i’m neither an american nor a constitutional scholar. but i am a language teacher specializing in culture and the development of contemporary language. and if that counts for nothing reading a document intended to be read by average people and understood by the masses as a guarantee of freedom, i’m not sure what better qualification would be. not that i care as i’m going to talk about it anyway and you’re welcome to move on to other writers if you prefer.
the second amendment to the constitution, passed in 1789 and ratified two years later, reads…
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.
aside from the obvious bad writing, which we can generally chalk up to it being written in the eighteenth century when the language was still rather cumbersome even by modern standards, this isn’t a particularly confusing passage. compared to most legal documents whose lengths are painful and technical jargon is incomprehensible, this is, at first glance, rather straightforward and simplistic.
except that it’s not.
the first issue is definitional. the second is attributional. the third is conditional. we’ll talk about them in that order. that’s not because that’s their order of importance or complexity, just because it’s what seems logical when looking at a passage from the perspective of language.
there are nine pieces of this sentence whose meanings are questionable. let’s take a look at each of them and try to put together a sensible unified perspective.
- bear arms. while this is the focus of most definition questions, i think it’s the one with the least obvious answer and perhaps the one least relevant to the issue in many ways. but we’ll explore it anyway as it’s pre-traveled ground and a good warmup. it also gives a solid argument for you to hold onto at dinner parties against anyone who happens to think this amendment justifies carrying a handgun around as they conduct their daily business. “bear arms” is an idiom. it has nothing to do with body parts or ursine militaries. in the eighteenth century, much as it does today, it meant “be part of an organized military group”. there has been a lot of argument about this centered on the notion that it had a different meaning then from its modern concept of “having a gun”. but it didn’t. not that it meant simply having a weapon then. it’s that it doesn’t mean that today either and everyone knows it. they just like to pretend it means having a personal weapon because it makes this amendment seem to say everyone can carry guns to work and the grocery store and they’ve played so many first-person-shooters and lust for violence so much that’s an appealing notion to them. this is pure silliness, though. we all know that “take up arms”, “bear arms”, “armed forces” and “being under arms” have very specific meanings in english and they’re all about organized military groups. they always have been and everyone hears them this way. they pretend not to sometimes when it’s convenient but that’s like the people who go to the desert counter and say “my wife told me i can only have one plate of cake so have you got a plate big enough to put the whole cake on?”. of course, this doesn’t specifically mean “being in the army” or even “being in the state-sponsored military”. it left interpretation open for individual groups to mount revolutionary forces. but we now live in an age where those forces are seen as insurrectionist and treasonous. in the eighteenth century, it was necessary for there to be a revolutionary army to fight against the oppression by the british and free the united states from imperial domination. that oppressive role has now been taken over by conservative politicians and we don’t need to fight them with guns. they’re the ones with the guns anyway.
- keep arms. here’s where things get interesting. the word “keep”, unlike phrases like “bear arms”, has changed significantly in the past two-hundred years. today, “keep” carries the meaning of ownership like “i like to keep a car because it’s convenient”. it sounds a little outdated but people still understand it. another few decades and it may have dropped from comprehension completely in that sense. it also has the meaning of “remain”, which is far more common – “keep your mouth shut”. the meaning a few hundred years ago, though, was far closer to “be responsible for”. “i keep a dog” or “i keep an army” weren’t unusual uses. what that means is that this phrase could easily have two interpretations but neither of them is the modern way of looking at them, especially in pro-gun circles. the first, more obvious perspective on it is that it means “be responsible for the use of weapons”. in other words, the right to keep arms is talking about having the right to be part of a society that uses military force to protect itself. it doesn’t in any way mean owning a personal weapon. it just means being ethically, morally and financially responsible for the state military. i think this is a valid interpretation and likely the one intended. the other option is a little more niche but it’s certainly a possibility. “keep arms” was a euphemism for “keep an army” as “arms” was just another way of saying “military force”. so what this might be talking about is the right not to have a gun but to have personal protection – bodyguards in the small-scale version but, more broadly, a local militia. the reason this comes up today is twofold. one is that it isn’t talking about individuals having the right to keep personal weapons (especially not in public places around others). it’s talking about the right to living in a safe environment – a place patrolled by security guards or an armed police force. this is, in fact, quite possibly talking about having an armed force protecting schools and public buildings, for example. while i think this interpretation is less likely to be the one intended at the time, it’s another valid way of reading the sentence and quite applicable to our current issue.
