Mod: A great piece by award winning journalist Robert Parry that details how the NRA has distorted the true meaning of the 2nd Amendment. The consequences were seen once again this week, and will be again. The complete article is available at the link.
How 2nd Amendment Distortions Kill (Consortium News link): Many politicians, especially those on the Right, pretend they are strictly adhering to the U.S. Constitution when they often are just making the founding document mean whatever they want – but perhaps nowhere is that as dangerous as with their make-believe Second Amendment.
In the wake of Sunday’s mass shooting in Las Vegas – where one individual firing from a high-rise hotel murdered 59 people and wounded more than 500 at a country music festival – we are told that the reason the United States can’t do anything to stop this sort of carnage is the Second Amendment’s “right to bear arms.”
“Gun rights” advocates insist that pretty much any gun control violates the design of the Constitution’s Framers and thus can’t be enacted no matter how many innocent people die.
Some on the Right, as well as some on the Left, even claim that the Founders, as revolutionaries themselves, wanted an armed population so the people could rebel against the Republic, which the U.S. Constitution created. But the Constitution’s Framers in 1787 and the authors of the Bill of Rights in the First Congress in 1789 had no such intent.
Arguably other individuals disconnected from the drafting of those documents may have harbored such radical attitudes (at least rhetorically), but the authors didn’t. In fact, their intent was the opposite.
The goal of the Second Amendment was to promote state militias for the maintenance of order at a time of political unrest, potential slave revolts and simmering hostilities with both European powers and Native Americans on the frontiers. Indeed, the amendment’s defined purpose was to achieve state “security” against disruptions to the country’s new republican form of government.
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.”
In other words, if read in context, it’s clear that the Second Amendment was enacted so each state would have the specific right to form “a well-regulated militia” to maintain “security,” i.e., to put down armed disorder and protect its citizens.
In the late Eighteenth Century, the meaning of “bearing” arms also referred to a citizen being part of a militia or army. It didn’t mean that an individual had the right to possess whatever number of high-capacity killing machines that he or she might want. Indeed, the most lethal weapon that early Americans owned was a slow-loading, single-fired musket or rifle.
Further to the point, both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were the work of the Federalists, who – at the time – counted James Madison among their ranks.
And whatever one thinks about the Federalists, who often are criticized as elitists, they were the principal constitutional Framers and the leaders of the First Congress. They constituted the early national establishment, people such as George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris and Madison.
The Federalists feared that their new creation, a constitutional republic in an age of monarchies, was threatened by the potential for violent chaos, which is what European aristocrats predicted for the new United States. Democracy was a largely untested concept that was believed likely to fall victim to demagoguery and factionalism.
So, the Framers sought a political system that reflected the will of the citizens (the House of Representatives) but within a framework that constrained public passions (the Senate and other checks and balances). In other words, the Constitution sought to channel political disputes into non-violent competition among various interests, not into armed rebellions against the government.
So, the Federalists were seeking a structure that would ensure “Domestic Tranquility,” as they explained in the Constitution’s Preamble. They did not want endless civil strife.
The whole idea of the Constitution – with its mix of voting (at least by some white male citizens), elected and appointed representatives, and checks and balances – was to create a political structure that made violence unnecessary.
So, it should be obvious even without knowing all the history that the Framers weren’t encouraging violent uprisings against the Republic that they were founding. To the contrary, they characterized violence against the constitutional system as “treason” in Article III, Section 3. They also committed the federal government to protect each state from “Domestic Violence,” in Article IV, Section 4.
A grammar lesson for gun nuts: Second Amendment does not guarantee gun rights (Denver Post link): The Second Amendment is getting worked over again after the latest assault rifle massacre, and the usual suspects are issuing dire warnings that gun-control advocates want to undermine the constitution and take away freedoms and rights granted there.
However, unless you believe that the Founders’ knowledge of grammar and sentence structure was suspect (and what right-thinking person would think that?), the Second Amendment, though it does employ a peculiar and sometimes awkward construction called an “absolute,” is actually a very straightforward call for the establishment of an armed militia when necessary. It has nothing to do with individual gun “rights” except in that context.
The amendment reads as follows: “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 main argument about the amendment has always been a semantic one: What is meant? What is the intention? I use the present tense, because grammatical deconstruction is done in the here and now. We are not trying to divine intentions from our personal beliefs of what the Founders “stood for” or what they “believed.” The Founders are dead, but their words remain alive in the present, and their words, as well as their meticulous grammatical construction, leave no doubt as to their intentions.
Read these sentences:
“Their project being complete, the team disbanded.”
“Stern discipline being called for, the offending student was expelled.”
Reading the Second Amendment as “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right to bear arms shall not be infringed,” clearly shows the same causal relationship as the example sentences; in this case, that the right to bear arms shall not be infringed because it is essential to maintaining a well-regulated militia.
Gun rights advocates such as the NRA have rather successfully pushed the notion that the first clause of the Second Amendment is merely prefatory, a sort of rhetorical throat-clearing before the substantive clause about “rights.” Too, certain linguists have said that, as an “absolute” clause (one that is grammatically separate from the main clause), the first clause has no bearing and thus conveys no limitations on the “right” of the second clause. However, no less a constitutional authority than Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall disagrees, declaring that “it cannot be presumed that any clause in the constitution is intended to be without effect.”
Thus, to call the first clause of the Second Amendment superfluous is to insult both Marshall and the framers. The “absolute” clause construction of the Second Amendment was quite common at the time, and appears in many state constitutions and framing documents. The primary purpose in these constructions is to give the conditions under which the rest of the sentence is true or valid. As a prime example of the ablative absolute, the first clause of the Second Amendment may stand grammatically free, but serves semantically to modify or clarify the meaning of the rest of the sentence.
The Framers were clearly familiar with the ablative absolute and used it not as rhetorical fluff or flourish, but as a way of clarifying intent, in this case clarifying that the right to bear arms is granted in the context and within the scope of establishing a militia. Nothing more, nothing less.
So today, when the paranoid fringe faction of the NRA howls that gun control is an assault on our Second Amendment rights, we might ask, which rights are those?
Unless they mean the right to “bear arms” (itself a military phrase) in the service of a well-regulated militia, they’re just blowing smoke. The NRA is free to lobby all they want for the freedom for citizens to own whatever gun they choose — it’s their right. But to say that gun control somehow attenuates individual gun rights “guaranteed” by the Second Amendment, well, that’s just wrong.