‘Basic English’ little help on 2nd Amendment

On tomorrow’s page we have a letter from someone on one side or the other of the 2nd Amendment debate (which side is irrelevant to my point) who writes "Anyone who has had any basic English course knows…," and then goes on to make some point or other about what he believes the Amendment to mean.

Here’s the problem with that: Basic English (or hyper-advanced English, for that matter) is little help in making clear sense of the 2nd Amendment. Read it — or try to: Those stray commas — you know, the ones after "Militia" and "Arms" — render it into gibberish.

I love commas; I truly do. I think the modern world is sadly lacking in commas. That’s why I loved this column by Robert Samuelson awhile back.

But apparently, they had a surplus of them in the 18th century — a regular plague, as with locusts. And they descended upon the 2nd Amendment to our Constitution, and left devastation in their wake.

11 thoughts on “‘Basic English’ little help on 2nd Amendment

  1. Lee Muller

    Those commas are not stray.
    I have dissected this amendment many times over the last 30 years, including for then reporter Cindi Ross Scoppe, but don’t take my word for it. There are plenty of legal scholars who agree, including a law professor at Oxford who wrote an entire book on the subject of the original meaning of the Second Amendment as an individual right in English law.
    Those who are confused by the commas are actually victims of their ignorance about the definition of Militia being composed of every able-bodied man, this being a nation of citizen soldiers.

  2. Lee Muller

    As if you would read a book on the 2nd Amendment. Any law professor contradicting your prejudice is instantly dismissed.
    Hey, have you read Obama’s MEIN KAMPF?

  3. Steven Hales

    Thank goodness the Constitution contains no exclamation marks or I would be truly lost. Commas I can deal with but exclamation marks are quite confusing and inherently subjective. When I encounter one like WAR! I can understand it but elsewhere it seems out of place. Just imagine if Tom Jefferson had used exclamation marks, oh dear! What would we make of things today? “We hold these truths to be self evident!” Certainly in speaking these words actors tend to lift their voices but Tom was not a playwright, thank goodness. Oh well, I’m just a panda who eats, shoots and leaves. What the hell do I know?!

  4. MAB

    The argument that the 2nd amendment does not mandate an individual right usually revolves around the idea that the “militia” reference in the amendment refers to the formal military of the US.
    However, the current (and historical) references to militia have no such definition. Consider the current definition:
    Subtitle A – General Military Law
    § 311. Militia: composition and classes
    (a) The militia of the United States consists of all able-bodied males at least 17 years of age and, except as provided in section 313 of title 32, under 45 years of age who are, or who have made a declaration of intention to become, citizens of the United States and of female citizens of the United States who are members of the National Guard.
    (b) The classes of the militia are —
    (1) the organized militia, which consists of the National Guard and the Naval Militia;
    (2) the unorganized militia, which consists of the members of the militia who are not members of the National Guard or the Naval Militia.
    Notice the “unorganized” militia are not members of any military service.
    I think it is fairly obvious to any reasonable person the “people” in the second amendment are the same “people” in the rest of the first ten amendments, and that the miltia and the people are one and the same.

  5. Mike Cakora

    Google “scalia heller grammar” and you’ll come up with all sorts of entertaining observations on the textual (grammatical) analysis that lay at the heart of the Heller case. Among those who don’t like the results is one who supports the grammar before veering off into something completely different:

    Writing the majority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia agreed with a linguistic analysis that the Amendment’s prefatory first clause – stressing the importance of a well-regulated militia — gives the reason for its operative second clause. But wait, said Justice Scalia, there’s more.
    True, Scalia writes, according to the amendment Americans have the right to keep and bear arms – specifically, guns – so they can serve in the militia (in the 18th century, militiamen [always men] were expected to show up with their own guns, a practice that is frowned on by the military today). But, he adds, Americans also need those guns to exercise their longstanding Common Law right to kill one another in self defense, and to bear arms against animals as well as paper targets at firing ranges. Scalia fails to explain why English Common law, one basis of American Constitutional Law, permits the British to enact strict gun control on their side of the pond.

    Of course Scalia’s opinion on this case was not the place for remarks on our mother country’s absence of a constitution and crushing of its own citizens’ rights, but I’m sure Nino would happily expound elsewhere.
    Today’s WaPo has a page-one report on the District of Columbia’s emergency legislation in response to Heller. Here a few snippets:

    The District’s ban was the nation’s toughest, and city officials fought vigorously to maintain it, but gun violence — and deaths — persisted throughout the legislation’s 32-year existence.

    Alan Gura, the lead attorney for residents who challenged the ban, said the proposed rules do not comply with the Supreme Court’s decision because they do not allow for semiautomatic handguns.
    “The semiautomatic ban is clearly unconstitutional,” Gura said. “The overwhelming majority of handguns people use in the United States are semiautomatic.”

