Just 27 Words

Every once in a while you have an educational experience that has a profound influence on your life. Often the most important learning we do comes unexpectedly and has little to do with what we’d ordinarily be learning. And, even more unexpected is that decades later you might be using what you learned to analyze the wording of the 2nd Amendment of the United States Constitution.

For the most part, most of my undergraduate experience in college was less than inspirational. I took the experience seriously, but just enough to honor my commitments and keep my grades solid. Most of the classes were uninspiring (at least to me at that time) and I arguably didn’t do enough to get from them everything I could or should have. There was one class in particular, though, that was an elective I took as it looked somewhat interesting. It did, indeed, turn out to be extremely interesting, but it wasn’t at all what I had expected. I also did not expect to use what I learned in the class over and over again through my entire adult life.

The professor’s name, sadly, is lost to me after several decades. I don’t remember the name of the class either, but I still have the textbook, which was called Understanding Arguments. Our teacher, as I recall, was a somewhat odd man socially, but extremely intelligent and a wonderful teacher. I have described his class, which I took as an undergraduate, as being truly meaningful and important to my life, something I do not say about the vast majority of my undergraduate classes.

Essentially, the purpose of the class was for us students to learn how to dissect language such that: we could better decipher its “true” meaning and intent; we could verify its logical constructs and know when we were being presented illogical messages; we could identify various components of an argument as being fact or opinion; and, we would know when a presenter was weakening an argument by using hedges or attempting to strengthen one through exaggeration or hyperbole.

Which brings us to the matter at hand: The 2nd Amendment of the United States Constitution. The text of the amendment is a mere 27 words, but there is today a tremendous amount of disagreement over the meaning of those words. Here are the 27 words precisely as written.

“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.”

Interestingly, the disagreement over the meaning of the amendment is a relatively modern situation. For the vast majority of its existence—almost 200 years, actually—there was a strong consensus that its meaning created a right only within a military context, and, specifically, a “State” military context such that an overly “ambitious” Federal government could always be held “in check” by the individual States being properly “armed.”

When viewed within this context, there is no “right” of any individual citizen to bear arms outside of membership in a “well regulated militia.” Individual citizens would have, instead, a “privilege,” not unlike having a driver’s license, to bear arms subject to the laws of their federal and state governments. There is an enormous difference, legally, between a “right” and a “privilege,” which is why this issue is so passionately argued.

Personally, I think this historic understanding to be correct as I find the words as written clearly convey this understanding. This is not ideological—rather, it’s just a very careful reading of the passage and, as such, every word needs to be examined. Let’s break it down.

The United States has one of the world’s shortest constitutions. We also know that the wording within the document was fiercely debated and that the resulting text was the result of often hard-fought agreement and compromise. Therefore, we can safely conclude that the amendment’s authors were careful to not include “superfluous” narrative. Every word is, therefore, important.

As we look at the amendment closely, we also see that the 27 words are within a single sentence. As such, we can reasonably conclude that there are not separate “thoughts” here, but rather one cohesive statement with components that are interconnected to each other.

In other words, the language doesn’t express two separate ideas, which would be, essentially, “A well regulated Militia is necessary to the security of a free State” and “The right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” In fact, given that this is part of the Bill of Rights, the former component wouldn’t even make sense if stated merely on its own as it does not express any “right.” Thus, the only reason to include the opening words has to be to provide context to the right to be expressed in the concluding words. Otherwise, it would be “superfluous” and the framers and authors just didn’t do “superfluous.” Ambiguity sometimes, yes, but never fluff.

People occasionally argue about the use and placement of commas with regard to the amendment, but clumsy as they may be, I don’t see where the meaning is fundamentally changed by moving, adding, or removing commas. There is a clear setting of context, then the expression of the right.

