February 26, 2013

Commas -- they matter

As the 2nd amendment debate seems rage around me, I am reminded that, yes, comma placement matters.

My father was a hunter.  His father was a hunter.  I'm guessing this is true all the way up the lineage.  My brother is a hunter.  My mother's father was a gunsmith.  As is befitting my pedigree, I have actually gone hunting and shot both handguns and shotguns.  When my father died, I, as his executor, inherited his mail, including the NRA stuff.

So, unlike many of my bay area friends and acquaintances, I know many people on both sides of the gun violence debate, and I regularly see both sides.

Today, I saw yet another fervent reference to the 2nd amendment and I had to look to the actual text of the amendment to get my bearings -- it made me cringe:  

"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."

Clearly, the strong proponents of the 2nd amendment "Right to Bear Arms" believe that the last comma is not there.

The folks in favor of gun control seem to believe that either (i) the last two commas function to place the right to bear arms clause in an "ergo, in this limited situation" qualifier, or (ii) both comma delimited clauses between the subject and the verb predicate are descriptive, but not limiting.

Unfortunately, all interpretations are reasonable.

The Drafters were some worldly gentlemen.  There is no doubt the majority of them thought a local well-ordered and organized militia was important and should be protected.

But given the ambiguous language, I'm guessing there wasn't complete and utter majority on the "everyone should have a right to a gun" interpretation that is favored as the original intent today.

I say this easily, even though I'm not a scholar, because I know they definitely didn't come to a majority consensus to mean women should have a right to guns, and they certainly didn't think black people or Indians should have a right to guns.

I'm fairly certain that a subset of the Founders felt that Militias were important but that individual gun rights (even for property-owning white dudes) were not.  I doubt it was a majority of the signers, but I think it's why we have the comma wackiness and vagueness that leads to all the confusion we have today.

In the lens of the modern world, all I can think is that "kicking the can down the road" is obviously a time-honored tradition in the US government's legal history.


Arvay said...

I think the Founding Fathers had the recent events in our country's birth in mind. Citizens needed guns and private militiae to overthrow what they perceived as dictatorial rule.

In our modern times, even with the hugest and most powerful assault weapons that private citizens can buy, I still strongly doubt that a grassroots militia could overthrow the government today by firepower alone.

All of the whacky Alaskans and Texans could all band together with their homemade grenades and their AK-47s and anything else they could gather, and a single U.S government fighter jet could still wipe them all out with the push of a single button while the pilot is eating a sandwich with the other hand.

bt said...

@Arvay: I totally agree with that historical context, but I don't think the current analogous conversation is anything close to the conversation the country is having. I think the analogous conversation would be around one of the following (again, the vagueness between Militias and individuals):

a) local militias should be able to purchase and use fighter jets, cruise missiles, etc. in defense of liberty?

b) individuals should be able to purchase and use fighter jets, cruise missiles, etc. in defense of liberty?

Arvay said...

Right, although the line between a and b can be tenuous. If one day you got in a fight, and all of your friends rushed to defend you, is that an impromptu militia?

What I was getting at was that the current debate has nothing to do with the historical context. If you ask gun owners why they own guns, most don't say anything about overthrowing the government (aside from a few crazy people in Alaska and Texas :) ); most have a a list of reasons that range from the reasonable to the scary.