In all seriousness, it’s a very thorny problem to figure out how and why the Second Amendment was written as it is. However, the wording makes it quite clear that the right to bear arms was only intended in the context of a well regulated militia.
Approaching the sentence as grammarians, we immediately note two things: the simple subject is “right” and the full predicate is “shall not be infringed.” This, in other words, is a sentence about a right that is already assumed to exist. It does not say, “The people shall have a right to keep and bear arms.” The amendment recognizes , but does not grant, the right. As the U.S. Supreme Court wrote in the late 19th century, the right to keep and bear arms is independent of the Constitution.
That has important implications for the opening militia phrase, which confuses so many people. Gun opponents often argue that if the opening phrase does not apply—if, say, the standing army takes the place of the militia—then the right to keep and bear arms is nullified. That view would require a willingness by the framers of the Constitution to agree to this statement: If a well-regulated militia is not necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall (or may) be infringed. But it is absurd to think that the Framers would embrace that statement. Their political philosophy would not permit them to speak of a permissible infringement of rights. In their view, individuals, joining together to form a political unit, delegate rights and powers to government. But the people do not—cannot—consent to an infringement of their rights—such consent, logically, would make no sense. The term infringement implies lack of consent.
As a matter of logic, it is an error to believe that nullification of the opening phrase would nullify the main clause. Imagine a long-lost constitution that stated: “The earth being flat, the right of the people to abstain from ocean travel shall not be infringed.” Would anyone seriously argue that discovery of the earth’s spherical shape would justify compelling people to sail?
Schulman then asked Mr. Brocki whom Mr. Brocki considered to be the nation’s top expert on English usage. Mr. Brocki referred Schulman to Roy Copperud, a retired journalism professor at the University of Southern California, and author of American Usage and Style: The Consensus, which won the American Publishers’ Humanities Award. Before beginning a seventeen-year teaching career, Prof. Copperud had been a newspaper writer for major daily newspapers for three decades. He served on the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, and was cited as an expert by the Merriam Webster’s Usage Dictionary.
[Schulman] Can the sentence be interpreted to grant the right to keep and bear arms solely to “a well-regulated militia”?
[Copperud] The sentence does not restrict the right to keep and bear arms, nor does it state or imply possession of the right elsewhere or by others than people; it simply makes a positive statement with respect to a right of the people.
[Schulman] Is “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” granted by the words of the Second Amendment?
[Copperud] The right is not granted by the Amendment; its existence is assumed. The thrust of the sentence is that the right shall be preserved inviolate for the sake of ensuring a militia.
[Schulman] Is the right of the people to keep and bear arms conditioned upon whether or not a well-regulated militia is, in fact, necessary to the security of a free state?
[Copperud] No such condition is expressed or implied. The right to keep and bear arms is not said by the Amendment to depend on the existence of a militia. No condition is stated or implied as to the relation of the right to keep and bear arms and the necessity of a well-regulated militia as requisite to the security of a free state. The right to keep and bear arms is deemed unconditional by the entire sentence.
[Schulman] Does the clause “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,” grant a right to the government to place conditions on the “right”“?
[Copperud] The right is assumed to exist and to be unconditional, as previously stated. It is invoked here specifically for the sake of the militia.
[Schulman] Which of the following does the phrase “well-regulated militia” mean”?
[Copperud] The phrase means “subject to the regulations of a superior authority”; this accords with the desire of the writers for civilian control over the military.
[Schulman] If at all possible, I would ask you take into account the changed meanings of words, or usage, since that sentence was written.
[Copperud] To the best of my knowledge, there has been no change in the meaning of words or in usage that would affect the meaning of the Amendment. If it were written today, it might be put: “Since a well-regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be abridged.”
[Schulman] As a “scientific control” on this analysis, I would also appreciate if you could compare your analysis of the text of the Second Amendment to the following sentence, “A well-schooled electorate, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and read Books, shall not be infringed.” Is the grammatical structure and usage of this sentence, and the way the words modify each other, identical to the Second Amendment? Could this sentence be interpreted to restrict “the right of the people to keep and read Books” only to “a well-educated electorate”—for example, registered voters with a high-school diploma?
[Copperud] (1) Your “scientific-control” sentence precisely parallels the Amendment in grammatical structure. (2) There is nothing in your sentence that either indicates or implies the possibility of a restricted interpretation.
