Grammar, Guns, The Second Amendment And The Role Of Government


Currently, there is a great deal of controversy over the second Amendment to the US Constitution which, it is claimed, guarantees the right of the individual to bear arms. The impact of the amendment has been profound. Historically, it has been used by gun advocates to block any effective regulations or restrictions that aim at limiting their use as well as diverting attempts to create a national database of gun owners.

To achieve a more complete appreciation of the conflict, it would be useful to read the full US Constitution so that the second amendment can be viewed in its proper context, especially when the circumstances surrounding its creation are so crucial to forming an objective interpretation that could lead to a more realistic application of its meaning.

The history of the Second Amendment is a pervasive example that illustrates the philosophical differences between those who believed in a strong central government, the Federalists, and those who favored more power for the states, known as the Anti-Federalists, and why they so frequently clashed. This sounds oddly similar to the Democrats and Republicans and their long unresolved bitter struggle over the role of government. The philosophical divide, remnants from the past, remains fluid and less defined then either side might like, usually because of unexpected circumstances that are not always under their control such as foreign events, geopolitical realities and the global interconnectedness resulting from advancing technologies. The world is dynamic and changing at an exponential rate, a flexible approach would, perhaps, be more effective then the stalemate we have now.

By and large, most US citizens regard The US political system as an evolutionary vision vastly different from the rest of the world. This belief is based on the presumption that power should be given to the government by the will of the people. This approach, in retrospect, was revolutionary for its time, an Eighteenth Century idea inspired by the French Revolution and contrary to the widespread notion that power emanates to monarchs, emperors and conquerors by divine right.

The US, an experiment of a new type of government was a controversial approach to constructing a political system from scratch using British law as a reference point. History, the founding fathers argued, had illustrated time and again how individual rights had declined under the old European model. So they constructed the US Constitution and the Bill Of Rights to reflect their concerns by anointing the right to govern based on popular consensus via elections and fortifying individual rights as the basis of  this new democratic government. This approach directly effected the development of the Second Amendment.

The biggest concern at the time was to legalize a method that would insure that citizens could, if justified, overthrow an oppressive and illegitimate regime. This could only be possible with a guarantee of the right to bear arms that would be effective if such a situation arose. Another concern, the right of self defense, was universally accepted by both sides; so the Federalists and Anti-Federalists had finally found two things that they could both agree on, however they still disagreed on how to balance the need for an individual to be armed without creating an opening for a large minority to attempt to overthrow a legitimately elected government that did not follow what the minority or small splinter group wanted.

It is also interesting to point out to the Constitutional traditionalists and those groups that oppose more effective gun control that no where in the second amendment or the US Constitution is the word “guns” mentioned. What is used is arms, a term that reflects the need to have some means to protect one’s family and oneself from the elements surrounded by an underdeveloped landscape filled with Native Americans and an increasing population of African Slaves.

Part of the problem interpreting the amendment lies not in the words, but in the grammar. So below, for your consideration, are the two most prominent ways the amendment has appeared. Look at them carefully and determine for yourself if the grammatical differences alters the interpretation of the amendments intent.

Case 1- “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.”

Case 2-  “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.”

Look closely at the differences between the first case and second case. Same words (27) with a completely different meaning because of several subtle grammatical differences between the two. In the second case, a comma appears after a well regulated state militia being necessary to a free state. Arms and State are not capitalized and there is no additional comma following arms. This suggests that the right to keep and bear arms is necessarily connected to a well regulated militia being essential to the security of a free state. The absence of a comma makes the right of the people to keep and bear arms predicated on them being part of a legitimate state militia. It does not assert an individual’s right to bear arms as the NRA, or gun advocates claim.

With that being said, note that the reference to a state militia could refer to “acting collectively, ” as a states right, but it could also be stretched to refer to a  radical fringe group to justify having possession of any kind of weapon that it feels is equal to what the Federal government has for the purpose of exercising their constitutional right to overthrow a tyrannical regime. Perhaps the Confederacy used this sort of reasoning to justify seceding from the union that sparked the The Civil War against those who aimed at advocating the abolition of slavery.

The lack of trust for a central government was an outgrowth of the long history of monarchies from which immigrants fled. It also leaves open to interpretation what constitutes an oppressive regime or the kinds of weapons necessary to protect oneself against an unjust government. I doubt if the founding fathers intended to allow anyone to arm themselves with semi-automatic weapons for self defense. The obsessive fear of a tyrannical regime capturing Washington is grossly exaggerated when it is put in the context of almost three centuries by which power has been peacefully transferred from one administration to another. The possibility of that happening seems remote and the justification to be armed is more appropriate as a premise for a science fiction novel.

The first case was ratified by The Congress. The second case was ratified by the states, which means that the second amendment was never technically approved as it appears in the US Constitution, because grammar does, in this case, make a difference in its interpretation even though the words are identical in both cases. Perhaps the person who scripted the amendment made a grammatical mistake and added a comma where there should not have been one. Then the argument that the individual has the right to bear arms is an illusion.

According to many historians, Thomas Jefferson endorsed the right of people to bear arms as part of their membership to a state militia (case 2), however the conservative Supreme Court ruled in favor of the first case which included the comma. Although the Supreme Court has the last word,  the justice’s opinions in recent years have become far more partisan and conservative than one would like. Then again, the Constitution does not specify that a justice need a law degree or judicial experience. An individual  who is literate and meets the age requirement is the only qualification necessary to sit on the bench and those who do are quite capable of interpreting The Second Amendment. This is why it is important to read the document and determine the amendments intent for yourself.

What a difference grammar can make in the interpretation of the US Constitution, or anything for that matter. In this case, a semicolon would have been more appropriate. I on the other hand would have used an eraser to clarify any ambiguity in the text.