Originally Published: June 26, 2008 10:06 p.m.
"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." - The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The Founding Fathers said it in 1791 when the first 10 amendments to the Constitution took effect.
It seems self-evident that "the people" alludes to the rights of individuals as it does in all other such references in the Bill of Rights.
But not everyone clearly understood that until Thursday's landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that invalidates the District of Columbia's ban on private handgun ownership.
Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, said that "historical narrative" both before and after ratification of the Second Amendment supports the individual right concept.
The high court ruling left intact the provision requiring licensing of handguns, and no doubt officials in the District and other large cities will try to use strict licensing criteria to keep bans in effect.
The National Rifle Association of America is filing lawsuits in major gun-ban cities to overthrow their laws, based on this week's ruling. No doubt it also will fight the use of unreasonable licensing criteria to keep bans in effect.
At the heart of the centuries-long gun ownership controversy is the troublesome dependent clause about a "well-regulated militia."
Anti-gun advocates have argued that "the people" have the right to keep and bear arms only as members of an organized state militia.
Pro-gun advocates argued that in the 1790s the "militia" was every able-bodied adult male in the community and the state expected militia members to come to the country's defense with their privately owned firearms. At the time, nearly every household had firearms for defense against wild animals, Indians and highwaymen and for subsistence hunting.
A majority of the justices accepted that argument.
Recognition of an individual's right to self-defense and the militia concept have been part of every civilization from the ancient Greeks and Romans through the Magna Carta. Medieval England required citizens to own military weapons and be proficient in their use.
The details of how this historic decision will affect everyday Americans will fuel litigation for years to come, but the Founding Fathers' intent no longer is open to argument.
Probably no Supreme Court ruling of the past two centuries will have a more profound, widespread effect on American life.