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Last volley

This gun business is getting tiresome. (Posts and comments here and here.) Today a comment has the cheek to question my honesty as a citizen.

First, a response to a couple of the posted comments.

Whatever you think about guns and public order, you do not want me on the street. I do not own a gun and have fired one only once in my life — and that something like 40 years ago, missing the target widely. A weapon in my hands would make me a hazard to myself and others. Do you who talk about the militia including all adult citizens seriously want a horde of untrained civilians going about armed during some general crisis? Do you think that the police and National Guard would see that as assistance rather than an additional danger to public safety?

The suggestion that we should substitute some other noun for arms to dissipate the emotional charge of the discussion will not take us far. Arms are weapons, weapons are serious things, and the necessary concern of governments about who has weapons and for what purposes is one of the reasons that this amendment was written in the first place.

The commas in the amendment that fascinate one commentator are of no particular significance to the meaning. The first two set off a phrase, and the third separates the subject from the predicate — all commonplace in 18th-century English.

Second, a return to the original point, and I will put it in boldface in hopes of avoiding further misreading:

It was a mistake in the first post to use the word govern to describe the relationship of that initial absolute phrase to the main clause. That was too strong. But it does — it must — modify the main clause. The First Amendment states bluntly that “Congress shall make no law” about free exercise of religion, speech, the press, etc. It has no explanatory qualifier. So there is something about the right to bear arms that demands that introductory phrase, or so Mr. Madison thought.

That qualifier puts the right to bear arms in the context of the need for a “well regulated Militia.” That makes it necessary to understand how the concept of a militia was understood in the 18th century, and how it has evolved in the present. And, mind you, it specifies a “well regulated” militia, not a crowd of American bashi-bazouks.* It doesn’t seem outrageous to suggest that this amendment connects the bearing of arms with some form of supervised military training.

(I’m not even going to venture to suggest that to bear arms carries the connotation of some kind of military service, rather than simple private ownership.)

It is up to the justices to interpret that language and how to apply it to contemporary circumstances. I haven’t suggested how they should. I’ve only identified two points that are relevant to the argument.

And finally, I have no plans to write on this subject again. I’ll continue to authorize such comments as fall within the furthest bounds of civility. Back to business tomorrow.


*The bashi-bazouks were the notoriously brutal and ill-disciplined irregular troops of the Ottoman Turkish army in the 19th century.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:18 AM | | Comments (10)


Any word on when we might do sentence-diagramming of Roe v. Wade?


I have enjoyed this whole back-and-forth immensely. To me it was very clear that your argument about the grammar was independent of your political bent, which you neither suppressed nor gave free rein. Maybe it takes one curmudgeonly copy editor to appreciate another. In any case, you have this prematurely curmudgeonized copy editor's respect.

(I'm a copy editor. Therefore I am allowed to create words like curmudgeonized. So there. Harrumph.)

P.S. I'm the same person who gave you hell about fandom last year, so maybe we're even now. Oh, who am I kidding?

I'll dive in, but only briefly.

No, John, I don't think the founders would require you to own a gun. Just like a car, I don't expect you to buy something without at least the intent of learning how to use it. If the Court wants to identify "well-regulated" as requiring a gun safety course before the purchase of a firearm -- like the requirement for a concealed weapons permit -- great. Unlikely, but great. (I personally took one of those courses, and upon discovering I'm a pretty decent shot, I'm going to apply for my CCW permit.)

In my opinion, which really doesn't matter much but it makes me feel better to express it, the Second Amendment is there to ensure that the government always fears its citizens. I believe the founders wanted us to be able to have another Revolution, should our government get so out of hand that it became oppressive and wrong.

As in the opening of the Declaration of Independence: "whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

Surely, that cannot be done without arms. I mean, in some Utopia it could, but we're humans, and governments rarely change without bloodshed. That's why they don't change for "light and transient causes," as Jefferson writes later in the paragraph. We, as individuals, not as state-regulated militias, need the power to both protect ourselves from criminals AND from our criminal government, should it become so.

Forgive me for sucking up.

I've followed this blog from almost its birth. I live in a Midwest city where you've worked, but we've never met and I doubt we ever will. I'm not a copy editor (two words, not one, right?), but I check in often because the entries are extraordinarily well written and the commenters generally offer something worth reading too.

Your faithful dedication to maintaining this blog demonstrates a level of unselfishness that few can match. And your devotion to the craft of copy editing advances this country's fourth estate. Such dedication and devotion (and more) are proof positive of your honesty as a U.S. citizen.

Thank you for continuing to host this blog.


I think you've been very fair and even handed through the whole ordeal. My compliments on being willing to open the can to see and enumerate exactly what kind of worms were inside.

Hi again

Oh, but, about that: "Do you who talk about the militia including all adult citizens seriously want a horde of untrained civilians going about armed during some general crisis?"

Well - look what I found at the Cornell University Law School US Code Collection website:

TITLE 10 > Subtitle A > PART I > CHAPTER 13 > § 311

§ 311. Militia: composition and classes

(a) The militia of the United States consists of all able-bodied males at least 17 years of age and, except as provided in section 313 of title 32, under 45 years of age who are, or who have made a declaration of intention to become, citizens of the United States and of female citizens of the United States who are members of the National Guard.
(b) The classes of the militia are—
(1) the organized militia, which consists of the National Guard and the Naval Militia; and
(2) the unorganized militia, which consists of the members of the militia who are not members of the National Guard or the Naval Militia.