- right. we hear a lot about rights. i think this might be the largest problem in reading documents from the past like the constitution, though. people think they know what “right” means in this context and it’s not quite the case. you probably think of “right” as in “something i’m allowed to do” or “something nobody can stop me from doing”. and that is certainly one modern version of the term but historically it’s not really how the word was understood. remember we’re talking about a country whose people mostly left europe in search of freedom from oppression. not because they wanted more “rights” in the modern sense of the word but because they thought what they were doing was “right” as opposed to the “wrong” european governments told them it was. what were they doing? mostly practicing religious beliefs different from the catholic/anglican norms of their old countries. whether that was protestantism or judaism or something completely different, often no religion at all, they didn’t see it as “freedom of religion” as much as “freedom from state religion”. what we’re talking about here is a lack of judgment rather than a guarantee of permissibility. that’s a subtle difference but it’s quite striking in context. if you believe you have a “right” to have a personal weapon and you redefine what “right” means, it changes the inherent meaning of the sentence from “nobody can take away my weapon” to “it is ethically permissible to have a weapon”. now we’re not talking about laws anymore but morality. it’s good to have a gun. well, it might have been good in some ways in the eighteenth century even in an objective sense because we were talking about a revolution and a time of wild oppressive forces and constant government violence from various directions and countries. but is it “good” now? is it “right” in the sense of “not wrong”? and is that true for everyone? because we aren’t just supposed to be living in a free society. we’re supposed to be living in an equal society. so if it’s moral for one person it must be moral for everyone. do you want your children to have guns? what about your enemy’s children? the people you hate? the people who hate you? or would it be a more ethical perspective to have none? i’m not passing judgment on it, only asking the question. but remember this isn’t about a fundamental lack of prohibition. it’s about a question of morality and ethics. don’t forget the constitution was a document about deeply-held personal feeling and ethical truth far more than it was one of statements about behavior. we’re talking about a different age.
- infringed. while the largest question about the word “infringed” is about who was theoretically doing the infringing, its definition is a question more because it’s an unusual word than one that’s changed significantly with time. it’s not one you hear on a regular basis. study english for a long time and it may appear once or twice. study anything else and you might go your whole life without hearing it. it comes from the word “fringe”, of course, like “edge”. so what we’re talking about is something being seen as “outside the norm”. it’s not about “legal” or “illegal”. it’s about something being an accepted norm. once we start to understand that “right” is about a moral judgment, not a legal one, it starts to make a lot more sense. the right to bear arms is a right that can’t be declared a fringe belief – in other words, having an army to protect us from outside oppression and interference will always be socially, culturally, morally and ethically correct.
- miltia. this is a fancy word for an army. while it’s got a somewhat different meaning today, two-hundred years ago, it simply meant an army. like a real one with officers and soldiers. that doesn’t necessarily imply it was the official army of the government – at the time, the official government was in london, remember. so we’re talking about a revolutionary army and a variety of state armies. you already knew this, though, if you’ve studied anything about the revolutionary war. they don’t talk about the “pennsylvania army”. they call it the “pennsylvania militia” – it’s even recognized in the “militia act”. not just in pennsylvania but it’s a clear example to look at. if you hear “militia” and the first thing that comes to mind is a ragtag band vaguely approximating a mashup between the merry men of robin hood and a redneck posse going after immigrants like it’s a safari picnic, this is certainly the modern version of the word. but that’s not what people heard when it showed up at the time the constitution was being drafted. they meant uniforms and citations for bravery on organized battlefields. as organized as battlefields ever got, of course, which is a whole other issue and one of much myth and legend. but you know what i mean. drills and ranks and officers and more than anything large-group popular sanction for its actions to safeguard the general public so they wouldn’t have to fight themselves or suffer under oppression and conquest from outside. an army.
- necessary. this is an interesting word form a historical context. though its meaning hasn’t actually changed in any meaningful way. it just means “required”. but it’s a conditional marker. don’t forget that. we’ll come back to it in a minute. it means “true” or “needed”. and if you speak english you already know this. “conditional marker” is the key, though. we don’t speak like this anymore and that’s what makes it confusing. while you’re waiting, think about the sentence “dogs being necessary for happiness, my daughter got a puppy for her birthday”. more on that later.
