Reading the 2nd Amendment

Wednesday, November 28th, 2007

Shannon Loves notes that when Reading the 2nd Amendment we should at least be aware of what the language used meant at the time:

The 2nd Amendment in its original form 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.

Today, “regulated” most commonly means, “placed under government oversight.” Militia implies the civilian reserve of the national military. “security of a free state” means protecting the national government from external attack. “The people” means all citizens considered in concert. Given these modern definitions and shadings, a naive reader might interpret the 2nd Amendment as stating:

A military reserve, supervised by the national government, being necessary to protect the State from external attack, the right of the people collectively to maintain and use weapons shall not be infringed.

In 1792, “regulated” as applied to military matters contained no connotation of political oversight or control. Instead, it meant trained and organized. In a time when soldiers fought by moving in large, coordinated formations, order meant everything to military effectiveness. They used “regular” in the sense we use when we speak of of a regular angle or polygon. “Regulated” military units were organized into consistent, interchangeable units that made battlefield information management more efficient. “Unregulated” military units were just unorganized groups of men that could not fight as effectively as did “regulated” units. The use of “regulated” versus “unregulated” held no connotations of political control at all but merely described the units’ state of military organization.

With the passage of time, armies raised by centralized governments proved more organized than those raised by citizens. The phrase “regular army” evolved to mean one controlled by a centralized authority and “irregular army” evolved to mean an ad hoc one. The original use of the words to describe the organizational state of the army at any given time disappeared.

In 1792, “militia” held no connotations of a military reserve. Instead, the term applied entirely to self-organized groups of citizens operating out of their own shared authority. A “militia” differed from an “army” in that a central executive such as a monarch raised armies, but when citizens acted themselves they raised “militias”. Nothing in the use of the word “militia” prior to the 20th Century implied any degree of state sanction. In both colonial and frontier times, groups of citizens raised “militias” on their own authority at any time of their choosing and organized them as they saw fit. Prior to the Civil War, most campaigns against Native Americans were carried out by militias organized in frontier communities. Indeed, for people of the founders’ generation, no current American military organization would qualify as a “militia”. State executives were given the authority to call out the militia but the inherent moral and legal authority to form a “militia” rested with the civilian population.

In 1792, “free state” did not mean a country free from external attack but rather a non-despotic government.

In 1792, “right” meant an inherent ability instead of the modern sense of “granted privilege” or “entitlement.”

In 1792, “the people” definitely meant “each individual citizen.”

In 1792, “keep and bear” meant “possess and use.”

In 1792, “arms” meant “weapons.”

So, if we update the language of the 2nd amendment into its modern equivalents we get something like:

Well trained and coordinated groups [of] citizens organized for military action being necessary to prevent the devolution of governments into despotism, the inalienable ability of individual citizens to possess and use weapons shall not be abridged.

James Bennett follows up with a comment on the times:

We should also remember that the Founders were referencing relatively recent historical experiences — ones that had overshadowed political discourse throughout their lives. If any American state were t attempt secession tday, we would view that event through the lens of the American Civil War even though that event was almost 160 years ago. So the founders viewed these issues through the lens of the Glorious Revolution, which was only a century previous — they had known witnesses to those events in heir childhoods. And the English Civil War was no more distant to them than the American one is to us today. To them, the threat to the “security of a free state” was exemplified by the Stuarts trying to disarm citizens’ militias in the years before 1688, or the professional New Model Army marching into Parliament to dismiss the members they disliked by force of arms. The Second Amendment is a real reaction to real-world events — and it specifically endorses the fundamental concept of an armed citizenry.

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