right: (n) a privilege granted by a governing body or society
responsibility: (n) a duty expected by a governing body or society
When I completed by graduate degree, I received a phone call from the graduation committee. My name had been submitted at a possible speaker at graduation. On the conference call, I was told that I would have three minutes. What would my comments be. I believe they expected me to say glowing things about education and my learning experience. I said that we graduates have received a great privilege to study at that university and therefore had a great responsibility to use our knowledge for the good of other people and society. I did not get a call back.
When I discuss the Second Amendment with people who advocate private gun ownership, I mostly hear about their perceived rights. Only one gun owner has told me what he considers his responsibility, and that was mostly to train to use the gun for his and his wife’s intended purpose, self-defense (specifically, that gun owners should practice at short-range in their home, vehicle, or public places such as a store, as these are places they felt threatened).
Attempts to discuss “gun control” are usually met with, “it’s my right”, “my Second Amendment rights”, “you want to take me rights away”… guess I could not really call that a discussion, but more a regurgitation of slogans.
Let’s go to the source and review what the Second Amendment to the Constitution says:
“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.”
Four phrases, divided by three commas:
“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”.
The first phrases declares an identified Militia, specifically one that is well regulated. Oh, who put that REGULATION word right into the amendment! Must have been Jame Madison! Thus, he was not thinking about any willy-nilly group of gun owners, gun clubs, hunting clubs, white supremacist groups, or religious cults. Given his experience with the Revolutionary War and Colonial/State militias, he was thinking of a government organized, trained, and sanctioned defense group. Today, this would be our various branches of the military (active duty and reserves), National Guard units, state and local police forces. I still cannot find anyone who beats his chest about his right to a gun who can tell me what militia he belongs to.
The second phrase addresses the security of the State. This phrase is dependent upon the first phrase about the Militia. This is about the necessity of gun possession in order to fulfill the prior statement. Again, I do not see hunting, sport or target shooting, Olympic biathlon, or self-defense mentioned in the amendment. Granted, if you live in a rural area, as I do, with geography that would require at least 45 minutes for the county sheriff’s patrol car to reach me, personal possession of a weapon is your first line of defense, if that is your mind-set. In which case, take the advise of my neighbor to practice shooting your weapon at close range when you believe that some intruder threatens you (Unfortunately, two of the times that I know of this neighbor pulling his weapon on someone were when other neighbors went to check on him because of concern for his safety. Fortunately, he also believes that you must identify and warn your target with assurance before firing, thus both neighbors could retreat safely.)
The third phrase is the statement about the right of the people to possess arms in their homes. I believe that this served two functions. Keeping arms at home, meant that they were not kept at armories.
Armories were then controlled by the colonial governments, which could then prevent individuals or rebel militia groups from distributing the weapons. Colonial Virginians, Madison among them, recalled the time that June 1775, when Lord Dunmore authorized the removal of the locks from the rifles, then had the gunpowder from the Williamsburg Armory slipped out at night. His explanation was that the was concerned of a slave revolt. Yeah, right. The colonist knew that he was preventing the potential of the colonists from seizing the weapons and gunpowder in the armory to rebel against the British forces. By assuring that USA citizens could keep weapons at home, Madison was assuring that the government could not control the weapons and thereby oppress any dissent from citizens.
Also, keeping arms at home was practical as the Frontier (out here in the Appalachian Mountains) was settled. Whether for self-defense from wild animals, highway men (e.g. robbers), or raids from Native American groups, isolated settlers wanted the weapons close by, not in an armory several hours to days travel away. Having rifles at home also gave the settlers a means of hunting… no groceries stores near by. But, the amendment does not state self-defense nor hunting explicitly.
But, going back the two prior phrases, the purpose of keeping and bearing arms was to be part of a militia and for the security of the State.
The final phrase presents a grammatical structure decision. Which prior phrase does “shall not be infringed” modify? Most people string “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms” with “shall not be infringed”. Thus, they interpret the Second Amendment as assuring their gun rights.
But, that comma divides those two phrases. If Madison wanted these two ideas to be one, he would have left out the comma. He inserted the comma. Grammatically, this implies that the preceding phrase modifies something other than the following phrase. Grammatically, dependent clauses could be removed to allow the phrases split by commas to form a full statement, an independent clause. Thus, these are our options:
“A well regulated Militia shall not be infringed.” That makes sense.
“Being necessary to the security of a free State shall not be infringed”. Huh? Does not work. No subject to the sentence.
“The right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.” This works, but is not what Madison wrote. If this is all he wanted to say, he would not have written the other two phrases.
Also, combining the other phrases do not make sentences:
“A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State,” has no verb.
“A well regulated Militia the right of the people to keep and bear Arms” has no verb.
“Being necessary to the security of a free State the right of the people to keep and bear Arms” lacks a subject and verb.
If you believe that Madison understood language, your options are for the government to not infringe on well regulated militia or people to keep and bear arms. Madison’s comma directs me to the former. Justice Scalia argued the later idea in District of Columbia v. Heller, in 2007. Scalia conveniently ignored the orignal intent because he ignored the comma that Madison inserted.
But, notice that nearly 200 years went by before the Supreme Court (not the legislature) declared that individuals could possess hand guns for the belief in self-defense. Previously the Second Amendment was about the security of a free state against tyranny.
Well, that genies is out of the bottle. We must get back to the responsibilities of gun owners… later.