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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.


Posted by John McIntyre at 11:36 AM | | Comments (11)



I don't know about other states, but in Indiana, the militia, although referred to as, "sedentary," consists of every person 18 years or older not otherwise exempt from bearing arms.

I AM in the Indiana state militia.

I believe you'll find that Mr. Madison felt that there was no substantive difference in the phrases, "the people," and, "the militia." One of the quotes I remember is, "the people are the militia and the militia is the people," but it may not have been Madison.

Also, who exactly is committing all these handgun crimes in DC?

That question goes directly to the question of who, exactly, does a no-handguns law prevent form having a gun?

You may be able to gain some insight into the answer to the first question in the Indiana state publication, "The Social Ecology of Murder in Indiana," available at:

I would like to draw your attention to the paragraph that says of persons convicted of murder:
[quote]Ninety-two percent of offenders in each sentence type group had a criminal history prior to the committing the instant offense. Most (84% or more) had been arrested at least once as an adult.[/quote]

and later, where it says of the same population:
[quote]The top five reasons for murders committed by offenders in this study were: To facilitate the commission of another crime (i.e., ‘felony murder,’ 43% of all offenders); to acquire money or property (non-drug-related; 34% of all offenders); over an intimate or familial situation (24% of all offenders); to silence someone who witnessed the defendant or a codefendant during the commission of a crime (21% of all offenders); and hatred, retaliation, animosity, or revenge (16% of all offenders).[/quote]

I would submit to you that 100% of DC's murders are being committed by persons already engaged in other criminal behavior. This is one of those ipso-facto things, because as you've already pointed out, handguns are illegal, so anyone committing any crime with a handgun already has a handgun and is, thus, already engaging in criminal behavior.

The ONLY persons prevented from carrying a handgun... that's PREVENTED instead of PROHIBITED... are those person interested sufficiently in the law to OBEY it, who aren't inclined to commit crimes in the first place.

Persons who otherwise disregard the law won't obey the prohibition, and so are not prevented from carrying the handguns.

I spent six years in the Army, defending the Constitution. Now, if I live in DC, the home of that same Constitution, I can't have a firearm, which the Army taught me to use, ready to defend myself.

Oh - and - to Ms. Anise Jenkins who said, "We feel our local council knows what we need for a good standard of life and to keep us safe," I'd like to mention that we USED TO HAVE a government that knew EXACTLY what we needed for a good standard of life and to keep us safe.

It was 1774, and it was called the British Government.

Quotes and snippets from publications or documents from the era of our founding fathers regarding the second amendment have always stated it as an individual right. The founding fathers have stated it as an individual right on many occasions.

You will NOT find any of them saying that the right to bear arms is NOT an individual right.

Even under the English Common Law, the right to bear arms was an individual one. To argue that the colonists escaped an overbearing government only to pass the second amendment that does not guarantee individual ownership is ridiculous.


I've been thinking about the actual grammar of the 2nd amendment. The Wikipedia has an interesting article on Latin grammar, including a section on the Ablative Absolute, available here:

The interesting thing about all the examples is that, while the first part of the sentence provide a reason, it has no limiting effect on the following simple declarative.

Wikipedia examples:
The city having been captured, Aeneas fled.
Ovid having been exiled, the Muses weep.
With anger having been kindled, wisdom sleeps.

I was thinking of sentences using the...
[initial clause], [simple declarative].
construction, and all I could come up with were similar to:
Needing more cup-holders, I bought the Lexis.

Their example and mine all provide a single overriding consideration followed by the declaration of a fact. I'm guessing that Aeneas fled for several reasons, like the army that captured the city was after him with decapitational intent, but the single overriding reason he fled was that he no longer had a city to defend.

Having pondered over this kind of construction, I wondered if you or your readers could come up with a sentence using it where the first part substantially changes the meaning of the second.

You suck, your opinions suck, but there again, I could be wrong. Good enough example for you? I didn't graduate high school but I didn't have to to know you are WRONG. Again the second amendment is not the only thing providing us an individual right to bear arms. In a world without it we would still have that right as we are all entitled to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, none of which we would have any chance at WITHOUT BEING ABLE TO PROTECT OURSELVES!

LOOK AT THE D.C. COURT OF APPEALS CASE 444 a2d (D.C. App 1981) Warren vs. District of Columbia. The judgment came down in favor for the defendant, D.C., because, as the judge said "the duty to provide public services is owed to the public at large"

The hole in the "militia" position is this - You are not reading the second amendment in its proper context.

