The Second Amendment: Much Ado about Firearms

The Second Amendment is not that hard to understand -- not if the person reading it has a lick of sense. I'll prove it.

What does this sentence (let's call it S1) mean?
My over-exuberant neighbors having a wild party next door, my wife called the cops.

Not terrific English grammar but the meaning is clear enough. Cause: The noise made by the neighbors. Effect: A telephone call to the authorities.

Now what if I told you what I really meant when I wrote S1 was that my neighbors threw a noisy party because my wife called the cops?  What would you say? (Except that I am a lousy writer and should never have been published in American Thinker.)

You would probably tell me that I have written the sentence backwards. You would argue that the antecedent is, for some unknown reason, in the wrong place -- that my neighbors' wild party is not actually the antecedent ... it is the (backwards) conclusion.

Or, you might guess, the wild party was thrown because my wife called the cops about something other than the wild party. Maybe another neighbor was being robbed; maybe my wife's phone call helped stop the robbery; and maybe my noisy neighbors were celebrating her success. That's a lot of "maybes." Not only do I have the antecedent and the conclusion backwards in S1, I have left out a piece of information. In fact I have left out the most important information: that another neighbor was being robbed. We can call this the missing information interpretation of S1.

Whatever the truth might be, if S1 doesn't mean what it seems to mean on first reading -- then S1 means nothing. Any reading of S1 besides the clear meaning of S1 requires the reader to somehow know that the writer's intention was to state the argument in reverse, or it requires the reader to fill in a blank with information the reader cannot possibly possess.  S1 is nonsense if it doesn't mean that my neighbors' noise instigated my wife's phone call to the cops.

How about this sentence? (Let's call it S2.):

Fred's mother-in-law stays at his home for seven days, Fred rents a motel room for a week.

Again, this is not a great sentence, but the meaning jumps right off of the page. Cause: Mother-in-law visits. Effect: Fred leaves the premises. The clear meaning of S2 is that a certain visitor drives Fred out of his home.

What if I told you that what I meant to say in S2 was that Fred left first and then his mother-in-law moved in for a week? Again you would argue that the sentence is, at best, very poorly written and that it is, as was S1, stated backwards. You might think that I have misled the reader by putting mother-in-law first and Fred second.

But I could be writing ironically. I might mean that Fred (unaware of his mother-in-law's intention) left for the motel and that his mother-in-law (sensing an opportunity) moved in for the week. This interpretation of S2 makes sense only if I am playing around with Fred's stay at the motel and his wife's mother's visit. We will call this the ironic interpretation of S2.[i]

Now let's look at the Second Amendment. (Call it SA.):

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.

Once again, the grammar is a little confusing. But that's it. That's the entire Second Amendment. Notice that if we juxtapose S1 to SA then noisy neighbors = well regulated Militia, and my wife = the people; and if we juxtapose S2 to SA then mother-in-law = well regulated militia, and Fred = the people.

So what does the Second Amendment mean? Opponents of the people's right to keep and bear arms contend the Second Amendment is some form of the backwards conclusion interpretations of the first two examples we saw above. They argue that the right to keep and bear arms applies only to the well regulated militia or standing army.[ii] Opponents assert, in effect, that SA guarantees only the right of a soldier to have and hold a rifle. They contend that the apparent conclusion of SA ("the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed") is not a conclusion -- it is an antecedent.

Why would the people who wrote the Second Amendment write it backwards? As we have seen, there are two viable reasons. (Ignoring the possibility of such poor writing skills that SA was accidentally written backwards and that it is, as written, nonsense. Let's hope the framers were smarter than that.)

The first possibility is that the writers of the Second Amendment left something out. There is a missing piece in the Second Amendment. What could this missing piece be? Perhaps it is permission. SA might mean something like this.

We are a new country.  We will have a standing army (well regulated militia). We need the permission of the people in order to equip that army with deadly weapons. Therefore, with the people's permission, we grant to the soldiers who will serve in that army the right to keep and bear arms (while they are in the army).

Why would the Framers leave out a crucial piece of information from a constitutional amendment? If they needed permission from the people to arm the army, why not just ask for it? Maybe they were just incompetent. Or maybe.... (We should leave further conjectures about this question to conspiracy theory buffs.)

