A Grammar Lesson: A Blast from the Past

2nd Amendment

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.

6 thoughts on “A Grammar Lesson: A Blast from the Past”

  1. Excellently well done! Professional grammarians, including several who are avowed anti-gunners, have reluctantly reached the same conclusion. And the larger point is worth emphasizing:

    “The Constitution is the supreme law, the foundation for all other law. If it doesn’t mean exactly what its text says—the public meanings of the words as ordinary people understand them—then no one can possibly know what it means. But if no one can know what the Constitution means, then no one can know whether any other law conforms to it. At that point, all that matters is the will of whoever’s in power. And that’s an exact definition of tyranny.”

    From here.


  2. 1) Regulator clocks. Not the most controlled but the most accurate. Invented in the 1700s. Coincidentally about the same time as the “well regulated militia”. So we don’t even have to rely on the writings of the founders.

    2) “A well educated public, being necessary to the prosperity of a free state, the right of the people to keep and read books shall not be infringed.” No one I have ever talked to has argued that this sentence would mean that the government would have all the books.


    1. “A well educated electorate, being necessary . . . ” in keeping with a select or restricted part of the public; nonetheless the public has the right.


  3. Then there’s the various historical examples of Republics the Founders followed and studied.
    Those who depended on citizen soldiers were better able to keep their liberties than those with professional troops.
    After all, rule is eventually just a matter of force, and if you don’t have the means of force, you don’t have the means of rule. The Romans turned to foreign soldiers, and eventually the Empire was ruled by men picked by the soldiers.
    But, when the people have arms, they provide a counterbalance to the arms of the government- another form of Separation of Powers. And that’s a good thing- any government with a monopoly of power tends to turn tyrannical.


  4. I fail to understand why so many cannot seem to understand simple, straightforward English. Did they fail fufth-grade grammar? Then, perhaps thry should return to the schools that released them untaught and let educated adults get on with the business of running this country.

    Side Note – anyone proposing or voting in favour of measures and acts violative of the C9nstitution (current “Red Flag” laws being an excellent example – violative of Amendments I, II, IV, V, VI, and VII all in one fell swoop!) are to be sentenced for sedition, such proposal or “Aye” vote being sufficient for conviction. Any and all neasures and resolutions to be decided by roll call vote. No exceptions.

    I don’t know about you, but I’m getting seriously tired of all of this. Perhaps we should begin to take “Unintended Consequences” as guidance (vice a warning,) just as the Left has taken “1984” and “Animal Farm”?

    I sometimes wonder if I’m going to end up like old Boxer…


    1. Oh, they (at least those among the truly powerful–their “useful idiot” followers might be a different matter) understand the 2nd just fine. They just hate what it says and so they twist grammar and usage all out of shape in order to pretend it “means” something else entirely.


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