After completing the project, Prof. Copperud, who passed away half a year later, told Schulman that he personally favored gun control. See, J. NEIL SCHULMAN, STOPPING POWER 151-59 (Santa Monica: Synapse-Centurion, 1994).
I would not consider the FFF to be a particularly objective website. I note that they publish books like THIS :
[quote author=“FFF”]The Tyranny of Gun Control
Edited by: Jacob G. Hornberger and Richard M. Ebeling (1998)
The right to own firearms is one of the most fundamental, inherent rights of man. Not only do individuals have the natural, God-given right to own property, they also have the basic right to defend themselves from murderers, rapists, thieves, burglars,and other violent, antisocial people in society. Most important, individuals have the right to defend themselves from the oppressive, tyrannical acts of their own government. This book shows why gun control poses an enormous threat to the liberty of the American people. It is a must read for anyone concerned about the future direction of freedom in the United States.
“One of the most fundamental, inherent rights of man”???
“God-given right to own property”???
National Review is a right-winger publication, so I certainly wouldn’t take anything they say as gospel (so to speak), however the section you quote seems to support what I was saying.
First stop trying to poison the well Doug, it is unbecoming. Second I can’t see how it supports what you said, but quite the opposite. A (actual two) noted English grammarian find no requirement that peoples right and to bear arms is contingent on a militia.
Sorry, Chris, I have no idea what you mean by “poisoning the well”. I’m looking at the objectivity of the sources you cited. As you well know, this issue gets all kinds of wingers out of the woods, and the mere fact that some opinion has been written down or published by some publication does not mean it is true.
As for the National Review quote, Copperud says, “The thrust of the sentence is that the right shall be preserved inviolate for the sake of ensuring a militia.” I would only add that it says that the right should be preserved “for the sake of ensuring a well regulated militia”, where “well regulated” means “subject to the regulations of a superior authority” as Copperud says.
However I do not agree with him that it is “unconditional” in the sense that Copperud suggests.
For a more complete discussion of this issue, see the Wikipedia entry:
Sorry, Chris, that might have been true had I picked out other books that the FFF writes, that had nothing to do with the second amendment.
The book I picked out was directly relevant to their position. Indeed, it is their book about their position. I think it stands on its own as something of a self-parody. At least given the information about it on their website, which I quoted in full.
Ok, I’ve been following but staying out of this discussion since I’m in almost full agreement with Doug and Occam, and they’ve articulated their position better than I likely could have. However, with respect to the discussion of the Second Amendment, Chris, I think you’re missing some important points. First, appeal to authority is not an appropriate way to decide what a given sentence means. Though there are some grammarians who cling to the largely forsaken position that we can establish standard and unchanging meanings for words and rules for usage, most would argue that words and grammar mean what the bulk of the average-educated native speakers of the language think they mean, and that changes all the time. That said, both Doug’s interpretation of the meaning of the statement and yours are valid readings from a grammatical position. I suspect a survey of native American English speakers who read an identical construction with a different content, to avoid pre-existing positions on gun rights, would find that the majority interpreted the intial clause as modifying the rest of the sentence in the way Doug and I read it. In any case, the issue isn’t really about what the words mean, since that is not an objective absolute that can be proven, and grammar is not going to solve the problem.
Neither will an analysis of what the Framers intended, unless you’re a strict constructionist like Scalia. If you are, then you are the constitutional equivalent of a biblical literalist, and for a variety of reasons I won’t enumerate, the concept of making decisions today based on believing we can corectly interpret and then hold inviolate the precepts of a sacred historical text seems to me flawed at best.
The real question, is what decision we the people wish to make now regarding our own rights and security. I sure don’t want to go through all the arguments for and against private gun ownership, since they’re well worn and, realistically, everybody in this discussion seems pretty set in their opinions. But as a matter of constitutional principle, I don’t think it makes sense to assert that no decisions can be made about the meaning or value of the second amendment because the Framers or subsequent grammarians established a universal, timeless meaning for it. Certainly, an argument can be made that it’s meaning is sufficiently ambiguous that only repeal of the amendment would be sufficient to abrogate the “right” it allegedly conveys or confirms, though I personally disagree. But the issue of what it means should be debated in light of facts and evidence regarding how we choose to live now, not what some grammar sage thinks or what we suppose the Framers to have thought.
