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The Bonnie and Richard Reiss Graduate Institute for Constitutional History Seminar Fall 2023 Session: The Contested Meaning of the Second Amendment

September 12, 2023

Few issues in American law are as deeply contested as the meaning of the Second Amendment and the scope of permissible gun regulation. Contemporary Second Amendment jurisprudence is distinctive in its focus on using history to shape contemporary legal interpretation. The Supreme Court’s recent decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen, for example, means that gun-control laws of today must demonstrate a clear historical pedigree or genealogy to pass constitutional muster. Weapons regulations without such a historical foundation are likely to be struck down regardless of the modern public-safety rationale behind them. This seminar will explore the contested history of the meaning of the Second Amendment by exploring a variety of historical, legal, and cultural sources. Although once a neglected field of historical inquiry, Second Amendment scholarship has been transformed by the rise of originalism and the Supreme Court’s embrace of this controversial but indisputably ascendant theory of constitutional interpretation. How do historians and originalists understand the constitutional past? What sources and interpretive tools do scholars employ to make sense of the historical record? How do we address the many silences in the record? This seminar will explore these questions and others as we make sense of the meaning of the right to keep and bear arms.

Saul Cornell is the Paul and Diane Guenther Chair in American History at Fordham University and the author of numerous books, including A Well Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control in America. Jennifer Tucker is professor of history at Wesleyan University, director of Wesleyan’s Center for the Study of Guns and Society, and the co-editor of A Right to Bear Arms? The Contested Role of History in Contemporary Debates on the Second Amendment.

LOGISTICS: The seminar will be presented in person* at the New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West, New York, NY 10024, on the following dates:

  • Friday, November 17, 2023 | 2–5 pm ET
  • Friday, December 1, 2023 | 2–5 pm ET
  • Friday, December 8, 2023 | 2–5 pm ET
  • Friday, December 15, 2023 | 2–5 pm ET

Accepted students will receive further instructions and the classroom location within the New-York Historical Society.

*Although we encourage students to attend the class in person, livestream participation will be offered to admitted students who do not live in the New York Metropolitan Area or who are unable to attend a class in person. If you are interested in attending some or all of the class sessions virtually, please indicate this in your application statement.

The seminar is designed for graduate students and junior faculty in history, political science, law, and related disciplines. All participants will be expected to complete the assigned readings and participate in seminar discussions. Although the Institute cannot offer academic credit directly for the seminar, students may be able to earn graduate credit through their home departments by completing an independent research project in conjunction with the seminar. Please consult with your advisor and/or director of graduate studies about these possibilities.


Space is limited. To apply, please submit the following material to [email protected] by October 11, 2023:

  • Your C.V.
  • A short statement on how this seminar will be useful to you in your research, teaching, or professional development.

Successful applicants will be notified soon thereafter. For further information, please email Alexander Kassl at [email protected].

There is no tuition or other charge for this seminar, though participants will be expected to acquire the assigned books on their own.

The Bonnie and Richard Reiss Graduate Institute for Constitutional History (ICH) is the nation’s premier institute dedicated to ensuring that future generations of Americans understand the substance and historical development of the U.S. Constitution. Located at the New York Historical Society, the Institute is co-sponsored by the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and the American Political Science Association. The Association of American Law Schools is a cooperating entity. ICH prepares junior scholars and college instructors to convey to their readers and students the important role the Constitution has played in shaping American society. ICH also provides a national forum for the preparation and dissemination of humanistic, interdisciplinary scholarship on American constitutional history.

The Bonnie and Richard Reiss Graduate Institute for Constitutional History is supported, in part, by the Saunders Endowment for Constitutional History and a “We the People” challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities