A Grammatical Reading of the Second Amendment

The second amendment is variously interpreted by those on the left to mean “Only the army has a right to have guns,” and by those on the right that “blah blah blah…people can own guns” or “we make up the militia that has a right to own guns.”

Both readings are wrong, and my junior year high school Latin class proves it.  There is, in fact, only one clear meaning to the amendment, which is “Because the government needs an army, the people need guns.”

Here’s the text:

“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 second clause is pretty straightforward grammatically (“the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”).  Here, “the people” means what it does anywhere else when used by the founding fathers: “we—the citizens.”  Any other reading of this second clause is wrong.

The first clause (“a well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state”) has long been recognized as what grammarians call an absolute (in English, it’s in the nominative—or subjective—case, in Latin it’s in the ablative, in Greek it’s in the genitive.)

An absolute clause has three interesting features to it:

1)      It lacks a proper verb, instead getting by with just a participle.

2)      It has a semantic connection to the rest of the sentence (i.e. it shows cause or circumstance).

3)      It is grammatically absolute, meaning “untied” (from the Latin absolutus, which mean, well, “untied.”  It’s the same word that gives us the theological word absolution, in the sense of our sins being untied from us).  That is to say, it’s grammar pieces (subjects, verbs) are not connected to the grammar pieces in the rest of the sentence.

It’s the second and third points here that help to elucidate the Amendment.

The connection between an absolute and the rest of a sentence is always as a qualifier, showing an idea of “because [the absolute], then [the other clause]” or “when [the absolute], then [the other clause]”

For example, another absolute in English might be “The day being rainy, we played inside.”  We properly see a causal connection between the first and second parts of the sentence and understand it as “Because the day was rainy, we played inside,” and not as two separate ideas like “It was rainy.  In a completely unrelated event, we played inside.”

Absolutes always show this kind of kind of connection between the two clauses.  The absolute gives the circumstance or reason why the second clause happens.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but this causal connection has to be there.  It’s an essential part of what it means for something to be an absolute.

An absolute not connected causally wouldn’t make any sense, as in “Tigers being striped orange and black, there is tea in the pot.”  Our mind naturally tries to put a connection between the two, because that’s how English works, and when we can’t find the connection, we reject the sentence as nonsense.

So, then, what’s wrong with reading is as “Since a militia is necessary, we, the people who make up the militia, get to have guns” or “We, the militia, are necessary and so we need guns” or “The people who are part of the militia need guns”?

It’s the third feature of absolutes that tells us why.  Namely, an absolute is unconnected grammatically from the rest of the sentence, which means that the subject of the first part cannot be the subject of the second part.  This means that the “militia” in the first part cannot be referring to the same thing as “the people” in the second part.  They’re not interchangeable.

Again, this is an essential feature of the grammar.  Something like “The cat being tired, it took a nap” would have to be read as “Because the cat was tired, something besides the cat took a nap.”  Again, any other reading would be a misinterpretation of what the grammar says the sentence has to mean.

So if the militia is not the people, what is it?

It’s the army.  Which we need for our security.  Because sometimes the British or French or Indians, or whoever, shoot at us or invade our country or try to steal our land or whatever.  Accordingly, the government (the citizenry incorporate), need to put together an army for the defense of our freedom from time to time.

A posse might be good enough to hunt down Senor Bandito in a Western, but if we’re gonna stop the British, we need a legit, well-regulated fighting force at our disposal.

So what about the second part? And both parts together?

Well, what was the colonists experience with armies?  In the 1760’s, the British army had protected them from the French and (some) Indians.  But a decade later, it was shooting Crispus Attucks in Boston.  Armies were necessary, but there had to be some check on the government using them against the people.

(The teacher in me really hopes light bulbs just went on above your heads)

Therefore, since we need to have an army sometimes, but also because that army can both protect and threaten our liberty, we have to have a way to discourage the army (and the government) from using the army as a tool of oppression: namely, we arm ourselves, as a polite reminder to keep their guns pointing at our enemies and not us.

Accordingly, the only fair reading of the second amendment is, to paraphrase, “Because we have to have an army, the people that the army is supposed to be protecting need weapons, too.”

It was the Founders’ answer to quis custodiet ipsos custodes?  Who will guard our guards?  We will.

There are implications to this.  First, it gives a definitive answer to the “Why are we allowed to have guns?” question.  The answer is not hunting or even personal self-defense.  The raison d’etre for our right to arm ourselves is to protect us against the army that we need.

(I will lead it up to the reader to decide if cops in riot gear and armored cars constitute a well-regulated militia or not.  And whether or not the Founding Fathers, who went to war when an unarmed black man was shot by police in Boston in 1773, would like what we’ve got going on in our communities).

More importantly, though, it completely destroys the progressive idea that somehow, the writers of the Bill of Rights felt the need either to say “we can have an army” or alternately “our army can have guns,” which would have been akin to “we can have secretaries” or “our secretaries can use pens and their pen-using is so controversial that we will amend the very laws of our government to enshrine their pen-ability in perpetuity.”

And my Dad told me that majoring in Classics was a waste of time.

Real and Imaginary

So there’s an element of the unequal treatment of blacks by police officers that I’m not sure has achieved much attention.

Namely, the matter of feelings.

Here’s the set-up:  some asshole puts up a flag with a swastika on it in his front yard.  He’s disabled war vet, a little disheveled in the brain pan, but is not actually a direct danger to anyone.  He just likes to think of himself as part of the neo-Nazi community.  He’s a fanboy of Hitler, much like a Brony admires Twilight Sparkle.  There is no actual danger here.

His neighbor, a kindly Jewish woman, feels threatened by this and asks the man to take it down.  “Free speech, you wrinkled old hag” he responds, thinking the matter settled.  The woman calls the police, who approach the man, who is then charged with intimidation/terrorization/hate speech/whatever local ordinance covers this.

“Hooray!” responds progressives, “the racist is going to jail!”  No actual threat has been averted, no danger deactivated, however.  The woman felt threatened, even though no actual threat existed.  The same level of actual threat exists to her, even with the man gone.  That is to say, a threat exists outside of one’s own perceptions.  It is its own thing.

Now, we move locales.  A police officer, new to the job perhaps, pulls over a car with the music thumping.  He approaches the car and is greeted by a black man.  The police officer, due to bias, racism, nervousness, or whatever other feeling, thinks himself threatened by the black man.  No actual threat, but the officer’s feelings are no less real than the old Jewish woman’s.  He orders the to get out his ID, and so the black man reaches for his glove box.

Seeing an unexpected movement, the officer, already in a state of heightened fear, starts putting bullets into the car and into the man, killing him.

Did the officer fear for his life?  Did the old woman? Of course.  Was there any actual, tangible danger to either?  Had either actually been harmed? No.

But both were made to suffer fear, and in both cases, both the neo-Nazi and the black man ended up being victims in a scenario where neither intended to give offense.

College campuses today are filled with trigger warnings, speech codes, and safe spaces.  These are meant to protect the student not only from real threat, but also from perceived threat, which is another way of saying imagined threat.  The girl in college who demands that all men resembling her rapist be removed from the school is not proposing a solution to a real threat any more than the phantom fears of whites in the 1940’s that kept blacks (or Jews) out of certain neighborhoods.

The school movements that claim that the mere mention of slavery in a book should allow some students to be exempt from studying it are figments of the same imagination-indulgence that allows us to say that if a police officer feels threatened, he is justified in shooting.

If his feelings are, well, feelings, and not accurate appraisals of a situation, and his feelings end up killing someone, he’s a shitty cop.  Just as we demand evidence in a criminal trial, we need to demand actual things as justification for actions.

All of us have known teachers (either as co-workers or as students) who didn’t have the mental toughness to deal with unruly students, which is a fundamental part of the job.  If you can’t do the fundamental part of the job, you shouldn’t be doing that job.

A teacher who can’t control a classroom should be fired.  A cop who misreads a situation to the point where someone dies should be fired.  A doctor who messes up diagnoses to the point where people die.  People who are bad at their jobs should be fired.  A student who can’t study because of paranoia shouldn’t be in school.

These might not be criminal offenses, and an officer who panics and shoots an innocent man probably is not a criminal, but he certainly is a bad cop who should be fired.  Training is training, and the job is the job.  There will always be people-in any profession-who make it through the training but then can’t hack it in the real world.

Like any other kind of job negligence, the family should be compensated by the police department who put someone out into the streets with a gun who shouldn’t have been there and the offending officer fired (and probably blacklisted from law enforcement).

But we can’t have our cake and eat it too.  We can’t both say that a police officer has to deal with real things and not just his fears, but then also turn around and allow our students special exemptions from learning for the sake of their imaginations.

That is to say, we can’t fairly allow some members of society to impose their will on others based on the imaginary without allowing everyone to.  Everyone has to live in the real world.