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The Second Amendment: A Biography

3.99 of 5 stars 3.99  ·  rating details  ·  216 ratings  ·  66 reviews
By the president of the prestigious Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, the life story of the most controversial, volatile, misunderstood provision of the Bill of Rights.

At a time of renewed debate over guns in America, what does the Second Amendment mean? This book looks at history to provide some surprising, illuminating answers.

The Amendment was written to
Hardcover, 272 pages
Published May 20th 2014 by Simon & Schuster
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Sean Farrell
An absolute must read for anyone who has even a passing curiosity about both the gun debate in this country, and how the Supreme Court interprets the Constitution. While it does suffer from a touch of unnecessary snarkiness towards the end, it still does a wonderful job of covering pretty much all the bases in the history of this contentious subject. Of course, those who think they have a God-given right to own an assortment of machine guns are likely to find this book rather disagreeable, but t ...more
Okay, if you don't want to read an anti-NRA rant, and I wouldn't blame you if you didn't, then please avoid reading these comments. But I'm a bit rankled right now because of what that group is doing in my state of NH. As I write this, a bill is being passed to allow anyone with a gun license, and that includes just about everyone, to carry a concealed, loaded weapon. Shame on the NRA and their backers. The only people benefiting from this are the gun manufacturers. So I guess all that ridiculou ...more
This book needs to be read and analyzed by everyone who has an opinion regarding the 2nd amendment. Regardless of political party or ideology, this is a book for all Americans. Any debate in our current political arena will need to pass through this book and the implications and objective evidence it provides. The fact that there is little to zero mention of individual gun rights/ownership until the post Civil War period is staggering against those who make the argument that we need to go back t ...more
Peter Goodman

“The Second Amendment: a biography,” by Michael Waldman (Simon and Schuster, 2014). Waldman is president of the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law; he was Bill Clinton’s chief speechwriter from 1995-1999. He is scrupulously fair but makes his position very clear: Until the National Rifle Association set about to change the way the US read the Second Amendment, in the 1970s, everyone knew that it was primarily about creating a self-defense force, not about letting anyone who want
John Findlay
Another very good book about the way the Second Amendment has been interpreted since its adoption. The author shows that the Amendment was interpreted as a "collective" right (citizens could bear arms in the context of being available to serve in a militia) by the courts throughout history until the historic "Heller vs DC" case in 2008 that changed the interpretation to an individual right for self-defense, hunting, or sport. He also shows how the NRA changed from an organization largely support ...more
I just thought I knew what the second amendment is all about, who knew there was so much to know about how this amendment came into place. Waldman does an excellent job of giving the history of our founding fathers first and the state of affairs that lead to the creation of the second amendment. He follows its history through the founding of the NRA and the current laws that apply to carrying concealed weapons and the right to have a gun for protection in the home (this is a fairly recent law). ...more
Anna Kramer
"A Biography" is an apt title for this comprehensive and insightful review of the second amendment. Spanning the pre-colonial era to the 21st century, Waldman's book tracks the changing definition of second amendment powers, from the original protection of state militia to the current protection of the "right to bear arms". Delving deep into the minds of James Madison and the men of the Constitutional Convention, Waldman travels from the days of the Founding Fathers to the Civil War to the New D ...more
Donald Powell
At times I found the prose hard to follow. The history, research, balance, integrity of the reasoning and the jurisprudential ennunciations are all superb. Every person who thinks about government or guns should read this packed little volume. More discussion such as this balanced look is necessary in our news media.
John Kaufmann
Excellent history of the second amendment, the "right to bear arms." Waldman goes back to the place of guns and militia in the American colonies at the time of the Revolution; the role of guns and militia in British law, beginning with the Glorious Revolution of 1688; the debates (or lack thereof) over gun rights in the Constitution; debates surrounding the Bill of Rights; debates over ratification in the various states; how several states dealt with the issue in their various state constitution ...more
For anyone looking to understand the origins of the 2nd Amendment, how it’s been interpreted over the last 200 years, and the implications of the most recent Heller and McDonald Supreme Court decisions, this book is a must read. Given how infused the gun debate in the United States is with fundamentalist 2nd Amendment rhetoric and arguments, it might be surprising to many readers that interpreting the 2nd Amendment to mean individual gun rights is largely a recent phenomenon. For over 200 years ...more
Guns are my hot point issue. I have very strong feelings.

The Second Amendment is a very good look at what this amendment has been interpreted as, how its interpretation has evolved over time and the debate between a literal reading of the Constitution or its role as a "living document."

I believe strongly in the right of American individuals to own guns. I don't own one because I don't see the need. But I don't deny that others may feel differently. And I don't argue with those who want guns for
A fascinating if flawed book. Expertly researched, the author shows how the Second Amendment was deliberated. He clearly shows that the Founding Father were NOT concerned with individual rights to “bear arms” but were focused on state militias. The militias were seen as the natural foil of a Federal Army. I would have rated this higher but the author often allows his bias to intrude on his writing.

It’s very telling that historians support this view. The many supporters of the individual rights c
The book is a timely and informative discussion of the origins and meaning of the 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution as well as a survey of the changing attitudes in America (and on the Supreme Court) toward gun ownership.

I wish it contained a road map in addition to the lessons learned, however. Where do we go from here?
James Williams
The second amendment — along with all the ideas and proposals that surround it — is a contentions issue in America today. For a lot of single-issue voters, it is the single most important issue. As the gun manufacturers, enthusiasts, and the NRA flex their muscles, we’ve seen that they can use the Amendment to turn elections and control policy.

