As usual in recent years, the actual intention of the second amendment is being called into question. This is one particular debate I am not strongly emotionally attached to. I have owned a single gun (a .22) for a few years, firing it a total of two times. It was a Christmas gift from my second stepfather, but as with all of his rules, the restrictions placed on it were too draconian and therefore constricted my interest in it to nil. I enjoy firing weapons at a firing range, but I’ve only done that once. Also, I don’t hunt and find the actual act of taking a life repulsive. I say this to state the fact that I stand to lose nothing in terms of my personal life if guns were banned.
The second amendment of the Constitution of the United States:
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.
In an amicus brief filed for District of Columbia vs. Heller [via], three linguists weigh in on the language of 18th Century America as it applies to the second amendment. The case involves a handgun ban in the District of Columbia that was struck down by a federal appeals court on the basis of the second amendment. They intrepret the act of bearing arms to mean using a gun for the purpose of personal use (protection, hunting game). The amicus brief states that the phrase bear arms is idiomatic and always referred to the act of serving as a soldier, engaging in military service, or fighting. The interpretation by the DC court of appeals to allow personal use derives from several usages from that era where the idiom was broken. When the idiom was broken, there was additional modifying language. In the case of the second amendment, the presence of the absolute clause “A well regulated Militia” is further support for its use in the standard idiomatic sense (military service) versus the adorned sense (personal use).
Since I have neither the time, resources, nor the skill to actually research the opposing viewpoint here, I will assume they are at least 50% correct. I strongly suspect that another three linguists could easily be found who support the opposing viewpoint, since I have never heard of anything in the field of linguistics that didn’t result in long, heated debates between linguists. However, I like the interpretation of the phrase to bear arms as an idiom whose meaning cannot be inferred by examining the meaning of the individual words. For example, the meaning of the idiom the shit hit the fan cannot be inferred from the literal meaning of “feces making contact with a rotating blade whose purpose is driving air.” So if the phrase is idiomatic, then bearing arms cannot be interpreted as “carrying weapons” and certainly not as “having the upper appendages of the genus Ursus.” This is the case made by the amica curiae who filed the brief. They also address several other issues, and it’s surprisingly easy to read for a legal document, so I recommend checking it out if you’re curious.
That said, I have also always appreciated the interpretation of the intent of the second amendment as a safeguard against tyrants. An armed populace cannot be oppressed. Or at least, it makes it more dangerous to do so. However, I find it difficult to argue against the fact that an armed populace is not “a well regulated militia” and so the argument for an armed populace does not hold water.
My final observation is to wonder what the hell were the Framers thinking when they wrote this? Did they really need to constitutionally protect the right for the military to have weapons? Were they worried that a movement would sweep this new America to arm our soldiers with cream pies? If we allow ourselves to assume they indeed were not fending off legions of cream-pie carrying soldiers of the Republic (reductio ad absurdum), then we must conclude there was another intention.
What was it?