“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.”
While I personally think that relying on amendments and laws and “original intents” is not a strong way to defend or attack a right (rights should stand or fall on their own based upon facts and reason, not lawyering, because laws and amendments can, by definition, be changed), it seems like a lot of people have a lot to say specifically about the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and regardless of the side they’re on, it seems like nearly all of them have spent no time actually learning about the two sentences they are yapping about.
Chief among my complaints is the moaning both sides of the debate do about how “if only they hadn’t been so vague”! This is a stupid and ignorant comment, and I want you all to stop it, because you look like a bunch of idiots. To help you all look less foolish, I’ve prepared a little primer:
The Second Amendment WAS originally written more or less clearly, in perfect 18th century English. I have some serious questions about comma usage, but still, it was pretty clear. Unfortunately, no one speaks 18th century English any more, so to a modern English speaker who hasn’t bothered to look into it, a number of its terms don’t make a lot of sense:
“Militia” – At the time, militias were composed of literally every male citizen of appropriate age and physical capability that a local government representative was able to arbitrarily gather up to serve. It is still defined that way in the US code, although I assume a number of legal precedents would broaden (no pun intended) that definition to all citizens, not just male ones. [On a side note, each of those citizens was expected to bring any personally owned arms to the militia with them.] Today however, “militia” has come to be understood (even though by US code it still has the original meaning) as being either a government controlled group (think national guard) or a club that lets a bunch of whack-jobs play soldier in the woods. This makes its use in the prefatory clause of the Second Amendment misleading.
“Well-regulated” – In 18th century English, “regulated” didn’t mean “controlled by law” (at least not in common use yet, although there were starting to be a few examples). Rather, it meant “equipped and/or maintained”. Especially in the context discussed previously of citizen soldiers being expected to bring their own weapons with them if they had any, the meaning of “well regulated” could not be more clear. Unfortunately, the linguistic shift has nearly obliterated the original meaning from our language. Yet again, this change makes its use in the prefatory clause of the Second Amendment misleading.
“Shall” – In 18th century English, this word had not yet acquired it’s modern connotation of “to occur in the future”. Instead, it really only meant “may”, or “must” (i.e. ‘allowed’). Modern English makes “shall not” sound a lot more like “I believe you will not” than “You are forbidden to”. This is less misleading than it is confusing, but it helps to obscure the “original intent”.
“The people” – In the Constitution, “the people” was specifically (per its simple definition) describing the group of individuals who constitute the citizenry. Two centuries of party politics, corruption, and ever growing authoritarianism in all aspects of civil service have warped modern understanding of “the people” to mean something more like “the government that claims to represent the people”. This is often used to subvert the meaning of the amendment, even if the technical definitions of the words haven’t changed.
Consider this: If “the people” in the Second Amendment means “the government”, then whose rights are being protected when the First Amendment calls out a “right of the people peaceably to assemble”? If “the people” in the Second Amendment means “the government”, then whose rights are being protected when the Fourth Amendment protects “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures”? For that matter, if “the people” means the government, how the hell could the Ninth Amendment tell us that unless the government is given a right by the Constitution, that right is “retained by the people”?!?!?
“Infringed” – This definition hasn’t changed even a little bit. Unfortunately, it seems like most of the people who debate the meaning of the Second Amendment have never read a book, so they don’t know that it means “interfered with or encroached upon”.
If you translate the 2nd Amendment into modern English, it’s a bit clunky, but still quite clear:
“Well armed and outfitted citizens who can be called on to serve in times of emergency being essential to the security of a free state, the right of the individual citizens of the US to keep and bear arms is forbidden to be interfered with.”