(Section 313 of title 32 says that, if you are former Regular Army, Navy Air Force or Marine, you can be in the National Guard until you're 64.)

Looks like you're stuck, sir, unorganized though we may be.

I suspect the 2nd Amendment is actually irrelevant to the situation we have today in America. Denise may well be right that the Framers were concerned about the federal government getting out of hand and so wanted to ensure that the people would be able to resist governmental tyranny. If that is the point of the 2nd Amendment, then in the context of today's world, this would mean that the right to bear arms would mean the right to bear such arms as can oppose a national army, i.e., the right to bear mortars and machine guns and bombs, etc. No reasonable person wants that. But in the 18th century, the ordinary man and the organized army were not so different when it came to the kind of weaponry they could get their hands on. So then the 2nd Am. made sense.

For this reason, I think people should stop debating the 2nd Amendment and consign it to the history books. We should focus rather on what most of us can all agree on, and this is in fact considerable:
1. Most reasonable people believe that there should be some restriction (i.e. infringement) on keeping and bearing arms. Does anyone reasonably advocate the people's right to bear bombs, mortars, nuclear warheads, etc.? Similarly, few would allow guns of any sort to be sold to the mentally ill, known psychotics, etc. -- though this is another infringement on the people's right. We also generally agree that gun owners should be licensed, and licensing, too, represents an infringement (in the strictest sense of the word).
2. Most reasonable people believe that some kinds of guns should be permitted to people who qualify as reponsible gun owners (e.g. hunting rifles and shotguns are both allowed under the disputed DC law).

So the question is not whether or not the right of the people to keep and bear arms should be infringed, but rather, how and to what degree it should be infringed and in regard to what sort of arms.

So let's consign the 2nd Amendment to the history books and deal with the matters at hand.


First, you're repeated use of "reasonable" marks your statements, at least in part, as genteel bullying rather than rational argument. You could say that "it's a terrible idea for individuals to own machine guns, and here's why..." (that would be presenting an argument) but instead just suggest that no "reasonable" person could possibly disagree with you (which is bullying).

Second, I'm sure you're aware that there's a way to consign parts of the constitution to the history books, as you say; the process is detailed in the document itself. I hope that's what you advocate -- a formal repeal of the 2nd Amendment, with a 2/3 vote in both houses of Congress and ratification by 38 states and all the attendant public discourse -- rather than just ignoring part of the Bill of Rights.

Finally, a general comment: given how this millennium is going so far, I find it hard to see how anyone could be more scared of guns (even big ones, even machine guns) in the hands of private citizens than they are of guns in the hands of agents of the State.

Mike, I wasn't trying to bully anyone to agree with me. I said "most reasonable people believe" that 1) there should be some sort of restriction on the sale of weaponry (and of course "arms" means "armaments," not just guns); and 2) that not all kinds of weaponry should be banned, because I think that the great majority of people would agree with both statements if they considered them calmly and thoughtfully. I wasn't trying to persuade anyone; I was just trying to demarcate areas of consensus.

Yes, I know there is a process for repealing amendments, and I also know it won't happen with the 2nd, partly because there is an aura of sacredness around the Bill of Rights (an aura, by the way, that probably was not intended by the Framers).

I'm not actually saying we should repeal it; simply that we recognize that times have changed since the 18th century with regard to fire power, and these changes have made the likely intention of the Framers -- to allow state militias (or individual citizens) to arm themselves as protection against governmental (federal?) tyranny -- unfeasible, because to satisfy this intention would mean we could put no restriction on states (or individuals) arming themselves with weaponry that can pose a serious challenge to a tyrannical US Army, including mortars, bazookas, shoulder-launching missiles, etc. Even nuclear warheads would be covered by such an unfringed "right to keep and bear arms."

The problem the US is facing today with regard to guns is that people want to arm themselves as protection against crime. This may well be a reasonable concern, but it is not one the 2nd Amendment seems to me to address. And it would be good if we recognized that it does not address this issue, so we can deal directly with the problem of guns in 21st-century America and not worry about commas and ablatives in the 2nd Amendment as if it were delivered to Mr. Madison on Mt. Sinai.

As a minor point of clarification, the Rights enumerated in the first ten amendments to the Constitution do not establish rights but enshrine them. The drafters and people had experienced infringements on these specific rights and wanted to leave no question about the values of our nation.

The right to keep and bear arms was based in the natural right of self-defense. At the time of the drafting, far more American homes contained arms than not.

Violations of the right to keep and bear arms is ingrained in all of our memories through the excesses addressed by Robin Hood. You will recall, I am sure, that it was illegal to carry a weapon in the King's forest, or take any game therein. Re-read the story for the populist argument about the animals serving the King's charges, his people, when served at a table in the kingdom.

Natural rights far precede the trips through out history by the several religious and political leaders to Mt. Sinai. Freedom's risks appear to exceed the capacity of some for its benefits.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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