Your Lying Eyes

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19 March 2008

What Do Those Commas Mean?!

The SC debated the Second Amendment today. Amendment Deux is by far the worst-written part of the Constitution. It is simply ungrammatical. The problem is very basic: if you're going to insert two commas around a clause inside a sentence, the rest of the sentence outside the commas must be read as a complete sentence on its own. But this doesn't work here.
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.
No good. You can't very well say "A well regulated militia the right of the people..." It just don't parse! But grammar aside, it's really hard to tell what the authors were trying to get at exactly. It's all complicated by the fact that the Bill of Rights were intended to apply to the federal government only, but over the course of the 20th century this distinction went out the window. The most obvious meaning of the amendment is that states have broad powers to regulate firearms within their jurisdiction while the federal government has no proper role in this business whatever.

Based on this reading of it I'd say a reasonable 2nd Amendment ruling in this case would be that the District of Columbia (here being treated as if it were a state) has every right to implement whatever insane gun control measure it wishes. People who don't like it are free to move (and well advised to, at that). That's how federalism is supposed to work. But since a) the Bill of Rights are expected to apply equally to the federal and state governments and b)some regulation of firearms is expected at each level of government then we can expect a ruling that will give a fairly broad individual right to own and possess functional firearms while allowing governments to impose "reasonable" restrictions based on local circumstances. And that would pretty much describe the current situation across the country outside of the nation's capital.


Anonymous Dano said...

Sex used to get comments, now it is the loss of jobs and government bailouts.

I think you have more material there to mine. The Bear Stearns blog had thoughtful commentary

March 19, 2008 6:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

People had guns back right after the revolution. Practically every family had one. If the founders intended for guns to be illegal, they'd have siezed them back then, but didn't. End of story.

If you DIDNT own a gun and met someone like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson or Andrew Jackson, he'd have thought you a sissy and probably something of an embarrassment to his nation.

Lets go over it:

A well regulated tomato sause, being necessary to the security of a good pizza, the right of the people to keep and bear tomatoes, shall not be infringed

Thats pretty much what I feel about it.

March 19, 2008 7:08 PM  
Anonymous assetmgmt said...

>>It is simply ungrammatical.

The sentence *is* gramatical, by 18th-century (and even 21st-century) standards. The complete sentence embedded in the Amendment is "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." The rest of it is what's known in Latin as an ablative absolute clause. The founders would have known all about Latin prose comp and would have completely understood ablative absolutes.

An ablative absolute helps set the context for the rest of the sentence. And in this case, it says that a well-regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state. "Regulated," however, does not have the modern meaning of "controlled" we ascribe to it, as in "a regulated industry." Here, it means more like "trained" or "in good order." So the entire Amendment says that a well-trained militia is necessary for security; therefore, the people have the right to keep and bear arms.

March 19, 2008 8:10 PM  
Blogger ziel said...

I can't speak for the 18th century, but for the 21st century you'd need to lose the first comma for it to be an ablative clause. So it would read: "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."

That's probably what the drafters meant (and ratifiers understood) it to mean. The 2nd amendment surely does not mean what anyone today wants it to mean. To me, it clearly means that the United States government had absoltely nothing to say about what kinds of or how many weapons the people of any state had. By the same token, the states would have been horrified at the thoght of the Supreme Court telling them what kinds of laws they could enact regarding guns and gun ownership inside their borders.

But that goes for the entire Bill of Rights. We have long past that point, though - we have a different Constitution today from the one that's written down.

March 19, 2008 8:25 PM  
Anonymous assetmgmt said...

>>I can't speak for the 18th century, but for the 21st century you'd need to lose the first comma for it to be an ablative clause.

To our eyes, yeah. But they were comma-happy in the 1700s.

March 19, 2008 9:09 PM  
Blogger Glaivester said...

D.C. is a special case, not beinga state and being a district with specific federal control over it.

March 20, 2008 7:57 PM  
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May 19, 2011 4:45 PM  
Anonymous said...

What namely you're saying is a terrible blunder.

November 27, 2011 5:59 PM  

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