The real question, is what decision we the people wish to make now regarding our own rights and security. I….But as a matter of constitutional principle, I don’t think it makes sense to assert that no decisions can be made about the meaning or value of the second amendment because the Framers or subsequent grammarians established a universal, timeless meaning for it.
Well there I can agree. Was it Jefferson, who said the entire thing should be scrapped and redrafted every generation? One problem with it and much of government now is that it is built layer upon layer of the dead skin of past rule.
But it is no more an appeal to authority than quoting Einstein on E=MC2 is. Unless you think if I am to discuss relativity I need to reprove all of the work, personally. What it is is a demonstration of scholarly work on the meaning and intent of the chosen sentence, So unlike Doug who appealed to his own authority, I do not expect you to take my word, but rather wish to demonstrate that there is a field of scholarly work that does address this, and that that work supports conclusions I have made.
Doug you used the following two sentences to dismiss the validity of the articles quoted, based on their proximity to other separate ideas, authors, publications.
I would not consider the FFF to be a particularly objective website.
National Review is a right-winger publication, so I certainly wouldn’t take anything they say as gospel
The articles should stand alone regardless of where they were posted. To infer that they are bunk because the magazine or web page they come from is not to your liking is an argument ad hominem and you know it. And what makes it worse is that you have made empirical claims about the meaning of the words with no support, but when I showed support for an opposing view from scholars (and the Supreme Court) you resorted to deriding the source, all the while failing to provide more than your strong refutation, as support for your claim.
But it is no more an appeal to authority than quoting Einstein on E=MC2 is. Unless you think if I am to discuss relativity I need to reprove all of the work, personally. What it is is a demonstration of scholarly work on the meaning and intent of the chosen sentence,
But of course E=MC2 is not true because Einstein said it was, and he’s a smart guy. It’s true because he demonstrated it cogently with mathematics and it was then validated by other scientists through empirical testing. The meaning of words and grammatical constructs cannot be demonstrated mathematically or subject to much in the way of empirical research. A survey of native speakers, as I suggested before, is probably the closest we are likely to get to a “study” of meaning. A grammarian might have great technical knowledge about how the language is structured, but meaning is determined by operational consensus among users, not by technical expertise. So while we agree that what the amendment means should be whatever the current population decides, through some reasonable democratic process, it should mean, I wouldn’t bother to refer to a language specialist for help decifering the meaning because I think there input would be irrelevant.
Actually, I agree with the 2 libertarians on the state, religion and the like - I am a libertarian-socialist afterall, and they have not talked about capitalism much (which is usually the point or departure between libertarians and anarchists) - but I must agree with Doug on gun control. Though I think the main reason people use guns to kill each other in the U.S. (10,000 dealths a year by gunshot) is problems with the state and capitalism, having so many guns around can’t be a good thing. Like Europe and Japan, I say we get rid of most guns altogether. But of course, our form of capitalism is allowing way too many people to make money on the sale of weopens (like with the drug trade) to ever ban them in any meaningful way.
[quote author=“mckenzievmd”]But of course E=MC2 is not true because Einstein said it was, and he’s a smart guy. It’s true because he demonstrated it cogently with mathematics and it was then validated by other scientists through empirical testing. The meaning of words and grammatical constructs cannot be demonstrated mathematically or subject to much in the way of empirical research.
Fair enough, though if word meaning has no empirical value what are dictionaries and language structure for? Obviously words and sentences do have a meaning in reality…just as the symbols and numbers used in a physical theory must have a fixed meaning for the theory to be anything other than nonsense. If I were to claim that the E in E=MC2 stood for eclair the entire formula stops making any sense. But this is not a science journal for the publication of specific provable theory either, so we must agree that holding to a scientific degree of “proof” in many topics is an unreasonable benchmark, much like we do with the criminal justice system. It is a forum for discussion. So whats your point?
Before you answer that, lets be clear that it was Doug who started with the claims of knowing the truth of what was meant by the framers and how the laws have no connection to the ammendment.
[quote author=“dougsmith”]Part of it I expect has to do with the insane gun laws in the US (which are NOT backed up by the second amendment).
This is a misreading.
The second amendment clearly states that the right of the people to bear arms is done because a “well regulated militia” is “necessary to the security of a free State”. The intent of it was to stop the government from hiring mercenary soldiers from other countries to do their war-fighting for them.
The constitutional framers were worried about this possibility because in the past those same foreign mercenaries were then often used by centralized governments to repress the people.
So the meaning of the passage is that people have the right to bear arms in a well regulated militia. Not as citizens outside of such a militia.
I am merely pointing out that I and others, including some language scholars disagree with his “truth”. That there is a lot of debate.
[quote author=“cgallaga”]The articles should stand alone regardless of where they were posted. To infer that they are bunk because the magazine or web page they come from is not to your liking is an argument ad hominem and you know it. And what makes it worse is that you have made empirical claims about the meaning of the words with no support, but when I showed support for an opposing view from scholars (and the Supreme Court) you resorted to deriding the source, all the while failing to provide more than your strong refutation, as support for your claim.
The claim that the FFF makes that “The right to own firearms is one of the most fundamental, inherent rights of man” is absurd on its face. This is a right we have only in the context of a well-regulated militia, as is stated clearly in the amendment. I made this argument at the beginning of this discussion. Note well that this and the Seventh are the only of the first ten amendments with opening clauses.
The arguments of these people is simply to obfuscate that clear reading. They are reading the amendment as though the first clause simply didn’t exist.
As to there being “a lot of debate” on this issue, of course there is. This isn’t “E = MC2”, it’s politics. I don’t disagree that there are people with different opinions on gun control, just as there are people with different opinions on abortion, gay marriage, stem cell research, and so on. And certainly I don’t deny that people read the words differently than I. I just don’t see the force of their arguments. OTOH I do see the wanton killings that are produced by gun violence, and that make US cities so much more dangerous than their european and asian counterparts.
Frankly, ownership of anything other than hunting rifles (and they are debatable) is a scourge on society. Groups like the NRA should be ashamed of themselves for the death and destruction that their policies cause.
And the hundreds of thousands dead in iraq from government controlled guns is what exactly? Talley up all the gun death by law abiding citizens and you’ll find they pale in comparison to most other forms of death. Tally them against the governments use of guns and they will practically vanish.
And I didn’t bring up the claim of a god given right, you did, so lets not get things muddled here. But there is little difference in principal if one says inalienable
unable to be taken away from or given away by the possessor
and god given
possessed without question, as if by divine authority
[quote author=“dougsmith”]They are reading the amendment as though the first clause simply didn’t exist.
And you are reading it as an exhaustive and limiting condition, as, if not more unsupported in the words.
[quote author=“cgallaga”]And the hundreds of thousands dead in iraq from government controlled guns is what exactly? Talley up all the gun death by law abiding citizens and you’ll find they pale in comparison to most other forms of death. Tally them against the governments use of guns and they will practically vanish.
Data from the CDC shows that US gun deaths from 1981 to 2004 totalled almost 800,000 people, or an average of 34,700 per year. This compares with ~58,000 US troops killed in action during the entire 15 year Vietnam war. It is not an insignificant number, by any estimation.
Here are more statistics on gun related homicide from the DOJ. “Homicides are most often committed with guns, especially handguns.” THIS graph shows that as recently as 1995 there were one MILLION nonfatal firearm-related violent crimes in the US.
“Suicide is nearly 5 times more likely to occur in a household with a gun than in a household without a gun. [Kellerman, A.L. et al., N Engl J Med 327, 1993.]”
“In 1996, 2 people were murdered by handguns in New Zealand, 15 in Japan, 106 in Canada, 213 in Germany, and 9,390 in the United States. [FBI Uniform Crime Report]” (NB: the other ~20,000 firearm deaths per year in the US were from other causes like suicide and accident).
“Guns kept in the home for self-protection are 43 times more likely to kill a family member or friend than to kill in self-defense. [Kellermann and Reay, N.E. Journal of Medicine]”
“Every two years, more Americans die of gunshot than there were American soldiers killed during the entire Vietnam War [National Center for Health Statistics, Department of Defense Almanac].”
For comparisons between firearm-related deaths among children under 15, see HERE .
The NRA’s position is immoral.
And re. the framers’ intents, there are two issues. The first one is that the framers had different, often mutually contradictory intents. The second issue is that if we take their intent seriously, leaving aside for the moment the issue of the militia, it was clearly to allow the possession of flintlock firearms. So a strict constructionist reading should be that we have the uninfringeable right to possess flintlock firearms.
[quote author=“Barry”]I must agree with Doug on gun control.