The 2nd Amendment is in the news again. As I come across various news stories and blog posts like this one, I repeatedly find attempts to present an explanation of this portion of the constitution. Some of these attempts err because they use modern definitions for terms that meant something else when the amendment was written; some fail because they don’t catch on to the difference between an instruction to government and an explanation to the reader; some are outright propaganda, written to conform to a point of view without regard to any intent to get at an accurate reading.
I’ve spent quite a lot of time looking at this over the years. Although you may begin to feel as you read this that I am pro-gun, in fact I am not. What I am is pro-constitution. As you’ll see if you read this completely, the constitution provides for change, and the obvious path is, if you want change, you should make that change — properly. Please read this to the end before you decide that I’ve got a foot in the door here, for or against the “rightness” of American citizens being armed.
I’ll start by quoting the 2nd amendment in its entirety, and then I’ll analyze it.
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.
First, there is the explicatory phrase: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State”; this phrase serves to provide a rationale for what follows. It doesn’t instruct the government to do anything, it simply explains something the framers thought would help readers understand why the operative phrase to come says what it does.
Even so, let’s look at it. Militia meant all able bodied males of a reasonable age, such that they could rationally be expected to fight. It does not mean “national guard”, nor does it mean “army” or “state military.” The concept was simply that every eligible male was to be armed, so that they could be called into service and would arrive with their equipment. This dates back to the English law if the 1400′s. If you doubt me, look it up. I’ll wait.
Well regulated meant consistent, and in this specific phrase, it meant consistently armed. Laws on the books at that time went so far as to specify exactly what that meant; so many bullets, so much powder in a container suitable to keep it dry, etc.
The “security of a free state” means either to retain the state of being free, or it means to retain a political state, in which freedom is secure. I admit that I have no particular preference in the reading; they could have meant either one. They both seem to amount to the same thing to me.
*** Below, a commenter contends that “state” really means state; he quotes the arguments during the authoring of the constitution and says that it originally read “country”, but was changed to appease certain states. While this is interesting, it doesn’t change anything, because no instruction to the government is present in this phrase, and because the instruction itself is not modified no matter what we read the word “state” to mean.
So basically what they were saying here in modern English is that consistently armed male fighters are needed in order to retain freedom. Once we unveil the somewhat obfuscatory archaic English, and consider the attitudes of that time, it makes perfect sense. Of course such people would be needed; of course women would not be considered; of course consistent supplies make for a more effective capability.
Regardless, again, it’s not an instruction to the government. It’s just an explanation.
Now we come to the actual instruction, the operative phrase: “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
This is as clear today as when it was written. Infringed still means today what it meant then; The Oxford dictionary has it as:
act so as to limit or undermine (something); encroach on : his legal rights were being infringed | [ intrans. ] I wouldn’t infringe on his privacy.
But surely you knew that. Infringe isn’t an uncommon word. When I begin to infringe on your personal space, I’m too close. I’m just inside the edges. When I seriously infringe on your personal space, I’m probably way too close, perhaps touching you. If I’m not infringing on your space, I’m far enough away as to not affect your perception of your own space at all.
Keep and bear… I shouldn’t have to explain this at all, though I’m perfectly happy to do so. Keep means… keep. To have around, nearby, handy, available, ready to access. I keep peanut butter in the cupboard. I can go get it any time, because I kept it; I didn’t get rid of it or give it away. I can bear that peanut butter over to the table or bear it to my neighbor’s house; she can bear a child; I can bear a burden; to bear means to carry. Both then, and now.
So what this is instructing the government to do (or rather, not do) is simple: They are not to, in any way, even a little, interfere with the people’s right to own, hold, have arms; nor are they to interfere in any way with the people’s right to carry them around.
So what does that mean in terms of modern gun laws? Well, for one thing, if they say you can’t carry your gun for any reason, that’s infringing on your right to carry. For another, if they say you can’t keep a gun in your house, that’s infringing on your right to keep. This clearly means that they cannot require you to have a “license” for a gun that has any material effect upon gun ownership or carrying such arms; because then they are saying that without such a license, you cannot keep or bear, and that’s clearly infringing. So any such law is unauthorized, that is, the constitution forbids such laws.
Likewise, if they say you can’t carry some particular weapon, that’s infringing as well. The 2nd amendment specifies “arms.” So we should at least take a look at what “arms” meant at the time.
