Saturday, June 03, 2006

The Right to Bear Arms and the necessity of a "well regulated militia"

Okay, I have long wondered at how gunloving Americans can prevail in this--yet another--non-debate in American culture and politics. I object on a grammatical, historical, and security-value level.

What has inspired this post, you may ask? The recent mass murder of a family in Indiana.
Let's begin by refreshing ourselves with the amendment itself.

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.

There is an excellent legal-academic thread on the grammar of this sentence at Metafilter.
As far as I can tell in my un-scientific, brief internet sampling of voices, the participial phrase does not restrict or condition the independent clause of the sentence. But what is that clause, the main point that is subordinated? Is it "A well regulated Militia...shall not be infringed?" No. It appears to be "[T]he right of the people to keep and bear Arms,(sic.) shall not be infringed." But we would not use that comma in the middle, which today would be considered a comma splice. We need to figure out what that comma means. Some interpretations (click here) argue that placing commas in the middle of independent clauses was not uncommon in the Revolutionary period. Okay, maybe.

The same commentator demonstrates that the part of the sentence beginning with "A well regulated" and ending with "State" is an absolute phrase, confusing, perhaps, because of the comma between "Militia" and "being." Absolute phrases consist of nouns plus participial phrases (-ing verbs), which modify the entire sentence, not just a noun. In that case, "The right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed" is an independent clause modified by the absolute phrases just discussed. What does it mean to modify something? When something is modified it is changed. In grammar, it is the meaning of the independent clause that is changed. Pro-gun interpreters insist that the absolute phrase does not restrict the meaning of the independent clause in any absolute sense. But why add this absolute phrase at all? They say this is just one example of the right to bear arms. Why mention it?

Here's where we get into the historical interpretations of the amendment's meaning/intention.
Consider this voice on Metafilter's discussion of the sentence:

" Ah, behold the "framers" of our Constitution, those precise grammarians who, in their wisdom and deep reverence for freedom, allowed Americans the inalienable rights to possess slaves *and* the latest in 21st century assault rifle technology.

It only took about a century to rid ourselves of the horror of slavery, and of course, our society still reels from the aftereffects another hundred years after Emancipation.

So it's not surprising that this particular nation will need time to mature further, to grow beyond the fear and childishness and fetishism that embraces guns. Perhaps another hundred years...hundreds of thousands of lives...

Grammatical arguments about the "framers'" intent pales beside what the "framing" has wrought."

And another:

"Fold_and_mutilate has a point though. Whatever the grammar, surely the intent was to arm a small group of farmers against hostile outside forces due to the lack of a standing army. Now the US has the biggest standing army in the world and little fear of sustained attack from any outside forces. Instead firearms are being used on American citizens, and rarely in defence of freedom. So surely the second amendment has ceased to be relevant to a discussion on firearms? Isn't that the point?"

So, the issue of the absolute phrase as a modifier aside, we have the issue of historical context and changing mores about guns and the costs/benefits of legalizing them and allowing them to be easily acquired. Clearly, we allow all sorts of things and behaviors to be regulated in the name of the public good/welfare. Americans cannot drink and drive, slaughter and sell meat without approval, use cocaine, hitchhike, etc., all as issues that threaten public safety/security when violated. Other practices of the Revolutionary period and beyond we now consider barbaric or impediments to freedom and security. Slavery and the franchise for non-property owners and women are a couple of examples. So, just because it enjoyed constitutional sanction in the 1790s does not mean that it should be continued today. That's an appeal to tradition fallacy.

Yes, hunters and libertarians who want to protect their homes, families, and posessions may be upset at an interpretation of the 2nd Amendment that deems gun ownership unprotected. However, ironically, widespread use of guns has become an issue of public security/safety where the public is actually threatened instead of protected by these weapons. It probably goes without saying then that I don't think the idea of everyone having a gun is an adequate solution to the frequent gun-related deaths in the U.S. The U.S. is an extremely conflict-ridden society with homicide and other crime statistics dwarfing other industrialized democracies. The U.S. ranks sixth in the world in homicide rates per/1000 people. Interesting how it follows turbulent new democracies. But Western Europe and Japan are behind, some far behind the oldest living democracy in the world.
50.14 South Africa
21.40 Russia (1999)
10.00 Lithuania
_9.94 Estonia
_6.22 Latvia
_5.64 U.S.A.
_2.94 Spain
_2.86 Finland
_2.84 Northern Ireland
_2.72 Czech Republic
_2.65 Slovakia
_2.58 New Zealand
_2.50 Romania
_2.31 Turkey (1999)

Of course, we need to ask why so much murder and crime in the U.S. and how might we curtail it? But we might also follow the lead of Europe and ban handguns.

The idea of a well-armed private citizenry being necessary for state security is ridiculous today. Why not let the most-advanced military in the world handle the issue of security? Handguns are not going to stop the U.S. government's firepower if it wants to use it on its citizenry (there the best safeguard would be vigilance and education on the part of the citizenry). And as for foreign enemies, a citizen's handgun or assault rifle is little use against nuclear weapons and terrorists piloting planes, mailing anthrax (remember that buried story?) and poisoning water supplies.

In the name of security and freedom, ban handguns and let the infantile adults play with bb guns. Until then, freedom and security of the majority is enormously threatened.

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