Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Grammar, Punctuation, and Gun Violence: A Short History of the Second Amendment to the American Constitution

The Second Amendment to the American Constitution is a striking example of the eighteenth-century habit of placing punctuation marks almost at random—as a way of suggesting where one might pause in reading a long sentence rather than as a way of indicating grammatical structure. Here is the Second Amendment as it was commonly punctuated in early versions:
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.
To punctuate the sentence in that way is to give it two more commas than it should have should be done according to the rules of grammar and punctuation that have prevailed now for the past roughly two hundred years. According to those rules of grammar and punctuation, the structure of the sentence calls for just one comma:
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.
When there is just one comma, the meaning between the two parts of the sentence becomes far more clear. Grammatically, the first part of the sentence (“A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state”) is a participial phrase. The phrase as a whole acts to modify or restrict the meaning of the entire main clause (“the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”). The participial phrase provides the rationale for the principle set out in the main clause—and implicitly, limits its application. A more straightforward way of conveying the same idea would be to use a word such aslike “because”:
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.
The historical context here was one in which a new nation had recently defeated the British army. The American states fought for the most part not with a standing army of their own (though the newly-formed Continental Army certainly played an important role) but with the militias of the various former colonies that had now become the states of the union. These militias were formed of ordinary citizens (most of them farmers) with limited training; they were assembled only when the security of the colony (or state) was threatened. The members of the militia were expected to provide their own arms and ammunition, as well as other supplies, and they were not paid a salary.

As is now acknowledged by the vast majority of military historians, these militias played a vital role in defeating the British. But what about after the war? What if America were under threat of attack by the British in the future? Given that the maintenance of a standing army of any size was an expensive proposition for a new nation, and that many Americans still worried at war’s end about their future security, it is not surprising that most states did not permanently disband their militias at the end of the Revolutionary War. (The worries were not all over the possibility of a renewed conflict with the British; many in some states worried that the federal gGovernment and its standing army might constitute a future threat to one or more of the individual states.)

The historical record here is complicated in several respects (for one, state militias after the Revolutionary War were supposed to be largely subject to control by the federal government). But some things are clear; one of these is that the phrases “keep arms” and “bear arms” were at the time used almost exclusively with regard to this sort of military context. University of Chicago professor Alison LaCroix and three linguists concluded in 2019, after a review of the entire database of texts from the era, that uses of the phrases “keep arms” and “bear arms” to refer “to hunting or [to] personal self-defence” were so rare in the late eighteenth century as to be “almost nonexistent.” Such phrases were used “almost exclusively in a military context.”

Until the 1980s, the American Supreme Court paid attention both to the grammar and to the history; the Court , and was of the view that the Second Amendment conferred at most quite limited rights so far as firearms were concerned. Then the National Rifle Association lobbying effort kicked into high gear. Nowadays, many Americans are unaware either of the grammatical issues at stake or of the historical context in which the Second Amendment was enacted; tens of millions take the NRA at its word when it argues that the Second Amendment to the Constitution should be interpreted as giving any individual the right to carry a gun of any sort, anywhere, at any time.

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