It’s a good of example of the problems that unclear writing can cause. Can we blame the deaths of kindergarten kids on poor sentence structure? This short bit of 18th century English prose, the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, at least has the virtue of terseness if not clarity:
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.
Is it talking about the rights of states to form militias, or the rights of individuals to possess firearms, or both? It is the second of the ten amendments collectively known as the Bill of Rights. It comes right after the linchpin of our rights to freedom of speech and religion (though maybe you could have clarified the religion thing a little bit more, founding fathers), the First Amendment. I’m not sure the amendments are listed strictly in order of importance though, as the next amendment (the Third, for those of you not keeping track) contains the rather ho-hum right to be protected from the quartering of troops in your house without your consent. Surely the next several amendments — protection from unreasonable search and seizure (except at airports, I guess), due process, trial by jury, and protection from cruel and unusual punishment — seem a little more important than not being asked to provide Bed and Breakfast to soldiers. So how important is this Second Amendment? Is it on the level of the First Amendment — absolutely fundamental? Or sort of quaint and outdated like the Third?
The Second Amendment looks like the remnant of what might have been a clearer original statement that was mauled over by a committee. The original version of the Bill of Rights was written by the main drafter of the Constitution, James Madison, and contains this somewhat longer exposition of what was to become amendment #2:
The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed, and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country: but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms, shall be compelled to render military service in person.
This, written at the end of the 18th century, after the works of Alexander Pope and Johnathan Swift, but before the novels of Jane Austin, has all the stylistic elements of the period, such as multiple clauses linked with semi-colons and colons, and the comma separating subject and verb. Nevertheless it does seem a bit clearer than the final result. The order of the initial two clauses is reversed in this original version, making it clear that right to bear arms is the main point, with the militia reference being a example of why the right is important (he also throws in the religious exemption to military service, which didn’t make it into the final draft). In the final version of the Second Amendment, one gets the impression that the “well regulated Militia” is the main point of the amendment, and the “right of the people to keep and bear Arms” is in reference to forming “well regulated” militias, not to be a one-man army. But I have to admit that, despite the confusing wording, it does appear that the founding fathers thought it was a good thing for average people to own firearms, and did not want the government to infringe on that right.
So, does my having to remove my shoes and get subjected to a see-through-your-clothes body scanner at the airport infringe on my Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure? Yes it does. Do sexual harassment laws that prohibit telling off-color jokes in the office conflict with the First Amendment right that “Congress shall make no law […] abridging the freedom of speech?” Yes again. In the Bill of Rights all the rights are stated as absolutes, in the style of the Ten Commandments, yet all have been subject to regulation. At the time of writing, the most advanced individual firearm was the musket, which took a long time to reload between each firing. Now we have automatic and semi-automatic rifles that can fire off hundreds of rounds in minutes. These kinds of weapons are not simple tools for self defence. These weapons are a public health issue (as the long string of gun-related massacres occurring even just this year bear out) and the government does have some interest in regulating the public health. Even the staunchest gun possession advocate (I hope) draws the line somewhere, whether at automatic weapons, bazookas, or personal tactical nuclear weapons. I think in the wake of unspeakable tragedy, we should draw the line in a little tighter, at least reinstating the ban on semi-automatic weapons. Really correcting our gun violence problem would take a major shift in how we think of ourselves as a people; a shift that goes against the grain for many of us. We still like to think of ourselves anachronistically as living in the “Wild West” of the old cowboy movies, where it was necessary for “good people” to “take the law in their own hands.” This romanticized version of history, if it was ever true, seems fairly out of touch with the reality of modern life. Or there are the folks that think the government is out to get them, and only their stockpile of weapons stands between them and government tyranny. This is the wacko “Waco” mentality that somehow your stash of guns puts you on an even keel with the entire might of the US government. Yes we can arm the kindergarten teachers and the movie theater attendees, and maybe things would have been different, but on the whole statistics do seem to bear out that the more guns there are around the more gun deaths occur. Since the Second Amendment doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon, I am hoping that, as the body count of innocent victims to mass shootings continues to rise over the years, people will realize that just because you have the right to own a gun doesn’t necessarily mean that you should own one.