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Defining the Second Amendment (For Us Laypersons)

Updated on July 26, 2017

Yes, I'm still thinking about guns. I probably will be until our people come together on a decision. One that doesn't scare the pants off either side of the argument. Frankly, it's hard to see that coming to a close any time soon. Both sides of the debate see doom in giving in to the other side of the argument, and when people approach a topic in fear, there's no room for compromise.

Right now, I want to talk about the second amendment. We're going to look at the text, talk about the most popular arguments I've heard, and address the meaning of the amendment itself. This isn't the perspective of someone who's well versed in constitutional law. This is the perspective of someone who has a firm grasp of American English, and some understanding of how language evolves through time and culture.

First, let's look at the text. Some people like to argue that there are multiple versions of the second amendment. While this is true, I feel that's a smoke screen to fuzz the issue in their favor. I'm going with the version ratified by the state and authenticated by Jefferson (I'd call this the finished product. You know, since it's the final one decided upon. Kind of makes that the official version, don't you think?) It can be found in the national archives and through Wikipedia:

“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.”

From the national archives.
From the national archives. | Source

“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 Comma

One of the biggest talking points I've heard on this subject is the comma. A comma can be used more than one way. Because of this, people argue about the intent of it's use here. Some say it's merely to give a pause in breath. This would mean the sentence would simply run on without the comma. Other's argue it's obviously there to connect two ideas. The idea being that the comma means the first idea (a well regulated militia) is dependent upon the second (the right of the people to bear arms). I say: It doesn't matter. If it's merely to give pause in breath, the two ideas are connected. If not, the two are still connected and the comma's use is to clarify that the first part explains the second. That's what a sentence is; a complete thought. Or at least, it's what a sentence should be. As our founders worked very hard to use the English language properly, we can assume they tried to create complete sentences. Even if they are lengthy. So both reasons are present. The ideas are connected.

“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state,” is not a complete sentence. This portion requires additional information to be understood. It could read: “A well regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state.”Like this, the first part is self explanatory. This is why it's not a separate sentence. If it were a separate sentence, it would offer a complete idea separate from the next portion. The fact that it is part of the following idea implies it's importance on the complete sentence. In our modern way of speaking it could read, “Because a well regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state,” as the meaning would be the same. It is a clarifying statement.

The next idea: “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” This itself is a complete sentence. The addition of the first portion clarifies why this portion is important. If we threw out the first portion, this would still make sense. “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Breaking this one down is comical to me. It seems so simple and clear, yet we, with our amazing ability to see context differently, can debate this for ages. The first thing I'm going to do is give some definitions. Without clear definition, its easier to skew what we are reading. We'll turn to the Oxford Dictionary for this. Why? Because Oxford uses older definitions and doesn't bow as deeply to incorrect modern usage as Webster does.

Fantastic historical photo of the 69th New York Militia 1861.
Fantastic historical photo of the 69th New York Militia 1861. | Source

Defining Regulate and Militia

I don't want to go to crazy on the definitions, but as I was writing this, I realized I had to include more than I wanted to if I were going to provide proper clarity.

Regulate:

2. control or supervise (something, especially a company or business activity) by means of rules and regulations

The other definitions are about regulating machinery, so we're going with this. Controlling or supervising by means of rules and regulations.

I realize there is much debate over what a militia is, so we'll define it.

Militia:

1. A military force that is raised from the civil population to supplement a regular army in an emergency.

1.1 A military force that engages in rebel or terrorist activities, typically in opposition to a regular army.

1.2 All able-bodied civilians eligible by law for military service.

Clearly, the people drafting the amendments saw need for all three of these definitions. Our country was founded by “rebels” committing “terrorist activities” For this very important reason, I'd say all three definitions are appropriate.

"The Right of the People to Keep and Bear"

“The right of the people” gets a surprising amount of debate. Defining rights isn't the problem, it's the word "people" that gets the attention. Some argue that in this context it means the people who are part of "a well regulated militia" only. Those who aren't part of the regulated militia are not addressed here. Others argue that people means every citizen of the United States. Personally, I think it means every citizen of the United States. The broadest reach of the term. For the sake of argument, I'm going to use the former. "People" in this passage only applies to those who are included under the title of "Militia." This means all able-bodied civilians eligible by law for military service, at the least. The right of those eligible for military service.

Let's move to “keep.” Keep seems so simple, but the arguments seem to get this one confused.


Keep: Verb

1. Have or retain possession of.

Pretty clear, I'd say. It goes on to use examples and gives other meanings (such as keeping someone until they're late), but this most closely matches it's context of use. To have or retain possession of. To own or otherwise hold.

Next, let's do “bear.”
Bear:
Verb

1. (Of a person) Carry: (Meaning, if it's in reference to a person, it means carry.)
Again, this first definition is clearly the context we are looking for. Feel free to read the definitions further. So, to “bear arms” would mean to carry “arms.” Which leads to our next definition.

"Bear Arms?"

Oops! Wrong type of bear. Great shot by Yathin, though.
Oops! Wrong type of bear. Great shot by Yathin, though. | Source

Defining "Arms"

Arms next. Arms get's debated a lot.

