Sunday, June 24, 2018

Phasers on Stun Part II – 2A Deconstructed

The 2nd Amendment was enacted on December 15, 1791 along with the other initial ten amendments adopted as part of the Bill of Rights. Considering the volume of attention and controversy surrounding it, you’d think it was this titanic, ‘War & Peace’-length document brimming with provocative language and groundbreaking ideas.

It isn’t. Here’s what it 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.”

Before we get going, I want to take a moment to present a different version. Here’s the 2nd Amendment as written by Donald Trump.

“A well regulated Militia” – I love militias. Big fan of militias. We’ve got a lot of militias here. Best in the world. Militias have never been better since I took office. We’re gonna make them even bigger. – “being necessary to the security” – I’m all about security; most important thing, security. America is totally secure, by the way. Most secure country in the world, especially since I took office. I’ve made America more secure than any other president. Once we build the wall we’ll be even more secure; gotta have that wall to make America great. Not that it’s not great, especially since I took office. Best it’s ever been. – “of a free State” – Freedom, very important. Most important thing, freedom. I’m all about freedom. We’re gonna make America free again; freer than it’s ever been. Also like states. We’ve got a lot of states here in this country. At least 50 of them. That’s right, right? 50 states? I own a lot of property in states. I’m gonna make a lot more of them so I can put more property in them. We’re gonna have the best states we’ve ever had; better than anywhere else in the world. – “the right of the people” – That’s RIGHT of the people, not the left. Crooked Hilary’s left and look where that got us. If I hadn’t beaten her more than any other president has beaten any other opponent in history, we’d be in a lot of trouble, gotta tell you. – “to keep and bear Arms” – everyone should have arms. Very important, arms. I have two of them; use them every day. Better than anyone else. No one’s got arms like me. – “shall not be infringed.” – Not sure what infringed means so it’s gotta be bad. Not liking infringed; nothing I do as President is gonna be infringed. I’m the anti-infringe President. This is a great amendment! Best amendment there’s ever been! No one’s ever had a better amendment. We’re gonna be looking at the other amendments to make sure this one’s the best. I’m gonna make it the 1st Amendment became my amendment is better than the rest of the amendments. Not a big fan of the 1st Amendment we have now. The Dems made that amendment. Totally fake news! Gotta get rid of that one. 2nd Amendment 1st! 2nd Amendment 1st!”

We’ll work with the original version for this post.

Let me state outright that my goal here is to decode 2A’s language in layperson terms and thereby provide a clearer picture of what the amendment actually says. Part of the challenge in doing that is that the English language is not a static thing. It’s continuously evolving, so some of the words aren’t used in the same way as they were when the amendment was written. Therefore, we must employ a certain degree of interpretation and sociological context to this process. From a mechanics perspective, we must break down those 27 words into individual terms and phrases, then put them back together to gain a more robust understanding of 2A’s language. We’ll be calling on our dear friend, Merriam-Webster (M-W) for assistance. Here’s a link to their website:

We’re going to be doing some high-end wordsmithing here so buckle up. Here we go…

The first thing we need to establish is that from a grammatical standpoint, 2A is horrendously written. The fact that it’s so poorly constructed is one of the main reasons there’s so much controversy surrounding it. The language is unclear. Therefore, the meaning is muddled. Any English teacher on the planet would justifiably eviscerate a student who composed something like this. Try reading it out loud (the best editing tool on the planet, by the way). It’s not even an actual sentence! It’s four chunks of semi-related phrases dumped onto the page.

At first glance, there appears to be two subjects in the sentence:

1)      Well regulated Militia (The missing hyphen between ‘well’ and ‘regulated’ is killing me, by the way. My fellow grammar geeks totally get me on this. The rest of you simply cannot know my pain.).  
2)     Right of the people.

Let’s do a bit of touch-up.

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, AND the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Addition of the word “and” brings more cohesion to the sentence but it’s still clunky. Further, we have an interpretation problem in that there may NOT in fact be two subjects. “Right of the people” may be endemically connected to “well regulated Militia,” given the definition of “Militia” at the time 2A was written (more on this below), making “and” even more problematic.

Let’s try it another way:

NEITHER a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, NOR the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall be infringed.” (removed “not” from between “shall” and “be.”)

Go ahead. Read it out loud. Three simple changes bring elegance, flow, and most importantly, clarity to the sentence.

But of course, there’s a “Buuuut…”

We still don’t know if that’s what was intended in the composition of the language. Is “right of the people” a separate entity or is it part of the definition of “well regulated Militia”? The amendment is maddeningly obtuse!

On that cheery note, now that we’ve gotten forest component out of the way, let’s take a look at the trees.

We begin with the opening phrase, “well regulated militia.” This phrase is highly problematic for a number of reasons, but one of its primary challenges is that it meant something different at the time it was written than it does today. As written THEN, “well regulated Militia” refers to a militia that is consistent and well-organized. As interpreted NOW, the phrase refers to a militia that is subject to tight legislation.

M-W reports the definition of ‘regulated’ as follows:

Definition 1
a: to govern or direct according to rule
b1: to bring under the control of law or constituted authority
b2: to make regulations for or concerning, e.g. regulate the industries of a country

Definition 2
To bring order, method, or uniformity to, e.g. regulate one's habits

Definition 3
To fix or adjust the time, amount, degree, or rate of, e.g. regulate the pressure of a tire

We’re going to immediately dispense with Definition 1b2. It’s obtuse to include a variation of the actual word you’re defining in the definition of that word.

