At issue is the interpretation of a single sentence: "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." Opponents of comprehensive gun-control laws view this as a constitutional guarantee of the right of Americans to own guns. An easy way to put it is that they view the amendment as if the initial clause were irrelevant, leaving us simply with a guarantee against federal gun control that challenges the right of citizens to own weapons.
By contrast, of course, there are those (roughly speaking, the nation's intelligentsia) who insist that the Second Amendment goes no further than to say that Congress may not legislate against the right of individual states to organize militias of arms-bearing citizens.
The learned arguments go on and on. The gun-control lobby has suffered two severe blows in the recent period. One of them is that professor Laurence Tribe of Harvard, much esteemed by American liberals in part because of his enthusiasm for abortion rights, having examined the historical documents, opines that indeed the people who framed the Bill of Rights intended to guarantee individual, not merely collective, gun-ownership rights. And the 5th Circuit ruled in the same direction in United States v. Emerson.
It probably could be established by polling that the American people would be happy to hang anybody who burns the U.S. flag, but such sentiments are not likely to be codified. It's more fruitful to argue reasonable limitations on gun ownership. A comic routine in Las Vegas in 1980 featured a debate between presidential contenders Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter on the matter of gun control, Walter Cronkite presiding.
"What about atom bombs, Governor Reagan? Do you believe the Constitution guarantees the right of individuals to have atom bombs?"
"Well, Mr. Cronkite," the comedian answered pensively, "just small atom bombs."
The assertion of a right at ridiculous lengths -- the absolutization of it, in the manner of the American Civil Liberties Union -- is a way of undermining it. If the Constitution says you can say anything you want under any circumstances, then you can shout "fire" in a crowded movie theater. If you have the right to remain silent in all circumstances, then you can decline to give testimony vital to another citizen's freedom and rights. If you insist that a citizen has the right to own a machine gun, you discredit his right to own a pistol or a rifle.
Both sides will find it useful to temper extreme expressions of their positions. But it is certainly true that at this moment it is likelier that members of Congress running for election or re-election in November will not press the collective interpretation of the Second Amendment.