Yes, there really IS a proper context to be readint it in, and its found within the Bill of rights itself, located specifically in the preamble:

"THE Conventions of a number of the States having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best insure the beneficent ends of its institution"

Are you reading the second amendment as the restriction on governmental power it was intended as, and more importantly STATED TO BE?

The answer to that would be no.

And even if that were not the case, theres another huge problem with it.

If one reads 2A with a single comma in the middle, its clear that "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed".

If one reads it with 3 commas - "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" - one MUST explain why shall not be infringed applies to "a well regulated militia", but not to "the right of the people to keep and bear arms".

I have yet to see either of those refuted in any way shape size or form.


Note that the introductory clause of the bill of rights takes the same form as the "militia" clause of the second amendment. Yet nobody claims it controls the bill of rights, which exists entirely independently of it.


[quote=Jay Brassine] I didn't graduate high school but I didn't have to to know you are WRONG. [/quote]

I'm WRONG?!?!


Does that mean that I have to give up my concealed carry license, nine handguns, four rifles and shotgun?

Jay, one does not 'graduate' high school. High school, or college, graduates you. Political and legal argumets aside, and this being a grammar blog, feel free to practice this one until you get it right.

The Constitution should have, instead, given us the right to arm bears.

John McIntyre wrote:
"Then, for one respondent, interpreting militia appears to require that everyone is in the militia and therefore should have guns."

It is amazing that you find this so strange. I mean, where on earth would someone get that kind of an idea, right? How about the Militia Act of 1792 and the U.S. Code Title 10 Sec. 311? How about the following quotes?

"And that the said Constitution be never construed to authorize Congress to infringe the just liberty of the press, or the rights of conscience; or to prevent the people of the United States, who are peaceable citizens, from keeping their own arms;..."
Samuel Adams

"Whereas civil rulers, not having their duty to the people duly before them, may attempt to tyrannize, and as military forces, which must be occasionally raised to defend our country, might pervert their power to the injury of their fellow citizens, the people are confirmed by the article in their right to keep and bear their private arms."
Tench Coxe

"Who are the militia? Are they not ourselves? Is it feared, then, that we shall turn our arms each man against his own bosom. Congress have no power to disarm the militia. Their swords, and every other terrible implement of the soldier, are the birth-right of an American ... the unlimited power of the sword is not in the hands of either the federal or state governments, but, where I trust in God it will ever remain, in the hands of the people."
Tench Coxe

"The militia, who are in fact the effective part of the people at large, will render many troops quite unnecessary."
Tench Coxe

"The best we can hope for concerning the people at large is that they be properly armed."
Alexander Hamilton

"The great object is, that every man be armed."
Patrick Henry

"Are we at last brought to such an humiliating and debasing degradation that we cannot be trusted with arms for our own defense? Where is the difference between having our arms under our own possession and under our own direction, and having them under the management of Congress? If our defense be the real object of having those arms, in whose hands can they be trusted with more propriety, or equal safety to us, as in our own hands?"
Patrick Henry

"What country can preserve its liberties, if its rulers are not warned from time to time that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms."
Thomas Jefferson

"Every citizen should be a soldier."
Thomas Jefferson

"Americans need never fear their government because of the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation."
James Madison

"Who are the militia, if they be not the people of this country...? I ask, who are the militia? They consist now of the whole people, except a few public officers."
George Mason

I could provide additional quotes, but I think my point is made about who comprises the militia.

John McIntyre wrote:
"I hope that he is not counting on my competence to 'suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions.'"

With a comment like that, I most certainly would not count on you. Dishonesty is at the core of anything designed to limit or deny another’s freedom so that one can “feel” better about not taking personal responsibility for ones own thoughts, words, or actions. Honesty requires a level of mental emancipation and maturity many are not ready for.

"If ye love wealth greater than liberty, the tranquility of servitude greater than the animating contest for freedom, go home from us in peace. We seek not your counsel, nor your arms. Crouch down and lick the hand that feeds you; May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen."
Samuel Adams

John McIntyre wrote:
"Do you really want every citizen to be packing heat? Everybody?"

Do you really want no citizens to be packing heat? Nobody? Or is there some middle ground here? Do you want only military and police types to have the option of being armed when out and about?

Again, for any who wish to take seriously the responsibility that comes with the right to keep and bear arms (i.e., the opening phrase of the Second Amendment), I invite you to check out today's militia at


The militia is the people in arms, that is why the right is given to the people, and not the government. Even if the first clause is absolutely binding on the operative, it still gives an individual right as the right of the people to keep and bear arms is essential to maintaining a militia of the people (as distinct from government forces).

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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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