Gun control grammar: why words actually matter in the Constitution


Ever since the 2012 Presidential Election I’ve made a conscious effort to take a break from politics.  All of the constant back and forth between talking heads is somewhat fun and exciting in the build up to election day, but becomes a rather depressing reminder of the absolute political intractability we currently find ourselves in as a nation.  However, while I may have stopped watching the “talking heads”, I still read the newspaper.  I find that reading the news as opposed to watching a news entertainment show (the operative word being entertainment), allows me more freedom to decide for myself what I think is absurd, and what is not.  The fact that I have cut out the candy of cable news, and increased the less processed, albeit still fulfilling newspaper, has  refocused my mind on that which matters to all intelligent debate: words.

Based on my reading of the headlines, one of the most contentious political issues currently dividing our nation is gun control.  If one merely skims the surface of this topic; giving equal weight to opinions on all sides, even if they are absolutely bat-shit crazy, one may begin to think that this issue really is “quite difficult” and “full of grey area”.  I, on the other hand, disagree that it is all that complicated based merely on the constitutional language in which the topic is rooted.  Specifically, Amendment II of the United States Constitution.

Gun Regulation

The 2nd Amendment reads as follows: 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. 

Taken by itself, this short little amendment isn’t all that clear when you read it critically.  The use of commas and lack of conjunctions makes it carry a somewhat different meaning from what I think most people believe it to be.  First, take the contradictory phrases “well regulated” and “shall not be infringed”.  They exist together in the same sentence, and supposedly about the same topics.  Yet, how can something be simultaneously “well regulated” and “not infringed”? (Unless it is opposite day of course.)  It’s as if the Amendment says, “You can have guns and a Militia, but we’re going to regulate them, wait, just kidding!”

Second, what is it, exactly, that “shall not be infringed”?  Is it the Militia?  The “bearing of Arms”? Both?  I think the answer lies in the priority for how the two topics are ordered in the sentence, and the use of commas.  It is the “well regulated Militia” that is “necessary to the security of a free State”, not the bearing of Arms.  The “bearing of Arms”, at least in how it falls in the sentence, is a continuation of the idea on Militias, a secondary supporting clause, but not the main idea of the sentence.  They do not hold equal weight in terms of what, “shall not be infringed”.  In other words, if the Founders simply used the word “and” to connect the two parts; i.e., “,and right of the people to keep and bear Arms”, then it would be very clear that they intended both the Militia and the bearing of Arms to hold equal weighting for things that “shall not be infringed” upon.  But they didn’t do that.  They made it read such that the implication for the importance of bearing arms is in service of a Militia, not merely as a recreational purpose, such as the 21st Amendment is to alcohol use (which I might remind everyone is a HIGHLY regulated “right” of the people).

This point of the importance held by the Militia in the 2nd amendment is further supported when looking at other Amendments in relation to a Militias place in society.  Specifically, put in context with two previous sections of the Constitution, that of Article I, Section 8, and Article II, Section 2, colors the 2nd Amendment’s meaning in a whole different way.  Article I, Section 8 reads, in part:

The Congress shall have Power To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions; To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress…

Article II, Section 2 reads, in part:

The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States…

In other words, the reason the right of owning a gun is afforded by the Constitution is not simply so that citizens have carte blanche access to whatever weapon they choose for whatever reason, but because owning a weapon is essential to the Government’s ability to call upon you as part of a Militia to defend the country against foreign invasions.

The way I read the mere language of the Constitution, the 2nd Amendment has absolutely nothing to do with an individual’s right to own a gun for personal reasons, but rather in duty and service to Country.  Read literally, the Constitution would also seem to imply that instituting the draft in war time is completely in line with the spirit and word of our most precious founding document.  And yet, we’ve managed to regulate that unpopular policy right into the annals of American history, Constitutional language not withstanding.

Bottom line: context and time period are everything.  The Constitution, with all its Articles, Amendments, and good intentions, was written during a time in which guns meant muscats, where transportation meant riding a horse, and when communication meant writing a letter.  For all those who scream and lose their minds over the far-out notion that the government is “taking their guns” should more closely inspect that founding document that they so dearly, with weeping red, white and blue tears, love to hold as a self-righteous banner to individual freedom.  The truth of the matter is, the founding document is more collectivist in nature than individualistic, at least in regard to this particular topic.  The sentiment of these Amendments is not in support of the current NRA platform of “rugged individualism, with a gun”, but rather of a more collective responsibility in which citizens are afforded rights, but along with those rights, major responsibilities as well.  The purpose of gun ownership is to serve a Militia, and that Militia is under the authority of the government if needed in time of war.  Last I checked, Militia’s st0pped being a viable fighting force for the government about the same time as the musket.

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Author: Zack Hayhurst

New Yorker enthusiast, cartoon caption contest contender, book hoarder, cultural omnivore, writer

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