All this talk about the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has caused me to do a little research. No one would ever accuse me of being well-versed in the constitution or any of the specific rights affected by the Bill of Rights. I can now understand how someone could spend an entire career in the law dealing only with the interpretation of those august documents.
I like to break things down into consumable parts,using everyday language and as few words as possible. As I read the Wikipedia entry about the Second Amendment, I made mental notes about the things I was learning for the first time. (Or, more likely, re-learning, since I studied such things in school – not that I particularly enjoyed it then.)
1) The Second Amendment does not establish the right to bear arms as a right. The right already existed, carried over from the same right in English law. What the Second Amendment prohibits is the ‘infringement’ of that pre-existing right.
2)There has been confusion and debate over the true meaning of the words in the Amendment; e.g., “bear arms” and “the people.”
3) Errors made by support staffs in the transcribing of notes and copying of text was just as problematic then as it is now, and it caused some subtle but important bases for argument and differences in interpretation.
The Founding Fathers were acutely aware of the time in English history that Catholic monarchs actually disarmed Protestant citizens in order to try to force their compliance with Catholic doctrine. The Bill of Rights and the Second Amendment therein was the remedy for any such future actions on the parts of Congress for any reason.
The reason they thought the right to bear arms referred to individuals themselves and not the formally convened state militias was because they knew a militia is made up of civilians called upon by the state to resist tyrannical actions on the part of the Feds. They reasoned that individual citizens needed to be armed when they got the call for state duty. They were separate and apart from the national army.
We know that in the formal language of government the phrase “the people” can have a dual meaning. One is singular – I am a person, you are a person, therefore we are people. The other meaning is collective – a government by the people, of the people and for the people –meaning everyone in the United States who is not a government official or a politician.
The fairly well-annotated entry in Wikipedia on the Second Amendment states:
There are several versions of the text of the Second Amendment, each with slight capitalization and punctuation differences, found in the official documents surrounding the adoption of the Bill of Rights. One version was passed by the Congress, while another is found in the copies distributed to the States and then ratified by them.
As passed by the Congress:
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.
As ratified by the States and authenticated by Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State:
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 version passed by the Congress is unclear in its meaning given the placement of the commas. Did William Lambert, in an effort to improve the readability alter the emphasis of the amendment? Did Congress mean “a free State”, as in the country as a whole? That would be the presumed reason for the capitalization of “State.” Did the states, given their paranoia about the ability of the federal government to infringe on their rights to bear arms, ratify the second (and mistaken) version only because it seemed to clearly use the word state to mean each individual state and not the union?
We’ll never know the answer to those questions for certain. What we do know, however, is that the amendment’s wording has caused differences of interpretation that have only compounded over the ensuing 223 years.
Today we are divided between those who believe the rights of the individual freedom to own and use firearms are paramount, and those who believe the greater good of the collective population should trump individual rights. The same division existed in 1789 when the Congress convened to develop the Bill of Rights, and they exist to this day.
Other sources consulted: