In light of ongoing shootings, I am going to try to make this article more visible. It no longer makes sense to write, “In light of the recent shootings in” and name a location; mass shootings happen in the U.S. routinely; once upon a time, I wrote “almost routinely,” but that “almost” is now inappropriate. A debate about gun control follows each one, and invariably goes nowhere. Most people are sick of this stalemate, but the NRA pours money into campaigns to spread the view that the second amendment prohibits gun control. This view is based on a misreading of the text of the Second Amendment, as Chief Justice Warren Burger explained. We need to go back to the text to understand the gun control debate, and how it went so wrong.
The Second Amendment reads:
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.
This amendment begins with a grammatical construction called a “nominative absolute,” akin to the ablative absolute of Latin. This construction is no longer common, and people often claim that it’s not clear how to read it, but it actually is quite clear once you understand how the nominative absolute works. The most familiar use of the nominative absolute in modern English is the phrase, “that being the case,” which means, “because that is the case.” For example, if you have just explained that Amy Smith is your new best friend, the person you’re talking to may say, “That being the case, you should friend her on social media.” This sentence means, “Since that is so, you should friend her on social media.” A nominative absolute construction carries with it the meaning of “because,” “therefore,” or “so.” Thus, in the second amendment, the phrase “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state” means “Because a well regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state, therefore…” This phrase is critical to the meaning of the amendment.
There are two ambiguous words in the text of the amendment. The first is “State,” which may mean one of the federal states that comprise the United States, or it may mean “nation-state.”
The second ambiguous word is “people,” which can mean “a collective group of people,” as or more specifically, in this context, serve as another synonym for “nation” or for “state,” or it can mean “persons.”
Context can clarify which meaning is relevant for each of these words.
In the context of the first clause, that nominative absolute, the reading of “people” to mean “nation” or “state” is by far the more probable of these two options. Understood this way, the amendment means, “Because a well regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state, each state has the right to keep and bear arms.” This reading suggests that the Second Amendment explicitly permits each state to maintain a state militia. James Madison wrote the second amendment, and the rest of the Bill of Rights, in 1789, just a few years after the last British troops left New York and Congress signed the Treaty of Paris. State militias played the primary role in fighting the American Revolution, and so it is likely that Madison crafted this amendment specifically to support their endurance as an institution in the new country. In fact, the drafters of the constitution discussed their belief in the importance of maintaining the state militias, and this was indeed the purpose of this amendment.
“People” may also mean “country,” so it is also possible that the amendment means, “Because a well regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free country, the nation has the right to keep and bear arms.” This reading suggests that the second amendment justifies maintaining a standing army. Again, a look at the history of the Second Amendment can help us here. In fact, the men working on the constitution were focused on maintaining the state militias, rather than a federal army.
If “people” means “persons” in this amendment, then the first clause, the nominative absolute, would be entirely irrelevant, inserted into the amendment for no reason. That is highly improbable; James Madison would not have put a clause into a constitutional amendment if it was irrelevant to his meaning. Nonetheless, there is some history of debate as to whether the Second Amendment establishes the right of individuals to bear arms, or only of militias. The grammatical use of the nominative absolute is clear, however: the amendment establishes the right to maintain the state militias.
For more information on the Second Amendment and its history, click on these links:
An earlier version of this article was published in 2012 on the Examiner.com, a site that is now defunct.