In 1791 (when the bill of rights were ratified), “arms” included all manner of pistols, rifles, muskets, cannons, explosive and solid cannonballs, cannonballs filled with shards, frigates with multiple decks of cannon, wagons with explosives and multiple guns rigged to fire in unison, chain shot, flaming missiles soaked with pitch and other inflammable, easily spread and hard to extinguish compounds, swords, knives, bayonets, fighting canes, brass knuckles, battering rams, catapults, siege towers, glass bottles, garrotes, whips, chains, both fused and mechanically triggered explosives, striking weapons like sticks and poles and quarterstaffs and maces and war-hammers, spears, bows, axes, arrows and crossbows… I could go on for quite some time. All of these things were in common use in warfare and self-defense at the time. Yet, knowing all these things, all they put in the 2nd amendment was… “arms.” So clearly, that’s what they meant. Arms of any kind. They didn’t say “muskets and pistols.” They said arms.
Today, a few things have changed that make it clear that the 2nd amendment, while it has served us well for centuries, could use some updating. Nuclear weapons are arms; so are biological weapons. I can say with considerable confidence that most people, including myself, are not OK with the idea that John Doe down the street has a working nuke in his basement, or that Jane Doe down the other block has a nice warm batch of weaponized Anthrax baking in the oven. So if we take the 2nd at its word — arms of any kind — aren’t we in trouble here?
Yes, indeed we are.
However — the authors of the constitution knew that over time, circumstances change, and that they would not be able to predict in what precise ways they might change. So they put in article V, Amendment.
This prescient section of the constitution provides the government with a legitimate method to change their own constituting authority in a manner that honors the wishes of the people they are supposed to be working for. Imagine that!
In this case, the obvious thing to do is to offer an amendment that modifies the 2nd to say “arms except those that incorporate biological, fissionable, fusionable, or ionizing radiation means of destruction, either direct or indirect.”
Now ask yourself: Who in their right mind would object to such a modification of the 2nd amendment? Do you seriously think there would be any trouble at all getting a majority to go along with such a reasonable amendment? Of course not. The very idea is absurd. No sane person wants just any random other person to have power of that magnitude in their hands. No matter if they’re far left, centric, far right, libertarian or of any other political and social persuasion.
Unfortunately the government has a long, dark history of just doing what it wants to, as opposed to what it has been authorized to do. That is why you don’t see reasonable constitutional amendments. They’ve got the citizens accepting that the government should be able to rule out things like nukes arbitrarily even though the constitution forbids them to; because, after all, no sane person wants nukes. It sure seems reasonable on the surface.
But the fact is, if they can do one forbidden thing arbitrarily, no matter how well meaning it might be, they can also do anything else forbidden they want to arbitrarily as well, and there’s no assurance at all that the underlying purpose or the actual implementation will be well-meaning. This is why we must hold them to the limits imposed by the constituting authority, and furthermore, why we must be be very careful about how we allow the constituting authority to be modified.
So if you feel that the second amendment, as originally intended, is no longer appropriate for our times, then the path that honors our country, our liberties, and our founders is crystal clear: You should work for an amendment that makes the changes you believe are needed, and of course, protects against changes you feel are not. This is true no matter if you feel the American citizen should not own or carry arms at all, or firearms in particular; or if you think an armed citizenry is required to protect us from government over-reach; or if your interest is in regulating weapons of mass destruction in a manner that the constitution actually authorizes, instead of a form of unauthorized government fiat.
If you wish for change, I encourage you to work for change. But please, don’t go encouraging our government to (further) ignore the constitution that gives it its only legitimate authority to operate and make law. Our country was born as a constitutional republic, and that served us well until our compliance with the constitution began to erode. Let’s try to keep both the constitution, and the republic. We can have the best nation on earth; as was said at the time of our founding, we were given a constitutional republic: if we can keep it.
Well Regulated: “1812: “The equation of time … is the adjustment of the difference of time as shown by a well-regulated clock and a true sun dial.” — from the Oxford English dictionary of 1812. The phrase “well-regulated” was in common use long before 1789, and remained so for a century thereafter. It referred to the property of something being in proper working order. Something that was well-regulated was calibrated correctly, functioning as expected. The expectation, which you can find explicitly defined in such laws as the Militia Act of 1792: “every citizen, so enrolled and notified, shall, within six months thereafter, provide himself with a good musket or firelock, a sufficient bayonet and belt, two spare flints, and a knapsack, a pouch, with a box therein, to contain not less than twenty four cartridges, suited to the bore of his musket or firelock, each cartridge to contain a proper quantity of powder and ball; or with a good rifle, knapsack, shot-pouch, and powder-horn, twenty balls suited to the bore of his rifle, and a quarter of a pound of powder; and shall appear so armed, accoutred and provided, when called out to exercise or into service, except, that when called out on company days to exercise only, he may appear without a knapsack”