Second that amendment
The reader who commented that I brought it on myself yesterday by writing about the Second Amendment was right. Oh, it could have been worse; the Red Dawn loonies and those who think that 24 should be the basis for public policy could have zeroed in. I escaped with no more than a couple of misinterpretations and adolescent-level insults. But at the risk of drawing further fire, I’m going back in.
Yesterday’s post was limited to two points, that that absolute phrase at the beginning of the amendment, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,” has something to do with the meaning of the amendment, and that some understanding of what militia means is required.
A couple of respondents apparently think that their understanding of the sense of the amendment requires that opening phrase to be ignored. This was one:
“It can be made abundantly clear that the first clause of the Second Amendment does *not* "govern" the rest in any way. Simply change the wording, but keep the same grammatical construction. An example:
"’Cold Beer, being essential to a balanced diet, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.’
“That first phrase is actually completely irrelevant and the Second Amendment would mean exactly the same thing even if it were deleted entirely.”
Well, no. Not exactly. Not at all. Syntax implies relationships. When you put things together in a sentence, you are saying that there is some logical relationship between them. Otherwise, as in the “cold beer” example above, you are constructing a non sequitur. I don’t think that Mr. Madison was making a non sequitur. That opening absolute phrase in some way modifies, limits, puts into a context the clause that follows. The question is not whether it does so — otherwise language is just noise — but how it is to be understood.
Then, for one respondent, interpreting militia appears to require that everyone is in the militia and therefore should have guns. I hope that he is not counting on my competence to “suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions.” Do you really want every citizen to be packing heat? Everybody?
One reason that political discourse in this country is so tedious and sterile is that just about everyone, left and right, bends principle to fit preferences in specific cases. (Some such people appear to sit on the Supreme Court.)
Those people who would like to see every handgun in the United States melted down into slag and dumped in the Mariana Trench insist on the narrowest possible reading of the Second Amendment, that the right of bearing arms is limited to the militia, which is now the National Guard. Many of them are the same people who want to give the First Amendment its broadest reading to protect the widest range of free expression. For them, the understanding of the First Amendment has broadened and expanded over the past two centuries, but that of the Second has not.
And those people who want to eliminate restrictions on gun ownership must, as we saw above, strain to eliminate some fairly plain language.
Not every person who advocates widespread gun ownership is crouching with his semiautomatic weapons amid the canned goods, listening for the black helicopters. Not every person who advocates limits on personal possession of firearms is a witless dupe of a totalitarian oppressor. There is a constitutional right to bear arms, but the dispute over how to understand that right has not been edifying.