrote about the challenge of discussing Roe v. Wade with a generation of students undeniably impacted by social media and 24-hour news channels with obvious ideological biases. Discussions of current concerns about gun violence inevitably lead to students expressing divergent opinions about individual rights versus the rights of the government. In recent years the sides have become entrenched. Without a doubt, as an educator this topic is only becoming more difficult for me to address in a bipartisan manner. I shudder at the suggestion of arming teachers, for example, because I know that placing a gun in my panicked hands would do nothing to protect my students from the unthinkable.


I’m quite adept at avoiding discussion of the 2nd Amendment in class. As a social historian, I touch briefly on the writing of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and focus instead on the women and African Americans who were left out of our nation’s early notions of citizenship. I feel ill-equipped to explain the intentions of our Founders so I am constantly searching for web-based discussions of this now controversial amendment to which I can refer students. While I’ve had some meaningful conversations with students about the issue of gun control, I recognize the limits of my ability to remain neutral on this topic. So here are a few resources that might be helpful to those of you, like me, struggling with the horrible fear of school shootings while also believing in our students’ need to form opinions on their own:


National Constitution Center’s Interactive Constitution is a great starting point for anyone who wants an introduction to both sides of the argument. The site provides a “Common Interpretation” of each amendment, and then offers a brief essay by experts on opposing sides of the debate. The site also posts video aids to share with students, again focusing on the goal of sharing both “sides” of the debate.


Faculty wishing to help students better understand the controversies surrounding this amendment might suggest students check out  This commercial site touts itself as one designed for “legal professionals” but also offers concise explanations, with academic references, of challenging legal questions. The section on the Second Amendment contains helpful information about recent court cases that have fueled public debate over the amendment.


Finally, suggest that students look at new research on the intent of the Second Amendment. In the wake of racial unrest in recent years, historian Carol Anderson’s work examines the amendment’s troubled relationship to the institution of slavery and control of free people of color in the 19th century. NPR interviewed Anderson in 2021 and students interested in the history of race relations and systemic racism will find her arguments particularly interesting given current debates over policing in the United States. 


No doubt there are many more resources to help our students wade through the murky waters of understanding the Second Amendment’s historical context. How do you handle this topic with your students? Please share.

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.