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.