I don’t know how many times people have dropped this alleged quote from the late “conservative” Justice Warren Burger into my social media feeds:
The gun lobby’s interpretation of the Second Amendment is one of the greatest pieces of fraud — I repeat the word ‘fraud’ — on the American People by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime. The real purpose of the Second Amendment was to ensure that state armies — the militia — would be maintained for the defense of the state. The very language of the Second Amendment refutes any argument that it was intended to guarantee every citizen an unfettered right to any kind of weapon he or she desires.
If you find yourself in a debate over the Second Amendment, sooner or later someone is going to let you know that Burger believed an individual right to gun ownership was one of the “greatest pieces of fraud” perpetrated on the American people. Burger’s line is ubiquitous—it can be found in The New Yorker, Slate, Politico, NPR, every major newspaper, and in every anti-gun columnist’s pieces.
The first problem with the popular online iteration of the quote is that it’s actually cobbled together from three separate sources to give it more impact. Don’t get me wrong: Burger is mistaken in all instances, but he is mistaken in different contexts.
The second problem is that the quote often reads as if Burger—the “conservative” who voted with the majority in Roe v. Wade—offered this argument as a member of the Supreme Court. No high-court decision has ever defined the Second Amendment as anything but an individual right. And Burger never uttered a word about the Second Amendment while sitting on the court. For that matter, he never rendered a gun decision on any court, nor ever wrote a legal paper on the issue. And it shows.
Then again, the “collective right” theory was only a recent invention of revisionist historians and anti-gun activists when Burger adopted it. It’s also a tough one to sell to anyone who cares about history. Nearly every intellectual, political, and military leader of the founding generation, from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Franklin to George Mason to Samuel Adams to George Washington to Patrick Henry to James Madison and so on, is on the record defending the individual’s right to bear arms. There is not a single record of anyone in that era challenging the notion.
Anyway, the part of the quote about the gun lobby is taken from a 1991 PBS interview in which Burger erroneously argues that the 18th-century conception of “well regulated” was the same as the contemporary one. The notion that the state, much less the federal government, would be empowered to “regulate” what kind of weapons you owned would have been alien to a person in 1789. “Well regulated” simply means a well-pulled-together militia, rather than a rabble.
Burger maintains that the real purpose of the Second Amendment was to ensure that state armies would defend state populations. This is an ungrammatical and ahistorical reading of the amendment. Sure, there was a debate over standing armies and control of the militias. But, as the late Justice Antonin Scalia pointed out in Heller, “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed” is the operative clause in the Second Amendment. The “well regulated Militia” part is the prefatory clause.
It makes zero sense to read the prefatory clause as a nullification or even limitation of the operative clause. It is tantamount to arguing that because the First Amendment says Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, it’s not an individual right to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
The Second Amendment explicitly mentions “the right of the people” — people who generally used their own weapons as militiamen — just as it does elsewhere in the Bill of Rights when protecting individual rights. Many colonies enshrined the individual right to bear arms in their constitutions before the Bill of Rights was even written, most of them in much more explicit terms. No state defined it as a collective right. Some Federalists argued that special protections in the Bill of Rights were unnecessary because there were so many guns in private hands that it was unimaginable any tyrannical army could ever be more powerful than the public.
The other two parts of the quote are lifted from different passages in a column Burger wrote for the Associated Press. Here the former justice expands on his idea that guns should be regulated like cars.
“[A]lthough there is not a word or hint in the Constitution about automobiles or motorcycles,” Burger says, “no one would seriously argue that a state cannot regulate the use of motor vehicles by imposing licensing restrictions and speed limits based on factors of driver’s age, health condition, and driving record, and by recording every purchase and change of ownership.”
It is because automobiles and motorcycles — or transportation as an ideal — are not explicitly protected by the Constitution that you can heavily regulate those things. The better analogy would be due process or speech rights. (Although Burger wasn’t a great fan of the First Amendment, either.)
Besides all that, Burger should have known that Americans, even in 1991, did not have “unfettered” access to “machine guns.” In 1986, the Firearm Owners’ Protection Act law made ownership of fully automatic weapons pretty rare.
Burger also should have known that the Gun Control Act of 1968 established the first federal age limits for buying guns. Today there are tens of thousands of laws regulating gun ownership in the United States. That is not “unfettered” by any definition.
In fact, it doesn’t seem like Burger knew very much about the topic at all.