FIRE Hosts Second Amendment Debate

“Every generation or two, we ought to update the constitution and just change it a little.”

By Isaac Troncoso

On Tuesday in Ida Noyes Hall, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) held a debate in partnership with the Institute of Politics as part of its series of political debates to address the motion that the Second Amendment should be amended.

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation devoted to encouraging free speech on college campuses and providing legal defense for cases in which individual rights have been violated. The debate was held between Zachary Elkins, an associate professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin arguing for the motion, and Clark Neily, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice arguing against it.

Both candidates were open to clarifying the language of the Second Amendment since the landmark case of District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), which ruled that the Second Amendment protects individuals’ rights to possess handguns for self-defense purposes.

“We hadn’t done much with the Second Amendment for 200 years, and in 2008 we took it up seriously, arguing contentiously about what the founders meant by ‘bear’ and ‘arms,’ and ‘the people.’ I think that the Supreme Court’s disagreement and dysfunction on this matter really lies in stark contrast to what I think is agreement among the American people. I think the consensus among Americans is simply this: that there is, for all intents and purposes, a right to bear arms, but it is coupled with reasonable regulations,” Elkins said.

Neily addressed the question of whether handgun ownership is constitutional, and broadened the debate to include a discussion of the public policy issues at play.

“In debating gun policy, I think it’s important to look at both sides of the equation—to recognize that while there are tragedies, not just mass shootings but every day—and see that sometimes lives are saved with guns. These types of incidents are in fact far from unusual. There’s a debate among criminologists about how often guns are used for legitimate purposes, to save lives or prevent crime, and the general agreement is that it’s somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million times per year,” Neily said.

Another point of agreement between the debaters was that whatever the outcome, the Constitution is a living document that, while made more effective by citizens’ reverence toward it, must be altered from time to time.

“I think that not even so often as every 40 years, but perhaps every generation or two, we ought to update the Constitution and just change it a little. I think that if Madison were here today, he would have been very proud that his Constitution has survived until today, but I think he’d also be a little disappointed that we haven’t updated it. The Supreme Court’s interpretations can certainly keep it alive, but I think it’s the time to have a national conversation about what we want from it, and how it can be improved,” Elkins said.