2nd Amendment, Slavery & Creating Critical Readers & Thinkers

One of the most important jobs that a history teacher has is threefold: learn the truth, know the truth and teach the truth. When teaching children of color, understand that traditionally, the “canon” has withheld the whole truth of American history. Whether Black or White, if you’re a history teacher, it is your obligation to unearth the withheld truths – for students of all backgrounds. Knowledge absent of truth is not power; it is to be inhibited.

In light of the unfortunate school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the gun law debate has re-emerged in the mainstream discourse. One side advocates for stricter laws; including prohibiting the sale of military weapons and improved background checks for prospective buyers. The other side of the debate argues in favor of the 2nd amendment; that Americans have the right to purchase the guns of their choice for their protection and to hunt. There are many arguments held by folks on each side of the debate. What isn’t up for debate is the language of the 2nd amendment. I do not advise for history teachers to facilitate a discussion on gun rights versus gun regulations without a thorough understanding of the 2nd amendment and the history surrounding it. The second amendment states:

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.”

Most gun rights enthusiasts fail to focus on the first part of the amendment when arguing for the second part. The purpose of people having guns was to maintain a well-regulated militia. According to Michael Waldman, constitutional lawyer and president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School, the founders were concerned with protecting national liberty rather than individuals right to protect themselves:

“…When you actually go back and look at the debate that went into [the] drafting of the amendment, you can squint and look really hard, but there’s simply no evidence of it being about individual gun ownership for self-protection or for hunting. Emphatically, the focus was on the militias. To the framers, that phrase “a well-regulated militia” was really critical. In the debates, in James Madison’s notes of the Constitutional Convention, on the floor of the House of Representatives, as they wrote the Second Amendment, all the focus was about the militias. Now at the same time, those militias are not the National Guard. Every adult man, and eventually every adult white man, was required to be in the militias and was required to own a gun, and to bring it from home. So it was an individual right to fulfill the duty to serve in the militias..”

The purpose of the well-regulated militia, according to the framers, was for people – White men – to serve as a check to the national government’s standing army, funded and maintained by Congress. This was inspired by European monarchs who ruled by disarming the people according to folks like Noah Webster and George Mason. Ultimately, the founders wanted White males to be in a position to fight against a tyrannical government if necessary. The second amendment is about that, not about an individual’s rights to own guns. The NRA only acknowledges the half-truth of the amendment in its own headquarters lobby. According to Michael Waldman, the same quote remains.

A half-truth is a whole lie.

So then, why is there such a desire to attach the 2nd amendment with individual gun ownership? A better question maybe, why do people fight for their ability to own guns, any gun of their liking, so ferociously – to the point of asserting gun ownership as a right? The answer can be found in the culture of the antebellum era.

Some gun rights enthusiasts point to the landmark decision of District of Columbia v. Heller as the alpha and omega of the argument for the rights of individuals to own guns. However, Justice Scalia, who wrote the majority opinion, looked to Nunn v. State for an interpretation of the 2nd amendment. Nunn, a state court case, was one of the first cases to strike down gun law using the second amendment. The decision of the case came from a man who was both a “champion of slavery and the southern code of honor.” Courts have referred to Nunn and court cases like it to uphold the rights of citizens to own guns. But the Nunn case, and cases like it, come from antebellum courthouses. These courts were led by White men steeped in and defenders of the antebellum traditions of Black slavery and White honor.

The antebellum south was a place where violence was used to keep decorum amongst White men and to keep slaves in line. When we speak of antebellum culture, we often think of the genteel nature of southern gentlemen and southern bells. We think of plantations as beautiful mansions with porches for families to entertain guest with a glass of lemonade and hardy conversation; not for the gateways to a world of violence and oppression. To be clear, the antebellum south was a place of violence and oppression.

Violence was a central element of slave and honor culture in the South. Richard Hildreth, an antebellum lawyer, journalist, and historian, wrote in 1840 that violence was frequently employed both to subordinate slaves and to intimidate abolitionists. That violence, in turn, resulted in ‘a complete paroxism of fear’ and ‘extreme degree of terror . . . of slave vengeance’ amongst the slaveholding classsMeanwhile, violence between white men ‘to preserve white manhood and personal status’ was encouraged in Southern honor culture. According to Hildreth, duels ‘appear but once an age’ in the North, but ‘are of frequent and almost daily occurrence at the South.’ As a result of the distinct cultural phenomena of slavery and honor, Southern men carried weapons both ‘as a protection against the slaves’ and also to be prepared for ‘quarrels between freemen’.”

Teaching the truth about the constitution and its amendments is vitally important. If you seek to engage in such lessons surrounding current events or contentious public policy issues that involve the constitution and/or amendments, make sure that you do the following:


  1. Be unafraid to go on a search for the truth. It may be uncomfortable searching for the truth, especially when you have a feeling the truth will go against convictions and “truths’ you hold near and dear. But if you’re looking to grow as an individual and be a better teacher for your students, you must engage in critical research that challenges you in order for you to challenge the society where you engage daily.
  2. Don’t rely on a textbook to learn or teach the truth. You’re going to have to read books, scholarly journals, online periodicals and places like Blavity, Vox, Slate, Vulture, Huffington Post, The Atlantic, or Atlanta Black Star. A textbook will not take you to the truth, just the status quo.
  3. Give yourself adequate time to find the truth. If you decide to teach a topic, don’t expect to be ready by the next day. Give yourself a few days for discovery, followed by some time to organize the information to teach. Anything worth doing takes time – including teaching and learning.
  4. Make the same materials where you found the truth available to your students. If there is a book that you read that can be purchased for your kids, get it. If not, copy specific passages and pass them out. Anything of substance that you find online; make copies for kids and pass them out. If you can put together a makeshift text from your read materials do so. Give your students the keys so that they can drive even further than you did.
  5. Show your students how to find the truth in what they read. Kids do not instinctively know the nuances of reading – they learn it in school and they probably don’t know the nuances of reading a college-level text. So you have to teach them. That means you start teaching them how to crawl. Next, show them how to walk and then how to run. Once they can run, show them how to run faster.
    1. Crawl: reading by itself is crawling. Students cannot understand what they read unless they read it. If you want to read an academic journal, start with a sentence and teach them how to understand what it says – that’s walking.
    2. Walk: walking is simply understanding what it is you are reading or what you have already read. When they can understand what a text says and internalize it, they’re walking. Once they’ve internalized a text, they can begin analyzing that text to gather context, meaning, and agenda; to pick it apart – that’s running.
    3. Run: running is when a student can break down what they read to gain information indirectly stated. The breakdown helps to gather implied meaning from the historical context, culture and text location i.e. which chapter it is or which paragraph within a chapter/essay, surrounding the passage they are reading. Upon doing that they can take a stance; either arguing for what they read or arguing against it – that’s running faster.
    4. Running Faster: running faster is having the ability to digest a text and form an opinion based on what they read. That could mean having an opinion at the moment or deciding to take in more reading to strengthen the certainty of their opinion. Once a child can do that, they are now a critical thinker and a critical reader.


The role of a history teacher is very important. Teaching history should never be taken lightly; neither should learning history. A large reason why we are wrong about a lot of things is that we don’t know the truth of history. Either we didn’t learn it, the truth was withheld from us or we were lied to. If you’re a history teacher – learn the truth, know the truth and teach the truth. Hopefully, what I’ve said has helped you do all three.

Let’s continue to press towards the mark.


2 thoughts on “2nd Amendment, Slavery & Creating Critical Readers & Thinkers

  1. Great article. While I agree totally with the facts of this article, my arguments for the individual rights of Americans to posses firearms are supported by your essay.

