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The Second Amendment: A Biography

Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, presents the life story of the most controversial, volatile, and misunderstood provision of the Bill of Rights.

Published: May 20, 2014

“Wald­man relates this tale in clear, unvar­nished prose and it should now be considered the best narrat­ive of its subject.” — Publish­ers Weekly

“Rigor­ous, schol­arly, but access­ible.” — Joe Nocera, The New York Times

“This thought­ful, access­ible survey of Second Amend­ment law will be useful to anyone arguing either side of this endlessly contro­ver­sial issue.” — Kirkus Reviews

“Wald­man offers histor­ical perspect­ive on the fierce debate… A lively and enga­ging explor­a­tion.”— Book­list

“The ongo­ing debate about the Second Amend­ment and the right to bear arms contin­ues to set off multiple explo­sions in the blogo­sphere. Wald­man’s new book will not make the most zeal­ous NRA advoc­ates happy, but for anyone who wants his or her history of the Second Amend­ment straight-up, this is the most compre­hens­ive, access­ible, and compel­ling version of the story in print.” — Joseph J. Ellis, author of Found­ing Broth­ers

“From the found­ing of the Repub­lic to the Newtown massacre and beyond, Michael Wald­man vividly portrays the evol­u­tion of a nation’s passion­ate debate over the right to keep and bear arms. Activ­ist, conser­vat­ive justices on the U.S. Supreme Court may have thought they ended that debate in 2008, but with rich detail and crisp narrat­ive, Wald­man shows how the it contin­ues to rever­ber­ate across the land­scape with import­ant lessons for all Amer­ic­ans.” — Marcia Coyle, author of The Roberts Court 

“Through most of Amer­ican history, the Second Amend­ment guar­an­teed the right to be a citizen-soldier, not an indi­vidual vigil­ante. With wit and erudi­tion, Michael Wald­man tells the story of how the Amend­ment’s mean­ing was turned upside-down and inside-out.” — David Frum, author of The Right Man: An Inside Account of the Bush White House 

“Michael Wald­man gives us the turbu­lent life story of the Second Amend­ment. If one clause of the Consti­tu­tion better deserved a quiet retire­ment, it is our right to keep and bear arms, a vestige of the Found­ing Fath­ers’ concern with the role of the mili­tia in a repub­lican soci­ety. Yet today the Second Amend­ment has become one of the feisti­est, most disputed clauses of the Consti­tu­tion, and Wald­man vividly explains why this obscure, minor provi­sion has become so contro­ver­sial.”— Jack Rakove, author of Original Mean­ings

“Partisan pseudo-histor­ies of gun regu­la­tion and the Second Amend­ment abound. Michael Wald­man’s excel­lent book slices through the propa­ganda with candor as well as schol­ar­ship. It advances an authen­tic and clari­fy­ing history that will surprise and enlighten citizens on all sides of the issue. Here is a smart and cogent history that performs a large public service.” — Sean Wilentz, author of The Rise of Amer­ican Demo­cracy


In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has handed gun rights advoc­ates a string of stun­ning victor­ies, ruling for the first time in Amer­ican history that the Second Amend­ment of the Consti­tu­tion guar­an­tees an indi­vidu­al’s right to own a gun. Yet the Second Amend­ment remains the most misun­der­stood and explos­ive part of the Bill of Rights, which has grown only more conten­tious after a series of horrific mass shoot­ings. Now, Michael Wald­man, pres­id­ent of the pres­ti­gi­ous Bren­nan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, presents a provoc­at­ive, often surpris­ing, and much-needed history of this brief, but moment­ous, consti­tu­tional provi­sion – from Bunker Hill and James Madison to Newtown and Justice Scalia – in THE SECOND AMEND­MENT: A Biography (Simon & Schuster; May 20, 2014; $24.00). The Second Amend­ment is not what either conser­vat­ives or liber­als gener­ally believe it to be, Wald­man argues, and the impact of the land­mark Supreme Court rulings on gun rights and gun regu­la­tion in the future is far from obvi­ous.

For the first two centur­ies of Amer­ican history, Wald­man observes, the Second Amend­ment received scant notice. Few people under­stood its provi­sions; schol­ars paid it little atten­tion; and lawyers rarely raised it in court.  But over the past four decades, it has been thrust to the center of public contro­versy. Politi­cians declare them­selves its “strong support­ers.” The news media bristle with reports of proposed new gun laws, or new legal chal­lenges to them. The Second Amend­ment has become a synonym, in power­ful unspoken ways, for Amer­ica’s gun culture, and a symbol of many of the deep divi­sions that cleave the nation.

The Second Amend­ment is one awkward sentence.  It reads in its entirety: 

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.

For 218 years, judges over­whelm­ingly concluded that the amend­ment simply author­ized states to form mili­tias, which we now call the National Guard. Its foggy word­ing and odd syntax caused lawyers and schol­ars to debate its puzz­ling commas and clauses. Then, in 2008, in the case of District of Columbia vs. Heller, an opin­ion of the U.S. Supreme Court writ­ten by Justice Antonin Scalia declared that the Consti­tu­tion confers a right to own a gun for self-defense in the home. From that point forward, the red-hot debate over gun control and its consti­tu­tion­al­ity had to take place in this new and not at all clear legal context, as it will into the fore­see­able future.

Los Angeles Times: “A smart history of guns and the U.S. …[Wald­man’s] calm tone and habit of taking the long view offers a refresh­ing tonic in this most loaded of debates.” (5/23/14)

The Daily Beast: “The true mean­ing of the Second Amend­ment…tart, concise…This typic­ally shrewd obser­va­tion stamps Wald­man as not just a pree­m­in­ent legal scholar but a sens­ible person, someone worth read­ing, in other words, even if you don’t agree with him.” (5/31/14)

The New York Times: “Wald­man’s read­able, often chatty, thor­oughly docu­mented recount­ing of the Second Amend­ment’s history shows it chan­ging in char­ac­ter as Amer­ican soci­ety changed.” (Sunday Book Review, 6/22/14)

Chicago Tribune: “An insight­ful look at both the histor­ical found­a­tion of the Second Amend­ment and the success­ful campaign by the National Rifle Asso­ci­ation and consti­tu­tional ‘ori­gin­al­ists’ to restore it — or rein­vent it, depend­ing on which real­ity you subscribe to — as a lode­star for gun rights. …The Second Amend­ment: A Biography is a welcome re-injec­tion of histor­ical context into the present debate over the right­ful role of guns in Amer­ican culture.” (6/13/14)

The Wash­ing­ton Post, Katrina vanden Heuvel: “Compel­ling…Pub­lished three days before the rampage in Isla Vista, Calif., that killed six and wounded 13, the book shows how we got to this moment of routine gun viol­ence — and offers a way out.” (6/3/14)


Michael Wald­man is pres­id­ent of the Bren­nan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, a nonpar­tisan law and policy insti­tute that focuses on improv­ing the systems of demo­cracy and justice. He was director of speech­writ­ing for Pres­id­ent Bill Clin­ton from 1995 to 1999 and is the author of My Fellow Amer­ic­ans, POTUS Speaks, and three other books. Wald­man is a gradu­ate of Columbia College and NYU School of Law. He comments widely in the media on law and policy.

(Photo: Adrian Kinloch)