Growing up in America’s South, it’s always been axiomatic that the second amendment granted a personal and inviolable right for a private citizen to poss
Samir Salifou
This book is aptly titled, as it is a true biography of the second amendment. The author breaks the book into three segments, which include a history lesson of the bill of rights and the reason behind why the second amendment was incorporated into that document. He then looks at the rise of the NRA and the movement that supports the notion of an individual right to gun ownership. Finally, he analyses the Supreme Court decision in Heller and its implications for gun policy in America.

The book is
Michael Waldman's book is truly a history book. It starts, of course, at the beginning, with the birth of the Second Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He progresses through the nation's 200+ year history, examining our relationship to the Constitution and how it has changed in different ways over time - notably with the 14th and 15th Amendments passed in the wake of the Civil War - as well as the history of jurisprudence pertaining to Second Amendment issues. He also traces the arc of the histor ...more
Very interesting. 2nd Amendment was all about organized militias. Individual gun ownership was a matter of civil law, not the Constitution.

The current attitudes are the result of NRA propaganda, since the NRA has become the representative of the gun industry.
I was a bit disappointed. I am a lefty and absolutely on the gun control side of the argument and was hoping this would be a even-handed dissection of the 2nd amendment, its creation and subsequent legal life. While there's a lot of great information, there's a whole lotta snark, too, which might be entertaining (to someone like me) but is also wildly counter-productive. (As witnessed by the Amazon reader scores of practically exclusively 5 stars - "The Gun Lobby does not want you to read this b ...more
Disclaimer: I received this book as part of the GoodReads FirstReads program.

Disclaimer 2: I believe in gun control.

Before I received this book, I wondered whether it was going to be NRA propaganda or Gun Control propaganda. I needn't have worried. The book is a balanced and fair look at the second amendment. The author covers the events that led to the Founding Fathers creation of the Bill of Rights, and the thinking, in the historical context of the time, of what led to the second amendment in
"...the Framers added the Second Amendment to the Constitution not because they solemnly believed it necessary, but as a 'tub to the whale' - a concession to popular discontent. From the beginning, American politics was marked by triangulation, compromise, tactical retreats."

"...the world of the Second Amendment is unrecognizable: a world where every white American man served in the military for his entire adult life, where those citizen soldiers bought their own military weapons and stored them
This isn't just about the Second Amendment. It also provides a really interesting look at the evolution of our central government, the ratification of the Constitution and the birth of the Bill of Rights. But yes, the Second Amendment is the main character of this book. The author gives us all this background because he seems to feel that to truly understand the second amendment, you need all the background leading up to it. And it was interesting to see the language of the amendment take shape ...more
This is such a well-written fascinating look at the 2nd amendment; from its creation to its role in the present. I am a gun owner and I don't think that for me it ever was a conscious choice. I was raised with guns, shot my first deer at 13 and have had one ever since. Its just the way of things. Living most of your life in a rural community sets you right into the middle of gun culture and this author does a very good job of pointing out the historical context of the 2nd Amendment and how our c ...more
Lawrence A
This is a good, concise monograph for laypersons interested in the political and legal history of the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which addresses weapons and arms. It is also a shot across the bow (pun intended) at the theory of "originalism" in constitutional interpretation propounded by US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and other political conservatives. (Leonard Levy probably wrote the best critique of that approach). The book is well written and argued, even if I did wince ...more
I am glad I read The Second Amendment: A Biography by Michael Waldman. Waldman does not begin the book with a preconceived notion regarding the Second Amendment. What he learns along the way surprises him. This book should not be considered simply a rehashing of what the Founders were thinking when they wrote this amendment. The book is so much more. It is a well researched, step by step account of how history, the public, the politicians, the scholars, the courts, the laws, the presidents, etc. ...more
Kero Guynes
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Far less unbiased than some would suggest

Waldman writes a fairly dispassionate analysis of the gun control debate. He steers clear of either diatribe or polemic, and focuses on the question of what the 2nd amendment really means and meant to the founders. He also traces the history of the amendment through the history of the U.S. Finally he notes how, given this history, the "originalism" of Heller is a sham and argues that originalism is neither a good way to try to find justice nor even a conc
Cary Kostka
The book comes off with an almost instant one sided viewpoint, which I was not expecting. The author’s bias was evident immediately; it made the book hard to read at times as you weren’t sure if he was presenting fact or opinion at times. The book should be labeled an op-ed piece and not a biography.

The best part of the book was his breakdown of the Supreme Court’s oft "blowing with the wind" ways that really showed just how subjective all parts of the Constitution are to interpretation. The au
Kim Novak
Had to go with 5 stars for the concise, readable literary journey that is this Second Amendment history. Can't wait to survey my Facebook friends as to whether they are constitution originalists or living constitutionalists. Guarantee you that the line parallels the creation/evolution debate. Because I don't have a way-back machine, or left-there machine, I guess I'm more of a living constitutionalist. My opinion is that the Founding Fathers conceded to the Second Amendment, agreed upon an inten ...more
Actual rating would be 3.5. I'm glad I read it, which is the bottom line. The information in it was great, particularly section 1, which is about the true original intent of the Second Amendment. Direct sources were quoted and I now feel that I can discuss this issue intelligently. That said, it's not exactly a page turner. It wasn't ponderous, it just felt as though it was an assignment I had given myself (which it was) rather than something I couldn't wait to read. All in all - definitely wort ...more
Carol Palmer
Very interesting book about the second amendment and what the framers of the Constitution were actually trying to protect with it - state militias. It then goes into the history of expansion of gun rights and gun control. Learned some interesting facts like carrying of guns in Dodge City was illegal, the NRA was started by former Union soldiers for marksmanship, the NRA only put part of the second amendment in their headquarter's lobby, and Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry are misquoted by gun ...more
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Michael Waldman is the producer-director of Channel 4 TV series "Following the Equator with Ustinov".
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“through the transcript. Some colleagues, at least, found the whole exercise droll. Fisher Ames, a Federalist” 0 likes
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