The Second Amendment: A Biography, by Michael Waldman

Nine stars

Never one to shy away from controversial political and legal issues, I turned to Michael Waldman’s book about the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, dealing with the right to bear arms. A topic that has become extremely controversial and has, quite literally, torn segments of the population apart, Waldman looks to explore the history of the amendment, as well as some of the early thoughts on the provision. The book opens with a lengthy analysis of the Founding Fathers’ meetings and comings together to hash out a constitutional document for the new republic, before they entertained some key amendments to form a Bill of Rights. Waldman looks at these debates and some of the written notes, exploring some of James Madison’s work to decipher not only the wording of the amendment, but to put it into context. The wording is so out of sorts with the other amendments that it baffles the reader (both at the time and now) to understand some of the nuances and how poorly it was cobbled together. Waldman cannot tell why this was done, but does address that the concept was perhaps tied to England’s own Bill of Rights from a century before. Nevertheless, it was enshrined and society accepted the right for citizens to bear arms to form a militia for state protection. Even the courts glazed over it until challenges began in the late 19th century. Waldman explores that the courts, all the way up to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) saw the militia aspect for what it was and dismissed anyone seeking personal right to bear or possess arms of most any sort. Pressure began in the mid-20th century with the emergence of the National Rifle Association (NRA), which began the hard push to get personal gun ownership and carve out the part of the Second Amendment that suited their needs (conveniently forgetting the militia part when it inculcated its members). It was only when SCOTUS heard District of Columbia v. Heller that things really turned on its head in the legal community. In a 5-4 decision written by that most wily of Associate Justices, Antonin Scalia, the Court finally came down on the side of the constitutional right of individuals to bear arms. Waldman goes into detailed analysis of the decision, its immediate fallout, and how Scalia’s form of constitutional interpretation seems to be used when it suits him and left shelved when it does not. From there, Waldman looks to the US legal and social world post-Heller and how the mass shootings and push for more gun rights have turned America in a direction that many outside the fifty states (and lots within) would shudder to digest. In a stunning exploration of all things on the topic, Waldman does a wonderful job with this biographical piece. I can only hope that many will read this to better understand the situation, as well as the political influence and brainwashing of falsehoods that is being purported in this election year! Recommended to those who enjoy detailed constitutional analysis, as well as the reader who has a passion for political and legal history.

I actually came across Waldman’s book when it was referenced in another tome I was recently reading about the need to repeal the Second Amendment for its misuse and great misunderstanding. Many of the arguments Waldman presents were also present in there, though this piece explores some of the backstory in greater detail. Waldman tells the detailed story of all aspects of the Second Amendment, as any strong biographical piece should. He lays out not only the arguments, but substantiates things for the reader to better understand context. Without getting tied up in too many knots, he seeks to focus his attention on the cogent parts of history and offers gloss over of other parts, namely those long periods when Second Amendment talk was minimal. I am pleased to see that Waldman does not shy away from criticism, as it gives the reader something to consider while they read, absorbing as well as thinking with an open mind. The book is well-paced and divided into three parts, depicting the build-up to the amendment, how the interpretation became more jaded and eventually codified by a set of conservative justices who seemed to have had their heads in the sand and a certain human orifice, before looking at the subsequent way America turned with Heller on the books. While the book can get quite technical, it is not written solely for the academic, but surely for the reader with an interest in the topic at hand. I am so pleased to have found something readable dealing with the Second Amendment, particularly a tome that offers some thoroughness without drowning the reader in minutiae.

Kudos, Mr. Waldman, for another stunning exploration of a key political aspect in American legal and social history. I hope others will find this book and be as amazed as I have been.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: