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Grammar and the Second Amendment

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Barbara Newman in the LRB, 22 March:

The Latinate framers of the US constitution employed an ablative absolute in the Second Amendment: ‘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.’ An interpreter who favoured regimen would argue that the ablative clause determines the sense of the main clause; hence, the state has the right to maintain an army. Those who favour the absolute, as American courts have done, bracket the militia clause and take the main clause to mean that citizens may own as many firearms as they choose. The difference between constructions amounts to roughly 12,000 murders a year.

Comments on “Grammar and the Second Amendment”

  1. SpinningHugo says:

    Completely agree

    “It being necessary for you to go to the shops, I lend you my car for an hour”

    Can you use the borrowed car for any purpose? No.

  2. Saxo Philologus says:

    The clause under discussion is not an ablative absolute because English has no ablative case – a nominative absolute perhaps. Nor do I think that many serious constitutional scholars would argue that the absolute clause does not help to determine the sense of the main clause. The argument, rather, is about what constitutes a well-regulated militia, and what it means to “keep” and “bear” arms. Newman’s lack of interest in the history of this debate, and her snide comment at the end, are unworthy of her.

  3. streetsj says:

    “hence the state has the right to maintain an army” – this is leap of logic beyond me. The “militia” by definition is not the army.
    As SaxoP writes the argument centres on “well-regulated” and “keep and bear” and any lawyer can construct an intereptation that complies with the amendment and still restricts the sale of arms (by type and to whom they can be sold).
    The issue is whether there is the political will to do so and to my mind this is where our current (and recent) batch of poltiicians fail so woefully. Instead of entering politics to improve things (right or wrongheadedly) they seem now only to want to occupy office for as long as possible. Obama’s concerted push on healthcare suggests he is different, changing this law would be almost as great an achievement.

  4. alex says:

    The issue of whether the first clause governs the second is to me less ambiguous than how one understands ‘militia’, ‘state’ and ‘people’ to relate to one another.
    streetsj thinks of ‘militia’ as being totally non-state. But it’s not clear-cut.
    I would guess that ‘militia’ here is roughly between the evolving meanings recorded by OED II.3: “the body of soldiers in the service of a sovereign or a state (obs.), but subsequently: a military force raised from the civilian population of a country or region, esp. to supplement a regular army in an emergency”.
    So the reason for not infringing the right of the people to bear arms is that otherwise they would not be available to serve the state in an emergency. That’s how the Swiss conceive their liberal firearms policy, as part of state military service (there is no other army), and they have a very low gun death rate. Gun ownership is strongly associated with civic duty, contribution to collective state action. In US, the association is with freedom from the state & individuals ‘defending’ not the public good but their unregulated private interests. It’s the latter that goes against the Amendment. Not that it will be easy to inculcate the distinction.

  5. pfirbas says:

    A modern interpretation of the text could read like this: “Since a well-regulated militia is necessary for the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”. If the well regulated militia evolved later into a state army, then the old right of the people to keep and bear arms is no longer a requirement to obtain the goal: the security of a free state.

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