A grammar lesson

Some people find this confusing:

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.

Mind you, the reason they find it “confusing” is because they desperately want it to say something other than its plain words arranged in a relatively straightforward declarative English sentence.

But for those people, let’s go over it, piece by piece, shall we?

Let’s start with “militia”.  What is the militia?  Put simply, the militia is the people when they take up arms to defend themselves, their communities, their States, and their nations.  Being part of the militia does not require being in a government-run organization.  It does not require drawing a government paycheck.  It is simply defined by what they do.

This was made quite clear by folk writing in the general time when the Second Amendment was written.  As just one example we have the following:

“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 birthright 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.” – Tenche Coxe, The Pennsylvania Gazette, Feb. 20, 1788.

The militia are the people.  They are you and me and the person down the street.  To repeat, they are whoever might take up arms in defense of themselves, their community, their State, or their Nation.

“But,” some will say, “the meaning of ‘militia’ has changed since then.” That might be, but in a legal document, and the Constitution is a legal document, the ultimate legal document from which all laws in the US derive their authority, one does not unilaterally redefine terms.  The terms retain the meaning they held when the legal document went into force.

The militia is the people, neither more nor less.

Then there’s “well-regulated”, which, at the time the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were written did not mean controlled by the government.  And it certainly did not mean drawing government paychecks and under government orders.  After all, the people had just fought, and won independence from, their former government.  And it is quite clear from the Coxe statement above and from other writings (for instance, James Madison in The Federalist Papers 46 described the maximum possible standing army attempting to override the states and the people being met with a militia 500,000 strong; extrapolated to today’s population, that would be like a military about three times the size of the present day’s military being met by over a hundred million armed Amerians) that one of the purposes of the militia was as a check on government, particularly Federal government overreach.  This is not possible if the “well-regulated militia” is restricted to those under government orders.

If, however, you look in a dictionary with good historical usage notes you find that “well-regulated” is a term meaning not “government restricted and controlled” but rather “properly functioning”.  A “well-regulated clock” is one that keeps good time.  I “well-regulated individual” is one with good self control.  And so on.

Thus, “well-regulated militia” means simply a militia that functions property, that can do what needs to be done when necessary.

“a free state”. Not just any State, but a free one, one where individual liberty is paramount, where the rights of those individuals are honored and protected.  The thing to remember also is that “State” at the time wasn’t another word for “provinces”, divisions within a nation.  “State” was a term for a sovereign entity.  We have the term “nation-state”, usually shortened to “Nation” because that’s by far the most common form of statehood, but it’s not the only one.  There have been many an example of city-states in history.   The States that made up the United States were, in  a very real sense individual sovereign nations.  They individually delegated part of their authority–which authority they gained from the people rather than any “divine right of kings”, “mantle of Heaven”, or similar “government is always right” philosophy–to a unified central government.  And this is what made a “free state.”

Note where also the word “secure” appears in the Constitution:  in the preamble:  “to secure the blessings of liberty to yourselves and our prosperity.”  “Security”, thus, is not just the safety of the states from outside forces, but the security, the safety, of the very freedom for their people that made them “free states”.

He who would give up essential liberty for a little temporary safety deserves neither freedom nor safety–Benjamin Franklin

What must be protected is liberty itself.  As I discuss elsewhere, the giving up of freedom for safety is a fool’s bargain.  To prioritize safety over freedom is to end up with neither.  To prioritize freedom over safety allows you to end up with a great deal of both.

“arms” means weapons.  Period.  Law dictionaries written about the time the 2nd was written defined arms as “weapons of offense or armor of defense”. It’s open ended.  It’s very open ended.  Deliberately so.

“keep and bear”.  Not just ownership, but carrying.  “Keep” means to possess.  “Bear” means to carry with you.

There’s only one word, left that is subject to deliberate confusion.  “Infringe”.  From the Oxford English Dictionary we have:

VERB infringing, infringed, infringes
1 Actively break the terms of (a law, agreement, etc.)
‘making an unauthorized copy would infringe copyright’
2 Act so as to limit or undermine (something); encroach on.
‘such widespread surveillance could infringe personal liberties’
‘I wouldn’t infringe on his privacy’

Limit.  Encroach on.  These are things that happen at the edges.  Another word for “encroach on” is “trespass.” One trespasses at the border of a property.  You don’t have to wait until they’re sitting in your living room flipping through the channels on your TV before it’s trespassing.

So, let’s put it all together:

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.

Since, to having people ready and able to take up arms to defend themselves, their communities, their states, and their nation is necessary for both to protect those things and to keep their state and nation free, the right of the people to own, possess, and carry with them if they wish, weapons of offense or armor of defense shall not be encroached upon, limited, or trespassed on.

That sentence is longer, but it means exactly the same thing as the former.  It is not a new interpretation invented by the NRA or any other group.  It is what the 2nd Amendment meant when it was written and has always meant since.   The only way to change that is to properly amend the Constitution, which means either 2/3 of the Senate and 2/3 of the House (or a Convention of States called by 2/3 of State Legislatures) to propose an Amendment, and 3/4 of State Legislatures to ratify it.

Anyone telling you differently is either lying to you or uncritically repeating the lies that someone else told them.

5 thoughts on “A grammar lesson”

  1. Noticed on my Twitter-skimming that apparently some Federal judge over there is saying/claiming/ruling (not sure which, I skimmed) that AR-15s are not ‘protected by the 2nd Amendment.’ (Note: I think that this is stupid, as my understanding of the 2nd is the same as yours.)

    They sure are treading on very dangerous ground these days.


  2. How come you make such an issue about the meaning of words, but denigrate the ability of punctuation to change the meaning of a collection of words, i.e. a sentence?


    1. Ah, the old “but that comma!” argument (after all, the only punctuation involved aside from the period at the end is commas).

      First off, at the time the 2nd was written, the use of commas was rather…flexible. See other documents written at the time for examples.

      Second, there is no grammatical rule that changes whose right is not be infringed from “the people” to the “militia”; that’s just something people make up out of whole cloth because they don’t like what the second does say.

      Third, even if we accept for sake of argument the contrafactual that it did, “the militia” is still the whole of the people capable of taking up arms and so once again you’re back to “the people”. There is literally no valid argument that can be made in which the Second is there to grant the government the power to arm its own troops, particularly as Article One of the Constitution already grants that power to Congress.

      The whole thing is made up by people who desperately want the Second Amendment to mean something other than its plain words. The folk who say the “individual right interpretation” is a new one are lying to you. The question wasn’t even raised before the US. Vs. Miller–and that decision hinged on whether the weapon itself had a “militia purpose”, i.e. was militarily useful (and the court only hearing the government side, Miller having died before the case was heard and nobody, thus, representing his case). It’s only in later decisions was the claim made that the 2nd only applied to state sanctioned “militias”.


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