    As a minority, any minority, your rights to own a gun are imperative- almost compulsory. As you referenced the antebellum period, I can’t help but imagine the helplessness one must feel when only those in power have the weapons to abuse, bully and subjugate you. Powerless! It’s hard for me to unsee that. If any people should fight for the 2nd amendment, I would totally start with the marginalized, disenfranchised folk.The 2nd amendment can serve as some type of deterrent to those seeking to return to the practices of the antebellum period.


  2. In light of the recent ruling (6/3/21 ) by Federal judge Roger Benitez overturning a California firearms ban on assault weapons where he ruled it violates the Constitutional right to bear arms, his words, referring to the Second Amendment, I have a suggestion. In my thesis regarding the Second Amendment I think it will prove his ruling right to bear arms” has everything to do with a “militia” and nothing to do with a “person” or individual, which the following will suggest..

    Justice Amy Coney Barrett Second Amendment dilemma

    In some 225 years neither law professors, academic scholars, teachers, students, lawyers or congressional legislators after much debate have not been able to satisfactorily explain or demonstrate the Framers intended purpose of Second Amendment of the Constitution. I had taken up that challenge allowing  Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s dilemma to understand the true intent of the Second Amendment.

    I will relate further by demonstration, the intent of the Framers, my understanding using the associated wording to explain. The Second Amendment states, “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.”

    Militia, a body of citizens organized for military service.

    If, as some may argue, the Second Amendment’s “militia” meaning is that every person has a right to keep and bear arms, the only way to describe ones right as a private individual is not as a “militia” but as a “person.” (The individual personality of a human being: self)

    The 4th Amendment reminds us, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons….”

    The Article of Confederation lists eleven (11) references to“person/s.” The Constitution lists “person” or “persons” 49 times to explicitly describe, clarify and mandate a constitutional legal standing as to a “person” his or her constitutional duty and rights, what he or she can do or not do.

    It’s not enough to just say “person/s” is mentioned in the United States Constitution 49 times, but to see it for yourself (forgo listing), and the realization was for the concern envisioned by the Framers that every person be secure in these rights explicitly spelled out, referenced and understood how these rights were to be applied to that “person.”

    Whereas, in the Second Amendment any reference to “person” is not to be found. Was there a reason? Which leaves the obvious question, why did the Framers use the noun “person/s” as liberally as they did throughout the Constitution 49 times and not apply this understanding to explicitly convey the same legal standard in defining an individual “persons” right to bear arms as a person?

    Justice Amy Coney Barrett dissent in Barr v Kanter (2019) Second Amendment argument acquiesced to 42 references to “person/s, of which 13 characterize either a gun or firearm. Her Second Amendment, “textualism” approach having zero reference to “person/s. Justice Barrett’s  view only recognizes “person/s” in Barr, as well in her many other 7th circuit rulings. It is her refusal to acknowledge, recognize or connect the U.S. Constitution benchmark legislative interpretive precept language of “person/s,” mandated in our Constitution 49 times, to the Second Amendment.
    Leaving Supreme Court Justice Barrett’s judgment in question.

    In the entire U.S. Constitution “militia” is mentioned 5 times. In these references there is no mention of “person” or “persons.” One reference to “people” in the Second Amendment. People, meaning not a person but persons in describing militia.

    Now comes the word “shall” mentioned in the Constitution 100 times. SHALL; ought to, must ..

    And interestingly, the word “shall” appears in the Second Amendment. “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, and shall not be infringed.”

    “[S]hall not be infringed.” Adding another word “infringed” to clarify any misunderstanding as to the intent of the Second Amendment. Infringe. To encroach upon in a way that violates law or the rights of another;

    The condition “Infringe” has put a stop as to any counter thoughts regarding the Second Amendment, as you shall  not infringe or encroach  on beliefs other to what is evident as to the subject “Militia.”

    Finally, clarifying “..the right of the people to keep and bear arms…
    People. Human beings making up a group or assembly or linked by a common interest.

    In closing, I am not against guns, everybody has them. I’m against using the Second Amendment illogically as a crutch. If it makes those feel better so be it. Just what it deserves, use it with a wink.

    William Heino Sr


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