Militia vs Individual Right: The True Meaning of the Second Amendment

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The Second Amendment to the Constitution states that 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. The interpretation of what the founding fathers intended for it to represent has been unclear since its ratification in 1791. Because the people are not clearly defined in the Amendment, it is left to the person interpreting the text to decide.

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With this debate over interpretations, there are two sides; those who advocate for gun control and those who oppose it. In the wake of numerous mass shootings within schools and other highly populated areas; however, there has been a push by the collective side to increase gun control with stricter laws. The central argument put forth by the advocates is that the Amendment only secures the right for states to maintain and train militia units to provide protection against an oppressive government. Those with an opposing view assert that the Amendment gives every citizen the right to bear arms, free of federal regulation, for the purpose of protection and/or recreation. Both of these interpretations have helped shaped the ongoing debate over the Second Amendment and, the right to bear arms, but the history and grammar of the Second Amendment clearly assert the views of the collective side.

The Founding Fathers initially wrote the Second Amendment due to the belief that governments were prone to oppress their citizens through soldiers. To combat this, they only permitted the government to raise armies for foreign entities. For other purposes, the government could rely on civilians who supplied their own weapons. Much has changed since 1791 however. The United States’ military has become immensely powerful in comparison to the eighteenth century armies. Furthermore, eighteenth century civilians kept at home the very same weapons they would need if called to serve in the militia, while modern soldiers are equipped with weapons that differ significantly from those generally thought appropriate for civilian uses. Civilians no longer expect to use their household weapons for militia duty, although they still keep and bear arms for defense and purposes of recreation. Furthermore, the meaning of the Second Amendment was clear to farmers and other citizens; that the people have a right to possess arms when serving in the militia. Additionally, the regulations of weapons has always been prevalent. In the fourteenth century, a series of Game Laws expressly restricted weapons ownership to members of the gentry who met thresholds of income and land ownership; guns were for the wealthy, not the peasants or the lower middle class.

The opponents of gun control have argued that for linguistic reasons the first part of the Second Amendment should be regarded as prefatory and not taken into account to the interpretation of the phrase collectively. In addition, they reinterpret the meanings of the phrase bear arms and the word militia in ways that support their cause but go against the sense those words had in the federal period, and continue to have today. Among them was Antonin Scalia, who in 2008 wrote a Supreme Court opinion (DC v Heller) that the amendment guarantees an individual right to guns. He further explained “to bear” meant “to carry” and “arms” were weapons. Scalia acknowledged the idiom that “to bear arms” embodied, which meant to belong to an organized military, but he believed it did not speak to the core meaning. The Constitution however should be read in its entirety as intended. The first part is tied to the second; it directly correlates the right to bear arms with the militia. Furthermore, selective quotations can prove anything, if you have devoted and clever researchers seeking them. But, if one did want to look up what a certain word or phrase meant in a time period, there is an effective process. It is to gather a large number of texts into a “corpus”, which is a searchable body of material, and look for patterns in thousands of uses of a word or phrase. Dennis Baron, a linguist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, did just that when he searched for “bear arms” in databases. Upon his research he found about 1,500 instances of the use of the phrase, and of those, there was little inconsistency in it not referring to organized military.

It is worthy to note however, that phrases are more than their dictionary definitions. The context of a phrase isn’t just helpful in some cases but it can often be crucial. The verb “bear” has 44 definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), not counting the ursine noun but what the exact definition “bear” is meant to represent can only be grasped in context. Bearing interest does not mean literally carrying interest around, nor does bearing a grudge involve physical activity. With this, there are also phrases called “phrasal verbs”, that cannot be understood by knowing the component words: for example bear down or bear up. Dictionaries will usually define these phrases separately like the OED. It defines “bear arms” in an entry under “arms”: “To serve as a soldier; to fight (for a country, cause, etc).” But it also takes note of the contested meaning in America’s constitution.

Despite these assertions, the opposition also argues that the punctuation within the Amendment reveals that the first and second part are not connected. In the eighteenth century however, punctuation was not an important part of writing instruction. It allowed for commas to be inserted as needed for breathing. An example of such a pause, from Article III, section 1 of the U.S. Constitution: The judicial power of the United States, shall be vested in one Supreme Court. The comma in that sentence does not separate prefatory material from substance. Instead, it marks a pause for breath. While it is popularly held that the presence or absence of a comma can have a critical impact on the interpretation of a contract or a law, this example demonstrates that, even today, punctuation in such carefully-drafted documents as constitutions and their amendments does not always reinforce meaning.

Although the Second Amendment does state that citizens have the right to bear arms within the second clause, taken into account with the first, it does tie the right of citizens bearing arms belonging to a militia. The Amendment secures the rights for states in an effort to prevent oppression by a federal government rather than a safeguard for gun advocates to use to combat gun control laws. The ideal outcome of citizens being educated of the grammar and history of the Second Amendment would be to abolish the right of citizens to own guns privately unless they participate in a military context, but the reality of this is bleak. A more reasonable hope would be that courts would allow for stronger gun regulation. Guns of which are military grade like automatic machine guns should never be able to be purchased and owned by the public as they have no real necessity. The limitation to owning handguns and specific hunting specified guns would be expected and the way in which one can obtain even those would be long, and full of extensive background checks. This would in turn hopefully lower the amount of mass shootings that the United States experiences as well as lower the amount of injuries and deaths by guns significantly.

Works Cited

“Arms and the man; Johnson.” The Economist, 9 June 2018, p. 74(US). Business Collection, https://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A541679442/GPS?u=beth&sid=GPS&xid=4fdc6fd7. Accessed 29 Oct. 2018.

Brooks, Chad. The Second Amendment & the Right to Bear Arms. LiveScience, Purch, 28 June 2017, www.livescience.com/26485-second-amendment.html.

Charles, Patrick J. Second Amendment. Encyclop?dia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.,8 Dec. 2017, www.britannica.com/topic/Second-Amendment.

Epps, Garrett. The Second Amendment Does Not Transcend All Others. The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 8 Mar. 2018, www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/03/second-amendment-text-context/555101/.

Flynn, Meagan, and Fred Barbash. “Does the Second Amendment really protect assault weapons? Four courts have said no.” Washingtonpost.com, 22 Feb. 2018. Business Collection, https://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A528614437/GPS?u=beth&sid=GPS&xid=326be02c. Accessed 29 Oct. 2018.

McNamara, John. The Fight to Bear Arms: Challenging the Second Amendment and the U…. S.A.P.I.EN.S. Surveys and Perspectives Integrating Environment and Society, Institut Veolia Environnement, 31 July 2017, journals.openedition.org/ejas/12179.

Menino, Thomas M., and Wayne Lapierre. “Should the U.S. have tougher gun-control laws? Public-safety officials say yes, but others say such laws infringe upon Second Amendment rights.” New York Times Upfront, 6 Apr. 2009, p. 28. General OneFile, https://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A197233247/GPS?u=beth&sid=GPS&xid=bcf6affe. Accessed 29 Oct. 2018.

Yuhas, Alan. The Right to Bear Arms: What Does the Second Amendment Really Mean? The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 5 Oct. 2017, www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/oct/05/second-amendment-right-to-bear-arms-meaning-history.

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