- free state. this is where things really become striking if you are looking at this amendment – or the constitution in general – for the first time in a serious historical way. because you have to ask yourself what “free” means and what a “free state” is in the context of the eighteenth century. this means we have to ask three questions. does “free” have a particular historical meaning? what is a “state”? and what would the phrase “free state” have meant to a newly-minted american of the time – perhaps with the addition of whether this would have had different meanings, for example, if you were in georgia or virginia or pennsylvania or if you were female, black or chinese. we’ll start at the beginning. “free” refers not to the ability to do but the lack of persecution. not prosecution from a legal perspective. persecution. that’s what people declared their independence from – external judgment and control. we’re not talking about a new country saying it doesn’t want to have laws. or even one where the laws would have been different. they weren’t measurably different laws. it was the lack of persecution and oppression that was at stake here. freedom wasn’t “i can go where i want, do what i want and be who i want” – it was “i can’t be hurt because of who i am and what i believe and neither can my children”. “state” in this context was a gloss of individual states and a nation-state. there’s a lot to unravel there but it’s not relevant to the current topic so i’ll leave it alone for the moment and you can assume whether we’re talking about individual states or a collective representing them all is irrelevant to this issue but it’s something you may want to explore in terms of the rest of the constitution because it changes the way some other things are looked at. like the first amendment and what it means for hate speech and freedom of expression. but we don’t express ourselves freely from the barrel of a gun so that’s likely enough about it. “free state”, though, has a very specific historical meaning. it doesn’t mean a place where you’re free to do what you want. that might be what people hear when it’s said now but that’s not at all what was meant by it in revolutionary times. it was linguistically exactly what it sounds like. not the people in the state who were free. the state itself was free from imperial control. free from britain. free from being controlled from the outside. this isn’t a declaration of individual independence but the independence of the colonies from the british empire. i can’t express too strongly how important this difference is. this is not in any way a statement about personal freedom, though personal freedom is implied in terms of how people are supposed to be treated from ethical, moral and religious perspectives. it’s a statement about the government of virginia not being subject to laws passed in london or controlled by an army issued from london – only laws, armies and police forces from within its own borders. whether that extends to those forces in washington is a different question and one not covered in this amendment in any way. but we’re talking about the state being free, not its people. while this may be a bit of a setback if you’re looking for justification here for racial equality, it’s not ambiguous in any way. and there are other places you can look for that. this just isn’t one of them. this amendment doesn’t guarantee any personal freedom. just that you’re not british anymore. but you probably didn’t think you were.
- the people. “people” means humans. but “the people” isn’t nearly as general as that. it means citizens. “the people of these united states” is not a statement about people who live there. it’s about people who see themselves as “of the place” and who are recognized as being part of the society and community around them. why is this of significance? it means we’re talking about fully-integrated members of society. there’s a pretty solid argument to be made that this doesn’t include women, children, slaves or visitors. there’s even a relatively-stable perspective that this doesn’t even cover people who don’t own land and make money from it. or at least who come from a family that does. but the important part here is that in the eighteenth century this was a collective term. it isn’t about individual freedom or guarantees of freedom from prosecution. it was actually the opposite. it was about a group that was intending to be more moral, more ethical, more free from external control and oppression to create a more thoroughly-integrated community in a specific place. freedom of individual behavior was certainly a topic of discussion. but it wasn’t discussed here. this is about people as a collective body of citizens coming together to decide they need an army to protect that cohesive community identity from external actors, usually outside imperial powers like britain, france, spain and portugal. the state and its population have a collective right to have an army to keep it safe, in other words.
- arms. this is a bit of a bonus one. but it’s somewhat significant to the topic at hand to understand what we’re talking about if we’re actually going to make sense talking about guns in this context. yes, arms definitely included guns in the eighteenth century. but not the kind of guns we have today. automatic and semi-automatic weapons? huge cartridges of ammunition? not on your life. we’re talking about clumsy weapons, many suited for nothing more than a single volley shot to disorient an enemy. they were heavy, cumbersome, slow, inaccurate and extremely dangerous not just to the person on the receiving end. and most people didn’t immediately die from the impact from an eighteenth-century firearm. for one, they were fired in a volley manner from a huge distance so the projectiles didn’t have nearly the force. second, they weren’t generally bullets in the modern sense. third, though, most importantly, they weren’t designed to penetrate as much as to repel. so when you picture the “right” to have a weapon, it might be a thought to look at what kinds of weapons they had in mind. guns were certainly there. but swords, knives and other weapons were far more the dominant items on the minds of most citizens when they thought about fighting. nobody was carrying around a 9mm in their waistband or a police special strapped under their arm at the time of the constitution. and i suspect few ever imagined such things would be possible. a modern handgun or assault rifle would be sufficiently advanced to the eyes of a revolutionary war solider, not even thinking about an average civilian, to have seemed like sorcery and witchcraft. the weapons used in most current gun crimes were so far outside the imagination of those writing the second amendment it wouldn’t be a stretch to say they were unthinkable.