    The council had recently given unanimous preliminary approval to legislation that would allow gun owners to keep weapons in their homes without trigger locks as long as they were for “immediate self-defense.” But yesterday, several council members said they agreed with tougher language that requires weapons to be unloaded, disassembled or trigger locked, except when there is a “threat of immediate harm to a person” in the home.
    [Acting Attorney General Peter] Nickles said residents could neither keep their guns loaded in anticipation of a problem nor search for an intruder on their property. The porch is off-limits, he said, as well as the yard and any outbuildings.

    Those purchasing a handgun in another jurisdiction must take a form to a licensed dealer, who would then transport the weapon to the District. Those who already own a handgun have a six-month amnesty period to register their weapons, assuming that they are not automatic or semiautomatic pistols. Those are still illegal.
    Guns must be submitted to the Firearms Registration Section for ballistic testing. Once complete, the applicant could take the gun home. Lanier said the entire process could take “weeks or months.” Fenty said that guns used in the commission of a crime would not be subject to the amnesty provision.

    My very favorite quote is from the city’s Acting Attorney General, Peter Nickles, who said this about the restrictive law the city is about to pass: “We do not want people running around with loaded guns outside.”
    The problem is not grammatical, but existential. The city already has several hundred people – criminals, convicted felons — running around with loaded guns outside. They operate with impunity along the city’s eastern border with Maryland’s Prince George’s County. Maryland’s aw-abiding residents may have guns and rifles in their homes, but DC’s residents may not. They have to rely on the police and coroner for post-incident record-keeping.
    The federal are of the District and the wealthy northwest residential area have lots of cops and private security out the wazoo.
    The elites take care of themselves and know what’s best for everyone, no? Nope!

  6. Mike Cakora

    It appears that all nine justices held that the Second Amendment is an individual right, but the difference between the majority and minority views is how much the state may regulate that right. This item and the comments that follow it give a brief history and a lot of arguments on the history of the right.
    While Justice Stevens’ opinion was joined by the three other dissenters, Justice Breyer’s opinion gets to the heart of the difference:

    With these two supports, the Breyer dissent goes on to conclude, “there simply is no untouchable constitutional right guaranteed by the Second Amendment to keep loaded handguns in the house in crime-ridden urban areas.” It proposes that firearms laws be reviewed by balancing the interests (i.e., “‘interest-balancing’ approach”) of Second Amendment protections against the government’s compelling interest of preventing crime.

    That’s the mentality that led to the bizarre results of Kelo v. City of New London, wherein the Fifth Amendment’s proscription of taking private property be taken for public use, without just compensation was turned on its head.
    The battle will continue.

  7. Lee Muller

    MAB is correct – the core of understanding the Bill of Rights is that they are all INDIVIDUAL rights. Those powers not enumerated explicity to the federal government remain under control of the states, or the people.
    The Bill of Rights was demanded by many people, including authors of the US Constitution and the state legislatures which ratified it, in order to explicitly name the basic rights of Englishmen, whose violation by the British Colonial Governors had been the root cause of revolt.
    Just as the rights of free speech are not limited only to politicians or professional journalists, the right of self-defense is not reserved to those wearing a uniform or carrying some commission. There were no police then, and no regular military except a small navy and its Marine Corps. Keeping the peace, arrests and defense were the responsibility of the local militias, composed of all men.

  8. penultimo mcfarland

    “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.”
    Gibberish? It says the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. A comma separates the subject and verb unnecessarily, even wrongly, but the phraseology of the sentence offers no other sensible interpretation.
    In modern English usage, the sentence would properly have just one comma, after “State.” To beg any other meaning into this amendment is to bring one’s bias to the table before reading even the first word.
    The commas left no “devastation in their wake,” either. They simply left scratching their editorial heads those who hope for a complicated explanation when a simple one makes more sense.

  9. Lee Muller

    It’s like the leftist judges standing the Civil Rights Act on its head by interpretingn the ban on use of race into Affirmative Action programs, based on race.

  10. Lee Muller

    Now the DC City Council is disobeying the Supreme Court, by allowing handgun ownership, but…
    * Only one.
    * You have to bring the illegal handgun to the Police Station for registration and capture of a bullet sample.
    The mayor and city council should be jailed for contempt of court.
    * Gun owners applicants are fingerprinted like criminals.
    * If they deny your application, your firearm is confiscated.
    * You can only own a revolver, no semi-automatic handguns.
    * You must keep it unloaded, disassembled and under lock and key, which defeats the right to the means of self-defense as a weapon in readiness, as prescribed by the Supreme Court.

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