By Ted Braun
Several weeks ago in Crossville I saw a man wearing a T-shirt that proclaimed, “The right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” There was no indication on the T-shirt where that quote came from, but there was no need for one. The intense national debate about the Second Amendment had taken care of that.
But there was something else missing on that T-shirt. The first thirteen words of the Amendment, “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,” were not included. It was doubtful whether there would have been enough room on the T-shirt for any additional words. Nevertheless, that T-shirt’s shortened version of the Second Amendment turned out to be a fitting symbol of the national debate which has consistently ignored the first thirteen words and concentrated primarily on the last fourteen.
Part of the problem in this split focus comes out of the past. Many of our founding fathers such as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson had studied Latin and had developed an appreciation for some of its linguistic forms. In that language there is a grammatical construction in the ablative case called the “ablative absolute.” This is frequently used at the beginning of a sentence to indicate a specific context for what follows. The wording used in the Second Amendment is a good example of this.
According to these founding fathers, then, the ablative construct at the beginning of the Second Amendment suggests that the discussion about the keeping and bearing of arms ought to be taking place in the context of a militia that is well regulated. The problem with this formulation, however, is that words and their meanings change over the years.
Much of the fighting in the American Revolution was done by militias. After the war was won, Washington’s army was disbanded which left the security of the new country in the hands of the militias. Only people who pledged their support for the Revolutionary War were allowed to keep guns, which disarmed about 40 percent of the white population that was still loyal to England. The feeling quickly grew, however, that these militias needed to be regulated, or else they could turn into armed anti-government forces such as happened in the 1791 Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania.
There were also racist fears, especially in the South. Carl Bogus in his article, “The Hidden History of the Second Amendment,” wrote: “James Madison drafted the Second Amendment to assure his constituents in Virginia, and the South generally, that Congress could not use its newly-acquired powers to indirectly undermine the slave system by disarming the militia, on which the South relied for slave control.”
Today we find that the term “militia” has been adopted by many anti-government hate groups around our nation. It is suspected that a number of recent shooting deaths of government and justice department officials have been carried out by such militia members.
The most powerful interpreter of the Second Amendment today is the National Rifle Association which portrays itself as an organization dedicated to keeping America free and armed. It interprets gun ownership as an individual right guaranteed by the Second Amendment. The Supreme Court, in its Heller v. District of Columbia landmark ruling in 2008, threw out the District of Columbia’s handgun ban. It stated that the Second Amendment “right of the people to keep and bear arms” protects a right to private possession of a handgun for the defense of one’s self and family in the home. A five-to-four majority, led by Justice Antonin Scalia, thus ignored the intended contextual meaning of the ablative absolute in the Amendment, giving its blessing instead to the abbreviated fourteen-word version on T-shirts and other public venues.
Meanwhile, our nation continues to wrestle with the horror of the Newtown school massacre and the need for greater gun regulation that relates to individuals as well as to militias. On April 4 Gov. Daniel Malloy of Connecticut signed the nation’s most far-reaching gun control bill, a 139-page document crafted by leaders from both major parties. The law adds more than 100 weapons to the state’s ban on assault weapons, limits the capacity of ammo magazines to 10 or fewer rounds, and requires background checks for all weapon sales, including at gun shows. It also establishes the nation’s first statewide registry for people convicted of crimes involving dangerous weapons. Access to the registry would be available only to law enforcement.
What is your take on the Second Amendment? Should the first thirteen words be eliminated, or should we do some further research on that Latin ablative puzzler?
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This column is sponsored by Cumberland Countians for Peace and Justice and dedicated by the local writers to the theme that the lion and the lamb can and must learn to live together and grow in their relationship toward one another to ensure a better world. Opinions expressed in “Lion and the Lamb” columns are not necessarily those of the Crossville Chronicle publisher, editor or staff. For more information, contact Ted Braun, editor, at 277-5135.