having looked at the definitions, the next question that comes to mind is the question of attribution. we’ve already alluded to it but there are two issues that must be addressed here. first, if this is about legality, who is making the laws and about what? second, if this is about morality, which is far more likely, who is doing the judging and who shouldn’t be?
the first part is clear. if we’re talking about laws, which is somewhat implied even if it’s not stated, who is making the laws? not the individual. if that’s not obvious, try to remember we’re talking about the constitution. it’s a government document as much as it was a revolutionary one. this wasn’t about individual independence. it was about collective revolution to create a self-serving government of the united states. not anarchy. personal responsibility and group freedom for the states – perhaps as a group or perhaps individually. but this much is certain. from a legal perspective, there were going to be just as many laws and perhaps just as strict if not more. they were just not going to be laws imposed from outside where the general public had no say in what they were. power to the people as a whole, one might say, not power to the individual. so who wasn’t going to infringe on those fundamental laws and truths? this isn’t about limiting the government, either of the states or the new united federal government and its congress. it was about limiting outside interference. the british couldn’t apply their laws anymore because it was no longer a colony. that’s freedom. and it still works that way.
the second part should be just as clear because it’s quite straightforward but it is often a bit fuzzy – likely intentionally but i try to give people the benefit of the doubt, assuming lack of information rather than malicious intent. assuming this is a statement about morality and ethics, which it probably is, that having an army to protect the people from outside interference and oppression is just and correct, it’s the same outside force we’re talking about. the dominant interpretation from the european side at the time, particularly the british one, was that the rulers were the ones who deserved power. it was the way of the world, how the universe and society was organized. it was correct, “right” for the king to govern the colonies and decide what was right or wrong there. this is a statement about taking that authority away. that the king would say it’s wrong for the states to have militias – revolutionary armies. that fighting against the crown, seeking freedom and independence was wrong. this is a statement that at that point and from then on for the rest of time the british and all other outside forces couldn’t “infringe” or push outside the normal and correct expectation the idea of self-preservation as a society, a collective and a new country. it’s not about whether it’s socially or ethically acceptable to have a gun. it’s about whether it’s socially acceptable to have an army to keep us safe from outside forces.
the last piece of the puzzle, though, might be the most-obvious yet least-explored.
the first part of this statement is a conditional. “a well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state…” like i said, we don’t speak or write like this anymore. so we’ll use a simple example i mentioned a few minutes ago – “dogs being necessary for happiness, my daughter got a puppy for her birthday”. let’s think about what this means. it’s a complex piece of english grammar and an unusual one in our version of the language. “dogs being necessary for happiness” is a formal construction directly equivalent to one of two options – “because dogs are necessary for happiness” or “if dogs are necessary for happiness”. which meaning it has is a contextual answer based on what comes in the next piece of the sentence – “my daughter got a puppy for her birthday”. that makes the first meaning obvious. “because dogs are necessary for happiness, my daughter got a puppy for her birthday”. the other doesn’t make any sense. it’s formal and arcane. but it’s not difficult to translate to modern english. let’s try that for the second amendment. “because a well regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed”. even without modernizing the rest of the language, it certainly makes a lot more sense in a contemporary sense. the question is whether this is true. is the conditional sensible? is, in other words, a militia necessary to secure that the united states is free from outside control? because if it’s not the rest doesn’t apply. so the sentence is far closer to “if a well regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state”. if it is, there needs to be one and it needs to be socially and ethically accepted. if it’s not, the rest doesn’t apply.
so let’s apply what we’ve explored and convert the second amendment to a modern statement using modern language but conveying the same message that would have been understood in the eighteenth century.
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.
if an organized army is necessary to the nation remaining independent, it is socially and ethically acceptable for that army to be created, supported and maintained by the nation without interference from outside.
if (and only if) an army is needed to protect us from the rest of the world taking over, in other words, it’s both moral and ethical for the government to raise one and provide for it with public funds raised through taxation whether some people support it or not. is it necessary today? perhaps. that’s not for me to judge in this article, though i have a strong opinion on it. in terms of interpreting the constitution, though, it’s irrelevant. i’ll leave it to the american people to figure out whether an army is necessary for the country to remain independent. whether this has anything to do with guns or individual freedoms, though? not in the slightest.
thanks for exploring this issue with me today. enjoy your freedom…