- By Ty McCormickTy McCormick is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Previously he was a freelance correspondent in Egypt, where he wrote about everything from military trials to revolutionary rap music. A 2011 Pulitzer Center grantee, he has written for Newsweek, the New Republic, the International Herald Tribune, and the Los Angeles Times, among others. He has also appeared as a commentator on Fox News and American Public Media’s Marketplace Tech. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University and a master’s from the University of Oxford, where he was a Clarendon scholar.
American gun culture is exceptional — that much we know. The United States has more guns than any other country (300 million) and more guns per person (9 guns for every 10 people). It also has the highest firearm homicide rate in the developed world (and the highest rate of unintentional firearm deaths.) But what of the constitutional apparatus that sustains American gun culture? How exceptional is the Second Amendment, which protects the right of Americans to "keep and bear Arms"?
The 2A, it turns out, is also pretty anomalous. As Zachary Elkins explains in today’s New York Times:
It is actually quite unusual for gun rights to be included in a constitution. In our historical study of constitutions, my colleagues and I identified only 15 constitutions (in nine countries) that had ever included an explicit right to bear arms. Almost all of these constitutions have been in Latin America, and most were from the 19th century. Only three countries – Guatemala, Mexico and the United States – have a constitutional right to arms. Of the 15, ours is the only one that does not explicitly include a restrictive condition. Of course, many Americans, and a minority of the Supreme Court, believe that our "militia clause" amounts to one such a restriction – an interpretation the court rejected in 2008 when it ruled that the Second Amendment protected the individual right to bear arms.
So what are the other countries that have offered constitutional protections for gun ownership? Bolivia, Costa Rica, Colombia, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Liberia have also, at various times, enshrined the rights of gun owners in their constitutions. (Bloomberg has a handy chart with date ranges.) Interestingly, almost all of these constitutions — including those of Guatemala and Mexico, the only two that still guarantee a right to bear arms — were modeled off the U.S. example.
Of course, the right to bear arms dates back before the 1st United States Congress, when the first 10 amendments were ratifed, to the English Bill of Rights from 1689, which guaranteed, among other things, that Protestants could bear arms "as allowed by the law." Indeed, in striking down a Washington, D.C. handgun ban in 2008, the Supreme Court ruled that the right to bear arms derives from a "pre-existing" right to self-defense established after England’s Glorious Revolution. From Justice Antonin Scalia’s majority opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller:
Between the Restoration and the Glorious Revolution, the Stuart Kings Charles II and James II succeeded in using select militias loyal to them to suppress political dissidents, in part by disarming their opponents…Under the auspices of the 1671 Game Act, for example, the Catholic James II had ordered general disarmaments of regions home to his Protestant enemies…These experiences caused Englishmen to be extremely wary of concentrated military forces run by the state and to be jealous of their arms. They accordingly obtained an assurance from William and Mary, in the Declaration of Right (which was codified as the English Bill of Rights), that Protestants would never be disarmed: "That the subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defense suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law."…This right has long been understood to be the predecessor to our Second Amendment.
So, exceptional? Yes. Original? No.