Sean Thackrey :: Wine Maker

Sean Thackrey :: Wine Maker

Sunday, April 28, 2019


The text, a simple declarative sentence, could hardly be clearer: "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."

It is one of the curiosities of our age that such extraordinary attention is paid to this rather obscure text, namely the Second Amendment to the Constitution, since all it guarantees is essentially  that the right to join the National Guard shall not be infringed; and perhaps this only seems obscure in its purpose, despite its clarity of expression, since after all this particular right hardly seems to us now to be a right the infringement of which is likely.

It was not always thus. The eighteenth century clearly recognized the danger of allowing all military power to be concentrated in mercenary troops or even a professional army, as opposed to one formed from volunteers. Edward Gibbon, describing such a situation as a principal factor in the decline of the Roman empire, put it succinctly:

 "In the purer ages of the commonwealth the use of arms was reserved for those ranks of citizens who had a country to love, a property to defend, and some share in enacting those laws, which it was in their interest as well as their duty to maintain. But in proportion as the public freedom was lost in extent of conquest, war was gradually improved into an art, and degraded into a trade."

So there was ample reason to guarantee the right of the citizen to bear arms in a well-regulated militia, which is what the Second Amendment does. But of course the Second Amendment isn't now interpreted as meaning what its words actually mean, but something altogether different, namely, as (somehow?) guaranteeing that there can be essentially no limitation on the private ownership or public flaunting of firearms, of whatever sort, military or not, loaded or not.

So we are faced with a chain of curiosities, the first being how such an vicious distortion came to be, much less became accepted as legally unassailable; how a simple, admirably clear declarative sentence became warped into the principal fantasy food source for the Obsessive-Compulsive Firearms Disorder, that most characteristically and tragically American of  mental illnesses; and the second curiosity being that this distortion claims as its basis what is in fact its antithesis, an "originalist" or "textualist" reading of the Constitution.

In our time, and more than to any other person, this is due to the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who defined with admirable clarity what such terms as "originalist" and "textualist" mean and how they apply: for example, "Scalia described himself as an originalist, meaning that he interpreted the United States Constitution as it would have been understood when it was adopted"; or, as he said in 2008, "It's what did the words mean to the people who ratified the Bill of Rights or who ratified the Constitution".

Excellent: "it's what did the words mean to the people who ratified the Bill of Rights or who ratified the Constitution"! This is "strict construction"; unfortunately, if by this definition Justice Scalia was a "strict constructionist" then Judas was a Christian. Hard to think what more Scalia could have done to betray the god he pretended to adore.

Let us then do the strict construction he advocates, but now with actual attention to the text, rather than in subservience to the ideological dictates of the National Rifle Association.

The first question is self-evident: how can we pretend to do this if we don't know what these words actually meant when the Constitution was ratified in 1791?

Fortunately we do know quite precisely what these words meant, thanks to Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language, first published in 1755, which occupied in its own time, as it does now,  an absolutely authoritative position as to the meaning of English words in the 18th century. To my knowledge, no one even disputes this, although once mentioned in so incendiary a context as this, a conflagration of denial is inevitable. In the meanwhile, I don't know of any scholarly dispute, much less denial, of its authority: for example,"The American adoption of the Dictionary was a momentous event not just in its history, but in the history of lexicography. For Americans in the second half of the eighteenth century, Johnson was the seminal authority on language…" (Hitchings, 2005). And so on.

Thus, back with confidence to the only point at issue here, which is, what was the meaning to the authors who chose them, as of 1791, of the following words : "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."?

Of course it is obvious that this text refers, and refers only, to issues concerning a well regulated Militia; but what did its authors mean by "Militia"?  Or, "to bear Arms"? Or "Arms" to begin with?

By "Militia", did they mean a threatening private posse of wild-eyed gun freaks brandishing loaded assault weapons in public in time of peace?

Actually, they did not. Dr. Johnson's definition is admirably concise; "Militia" is "the standing force of a nation", hardly surprising, since "militia" is the Latin word that "military" derives from to begin with. So "Militia" is the "standing force", i.e., military force or volunteer army, of the "free state", meaning the government of the United States of America, which is after all what the Constitution, constitutes.

As to "Arms", Dr. Johnson is equally concise and explicit (Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition, London, 1784):

"ARMS. n. without the singular number. [arma, Lat.]

1. Weapons of offence, or armour of defence.
    Those arms which Mars before
    Had giv'n the vanquish'd, now the victor bore.    Pope.
2 . A state of hostility.
    Sir Edward Courtney, and the haughty prelate,
    With many more confed'rates, are in arms.        Shakespeare.
3.  War in general.
    arms and the man I sing.                    Dryden.
    How Paris follow'd to the dire alarms.
        Both breathing slaughter, both resolv'd in arms.    Pope.
4.  Action; the act of taking arms.
    Up rose the victor angels, and to arms
    The matin trumpet sung.                    Milton.
    The seas and rocks and skies rebound,
    To arms, to arms, to arms!                    Pope.   
5. The ensigns armorial of a family."

So "arms" are specifically weapons of war, as is clear anyway from Gibbon's citizen militia to whom "the use of arms was reserved"; thus, taking or "bearing arms" has nothing to do with carrying guns in time of peace: it is to join in or serve in war; perhaps, to cite an obvious example, by volunteering to serve in a well regulated Militia as specified in the Second Amendment to the Constitution.

As to "keeping"Arms, it is clear that service weapons are what is meant, since that is what "Arms" meant to begin with; rather as in our own day, all able-bodied Swiss males are required by law to keep their service weapon at home so that they can be called up to their national militia immediately when the national situation requires a military response.

None of all this had anything to do with private guns, one way or another. They aren't authorized; they aren't forbidden; they aren't addressed to begin with. Whatever rights American citizens do or do not have with respect to them are entirely from elsewhere than this poor, abused little amendment, which simply sought to guarantee that "the use of arms was reserved for those ranks of citizens who had a country to love, a property to defend, and some share in enacting those laws, which it was in their interest as well as their duty to maintain."

And all of this is so clear - clear, that is, as to what the Second Amendment meant when it was written and therefore what it was intended to mean by those who wrote it - that it's quite difficult to understand how anyone in good faith could arrive at the tortured distortion that is presently accepted as its correct & therefore obligatory legal interpretation. 

But good faith wasn't involved. It was the necessity, correctly perceived on the part of its ideological partisans, to create a sort of secular Divine Commandment, so fatally radioactive to anyone who would dare approach it with other than devotion, that it would remove any possibility of  rational action in the face of the fatal collective insanity of American gun religion and the endless repetition of its horrifying consequences. 

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