Next, we’ll do away with Definition 3 since it doesn’t apply in this context. We’ve already narrowed the field significantly. Our options now read as follows:

Definition 1
a: to govern or direct according to rule
b1: to bring under the control of law or constituted authority

Definition 2
To bring order, method, or uniformity to, e.g. regulate one's habits

I’m floating toward Definition 2 as being closest to the pure meaning of the word.

As some of you may know, I work with medical students in my day job. Part of my responsibilities involve processing evaluations from hospitals where the students complete clinical training periods called rotations in various medical specialties. Some of them do rotations in the UK. The British use English differently than we do. In certain respects, they use the language in its more ‘traditional’ form.

Why am I telling you this? Because a word that often appears on the UK student evaluations I receive is ‘regular,’ a variant of ‘regulate’ in the Definition 2 sense. For example, they’ll indicate something like, “Dr. Jones was regular in attendance.” Therefore, when we regulate something in the UK, it often means we’re bringing consistency and/or organization to it.

In contemporary America, ‘regular’ is most frequently used as a synonym for ‘normal,’ or ‘common’ e.g. just a regular guy. Further, ‘regulate’ is something very different here. We use that word in a manner consistent with Definition 1 above, i.e. ‘regulate’ as a form of ‘regulation.’

So, let’s take a look at ‘regulation.’

On a side note, M-W does something very interesting with their definitions. They include a general definition at the top followed by various categories. One such category is directed to kids. That’s the best one in the case of ‘regulation.’ It reads as follows:

Definition 1
A rule or law telling how something is to be done, e.g. safety regulations.

Definition 2:
The act of controlling or bringing under control, e.g. the regulation of water flow.

Both definitions are clear and concise, but they also illustrate the differences in the way we generally use the word vs the way the UK generally uses it. Definition 2 is more in line with the UK. It’s more traditional in nature and therefore closer to the way it was used in the context of 2A.

Now we have to look at ‘militia.’ In doing a bit of research, I found that this term is VERY broadly defined, and as with ‘regulate,’ its definition changes depending on the time period / context we’re talking about. At the time 2A was written, a militia could be defined as a group of armed citizens (some legal/legislative descriptions specify “men” because as we know, all women are delicate flowers who can’t handle weapons and ostensibly belong in the kitchen) not officially associated with the government but acts under its direction in response to specific threats / crises.

Use of militias was far more significant in the context of our national defense at the time 2A was written than it is now. The fact that the term is capitalized adds credence to this notion. Back then, militias were routinely mobilized to provide support to government forces because the US military simply wasn’t expansive and sophisticated enough to do the job of protecting our nation on its own.

Today, the US military is immensely powerful and resourceful, capable of handling most any problem they encounter. That doesn’t mean we don’t need militias. It means we need them in a different way, which brings us to a more contemporary context for the term. The National Guard was founded as a militia. Though it was later incorporated into the US military, it still functions in much the same way it did at its inception. The NG helps our country in times of need. Though they continue to provide critical support for military operations all over the world, their role has expanded to include civil unrest, natural disasters, domestic terrorism, and other such challenges. Even if they weren’t helping on the front lines, they would still be critical to the welfare of our country. However, the NG cannot technically be considered a ‘militia’ since they are now a component of the US Army. Militias, if defined as a non-governmental force, are obsolete and do not need to be accounted for in the context of the US Constitution. The term should be removed from the amendment.

Moving on.

“Being necessary to the security of a free State” obviously qualifies the previous phrase but given our discussion above, a “well regulated Militia” is in fact, NOT “necessary.” The capitalization of “State” implies that a militia serves some sort of official governmental purpose. Again, outside of organizations like the National Guard, this is simply not the case.

Now we come to the heart of the amendment, the part that is responsible for so much chaos, misunderstanding, and irrationality.

“The right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

The “bear arms” phrase is frequently misunderstood because the spelling of the word “bare” as in, ‘to uncover,’ did not come into use until 1803, over ten years after 2A was written. Before then, the “bear” spelling was used for both the uncover context and in the context of “to carry.” What this means is that with regard to 2A, “bear arms” was a legislative rider referring to the right of the people to actually bare their arms, precipitated by the invention of the short-sleeved shirt.

But seriously…

The language here is pretty straight-forward. You can remove the comma after “Arms” and read it as a single sentence. It works perfectly.

On a side-note, I have no idea why ‘Arms’ is capitalized. There is no discernible reason why this term should receive proper noun status in this (or any) context.

To sum up this installment of my NRA / 2A miniseries, the reality is that 2A needs to be rewritten both for clarity, and to reflect modern interpretation of the language. It simply doesn’t do the job.

This is the power of bad writing in action. It has the potential to bring civilization to a grinding halt. I know that sounds melodramatic but it really isn’t. Someone needs to blue-pencil the Constitution.

In the next post of this series, we’ll explore 2A from a more interpretive perspective, with special focus on the NRA’s extremist, propagandistic abuse of the wording and meaning.

Thank you for reading.


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