There is a lot of talk about the right to bear arms being about hunting and not warfare. I'm calling that a ridiculous notion altogether. I propose that if hunting were part of the equation, hunting would have been mentioned, and not security.

“They were talking about muskets, not automatic weapons!” This is the argument I hear most about arms. I'd like take this moment to agree. Because muskets were the most advanced killing machines readily available to the private citizen. It makes sense they would be thinking of muskets. However, let's see how arms is defined.
Arms:
Noun

Source

1. Weapons and ammunition; armaments (fun fact, “armaments” is defined as “military weapons and equipment.” "Military.")

The other definition refers to emblems, such as a “coat of arms” I think it's clear we need the first one.

So, “arms” is defined as “weapons and ammunition” with the added bonus of “military equipment.” It appears I was incorrect. No where in the definitions did it imply only guns.

Likewise it did not single out swords, tanks, or bombs. It simply covers ALL of these, since they are all weapons. It also covers body armor, emergency food kits, parachutes, radios, and other gear used by the military. "Military Equipment." The word “arms” quite simply stated means weapons and combative equipment of all kinds.

"But they were talking about muskets, not automatic weapons!” One may still argue. I have to add that there were also cannons and the dreaded howitzer at the time. These are obviously military weapons and so covered by the term "arms." It's a bit like saying, "Cannons are covered, but not an M16." Before we get too off topic here, we can debate the merits of whether or not we need to change the second amendment another time. This is just to clarify what the second amendment covers now. As is, it covers military equipment, so the argument that it doesn't cover automatic weapons is a bit silly in comparison.

BAE Systems Mantis UAS Concept Demonstrator
BAE Systems Mantis UAS Concept Demonstrator | Source

Defining "Infringe"

And finally, the whopper that get's the most attention.
Infringe:
Verb

1. Actively break the terms of (a law, agreement, etc.)

1.1 Act so as to limit or undermine (something); encroach on:

Since the second amendment is the agreement being set in place, there was not already a law to break. In other words, the first definition isn't really applicable. I'm thinking 1.1 is the meaning we are looking at. “act so as to limit or undermine."

To me, this is the – ahem–smoking gun. (Pardon the pun.)

"Act so as to limit the right to bear arms."

Okay, one more bonus definition. Undermine: (https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/undermine)

1Erode the base or foundation of (a rock formation)
‘the flow of water had undermined pillars supporting the roof’

1.1Dig or excavate beneath (a building or fortification) so as to make it collapse.
‘the demolition engineers did eventually undermine two of the tower's six sides’

More example sentences Synonyms

2. Lessen the effectiveness, power, or ability of, especially gradually or insidiously.
‘this could undermine years of hard work’

The first definition is in relation to buildings and architecture, so we can assume the second definition relates here. "Lessen the effectiveness, power, or ability of, especially gradually or insidiously."

All in all, I'd say the word "infringe" means to weaken, or take away from in any way.

Rewriting the Second Amendment

So, let's rewrite the same sentence, using the Oxford Dictionary's definitions as a guide. (The purpose of this being to provide clarity and nothing more.)

“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.”

"Because a well regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to own and carry military weapons and equipment shall not be limited or lessened."

So what's my conclusion? Reading all this and really breaking down the definitions, I'd say it's pretty clear the intent is to keep our government from placing any rules on weaponry at all. The citizens are supposed to have access to the equipment necessary to combat a domestic enemy, including our own government. That's only possible if we the people have access to the same equipment as our armed forces. What's more, it enables the people to help our armed forces in the case that another country attacks us on our own soil.

To those who say "a gun isn't going to protect you from a tyrannical government with drones." I already said it above but I'll reiterate. No. they are only the first step. A government with drones doesn't stand a chance against an educated public with the same resources at their fingertips. This is especially true if we are a united citizenry deposing a tyrannical governing body. But even this is straying farther from the point than I intended. The point is not what you can do with guns, it's what the second amendment says about them.

I do have other arguments in regard to gun control itself. Those articles will be linked below (once completed). In regard to the second amendment, this article is about as clear as I know how to be.

As always, I'd love to hear thoughts and opinions. (Though I'm half expecting hateful comments from the "peaceful" people who want "death causing weapons" banned. How I love irony.)

Sources:

  • Wikipedia (Yes, I used wikipedia as a source. In this case, it points right to the original source material in the National Archives. Wikipedia is a terrible source, but can lead to some great sources.)
  • Oxford English Dictionary

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    • kwade tweeling profile image
      Author

      kwade tweeling 5 weeks ago from USA

      lol Indeed. We've all experienced that, I think. Giving up doesn't do us any good though. Hopefully if we talk it out enough, trying new ways to communicate instead of just hammering on the same points over and over, we can make some headway understanding each other. It works for me in daily life, and sometimes on the internet. Maybe it will work more on the internet if I keep at it. ;)

      Thanks for the comment. Keep rocking the Pork-chop Express.

    • Jack Burton profile image

      Jack Burton 6 weeks ago from The Midwest

      Using facts and logic will only confuse some people who process issues thru what makes them feel good.