Let’s now get down to individual words and see what we can glean from them. I think it’s telling that the first words written are, “A well regulated militia.” It is important to note that they didn’t just write, “A militia.” The authors, who as noted above were parsimonious in their use of words, intentionally included the words “well regulated,” which strongly suggests that “arms” were not to be available without any constraints whatsoever. Clearly, they had an interest in legal guidelines with regard to the possession of “arms” and even set a bar by using the words “well regulated.”

Similarly, there is clear intent that the formation of armed militias was a matter for each of the “States.” The Framers also express clearly the interest of the “State”: that is, “security of a free State.” The amendment does not support any random group of individuals getting together, buying armaments, and declaring themselves a legitimate militia. It expects oversight by the state with the end goal being security of the people’s freedom.

Furthermore, the authors defined those who have the right to bear arms as “the people.” Just as the 1st Amendment talks of the “right of the people peaceably to assemble,” this is the people as in “the people as a whole.” The Bill of Rights uses such terminology when speaking of a group of individuals and uses the term “person” when speaking of an individual. Thus, the 2nd Amendment would appear to refer to a collective right and not an individual right.

So, just breaking down the language used as it is constructed, it is easy to see how until the 1970s there was pretty universal agreement of the meaning and intention of the amendment. The statement seems clear.

Today, however, the amendment is very often read to simply mean, “the right to bear arms.” Interestingly, this understanding seems to have been affirmed by a (slim) majority of the “legal scholars” on the Supreme Court in 2008.

Frankly, I think it takes a very fanciful reading of the amendment to get there. I would say that the 27 words originally written have to be very much cherry-picked within the context of a reader’s personal interest to arrive at this recent interpretation.

Heretofore, my discussion has been around a lexical analysis of the actual words and language as written. I’ve heard and read many arguments that differ from my conclusions, but from a purely logical perspective, the words as written appear to me to convey a limited (“well regulated”) right to “the people” collectively to bear arms. Outside of militia membership, there is no “right” to bear arms. Individual citizens may have the privilege, but no enshrined right.

If one reads the amendment in this way, then our various legislative bodies are left with the task of defining “gun privileges” for individuals. I am fine with that arrangement. Guns have always been a part of American life and, for the majority of our history, their use by ordinary citizens has not created significant issues for our society. As such, I am perfectly okay with individuals possessing guns. That has always been part of the culture and I am certain that properly overseen, reasonable public safety requirements can be met. My views can be summed up within a few short “Hell, no” statements.

Does the Constitution grant an individual right to possess arms? Hell, no (see above). Should individuals be prohibited outright from gun ownership? Again, Hell, no. I know numerous gun owners who keep them for hunting and personal safety and I trust each of them to be responsible with their weapons. However, should individuals have the right to possess military-grade weaponry? Hell, no! Should we be lackadaisical about who is allowed to own guns? Hell, no! I’ve encountered numerous people in my life who should never have access to firearms.

It is precisely in highly contested situations like this that we require good and competent governance. We need government because we all live together and your rights and privileges end where mine begin. And, it can be difficult to set that meeting point in such a way that what is yours and what is mine are both respected and honored. Actually, that is precisely what makes governing hard. But, that is the job of government and we should be able to trust that our elected officials can and will do their job, even when it may be difficult.

I am neither a lawyer nor any kind of legal or Constitutional scholar. However, I am a reasonably bright person and can read 27 words of plain English and come to a reasonable and defensible understanding of their meaning. And, my reading of the 27 words of the 2nd Amendment (all of them) lead me to a belief that a failure to properly regulate firearms amongst the people is itself, minimally, inconsistent with the intentions of the Framers.

We are certainly failing with regard to our being “well regulated” in this regard. Worse, our failure is morally reprehensible in light of of the tragedies continual mass shootings inflict on the unalienable and natural rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (as described in the Declaration of Independence) of the far too numerous victims, their families, and their friends. The “security of a free State” is in peril, which signifies another shortcoming in our meeting constitutional obligations.

The failure of our elected representatives to act to meet the Framer’s standard of “well regulated” in the interest of the “security of a free State” is, simply, profound in both a legal and a moral sense.