Perhaps those wild and crazy Founding Fathers were just having a laugh when they wrote the Second Amendment. Perhaps the whole bit about people keeping and bearing weapons is an ironic conclusion to the Second Amendment. This version of SA, exposing the intended irony, might read:

We are a new country.  We will have a standing army (well regulated militia). The members of the army will be the only citizens who can keep and bear arms. This might make the remaining unarmed citizens a little jumpy. Therefore, we        will inform the people, with this amendment, that the purpose of the militia is to protect the people; and because the weapons carried by the militia are the only weapons allowed, the people do not need weapons because the militia has weapons. (Tee-hee.)

Gotta love those framers' sense of humor.

What does the Second Amendment really mean?

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,

(We are a new, free country. It is necessary to have a trained, weapon equipped, standing army to help keep us free. And because we will have a standing army),

the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

(if the army gets guns, so do the people, in case the army ever gets out of line.)

Cause: The government-controlled army has guns. Effect: The people, via constitutional amendment, demand, and are guaranteed, the right to weapons as well.

In short, the Second Amendment means what it says and it says what it means. Either that ... or my wife just ran off with Fred.

            Quod erat demonstrandum.

Larrey Anderson is a philosopher and writer living in Idaho.  He can be reached at ldandersonbooks.com


[i] If space permitted (and if had not been overly complicated) I would have added an ironic interpretation to S1 and a missing information interpretation to S2. (Say, my neighbors have always been noisy and my wife was having a little fun, and that Fred left his home because he had a fight with his spouse.) The important point is that there are three explanations for S1, S2, and SA other than the "clear meaning" explanation:

  • 1. The statements are backwards, i.e., they are all very poorly written.
  • 2. The statements each have missing information (either by purposeful omission or carelessness).
  • 3. Each of the statements is ironically constructed.
[ii] This includes most modern decisions from the Supreme Court.

The Second Amendment is not that hard to understand -- not if the person reading it has a lick of sense. I'll prove it.

What does this sentence (let's call it S1) mean?
My over-exuberant neighbors having a wild party next door, my wife called the cops.

Not terrific English grammar but the meaning is clear enough. Cause: The noise made by the neighbors. Effect: A telephone call to the authorities.

Now what if I told you what I really meant when I wrote S1 was that my neighbors threw a noisy party because my wife called the cops?  What would you say? (Except that I am a lousy writer and should never have been published in American Thinker.)

You would probably tell me that I have written the sentence backwards. You would argue that the antecedent is, for some unknown reason, in the wrong place -- that my neighbors' wild party is not actually the antecedent ... it is the (backwards) conclusion.

Or, you might guess, the wild party was thrown because my wife called the cops about something other than the wild party. Maybe another neighbor was being robbed; maybe my wife's phone call helped stop the robbery; and maybe my noisy neighbors were celebrating her success. That's a lot of "maybes." Not only do I have the antecedent and the conclusion backwards in S1, I have left out a piece of information. In fact I have left out the most important information: that another neighbor was being robbed. We can call this the missing information interpretation of S1.

Whatever the truth might be, if S1 doesn't mean what it seems to mean on first reading -- then S1 means nothing. Any reading of S1 besides the clear meaning of S1 requires the reader to somehow know that the writer's intention was to state the argument in reverse, or it requires the reader to fill in a blank with information the reader cannot possibly possess.  S1 is nonsense if it doesn't mean that my neighbors' noise instigated my wife's phone call to the cops.

How about this sentence? (Let's call it S2.):

Fred's mother-in-law stays at his home for seven days, Fred rents a motel room for a week.

Again, this is not a great sentence, but the meaning jumps right off of the page. Cause: Mother-in-law visits. Effect: Fred leaves the premises. The clear meaning of S2 is that a certain visitor drives Fred out of his home.

What if I told you that what I meant to say in S2 was that Fred left first and then his mother-in-law moved in for a week? Again you would argue that the sentence is, at best, very poorly written and that it is, as was S1, stated backwards. You might think that I have misled the reader by putting mother-in-law first and Fred second.

But I could be writing ironically. I might mean that Fred (unaware of his mother-in-law's intention) left for the motel and that his mother-in-law (sensing an opportunity) moved in for the week. This interpretation of S2 makes sense only if I am playing around with Fred's stay at the motel and his wife's mother's visit. We will call this the ironic interpretation of S2.[i]

Now let's look at the Second Amendment. (Call it SA.):

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.

Once again, the grammar is a little confusing. But that's it. That's the entire Second Amendment. Notice that if we juxtapose S1 to SA then noisy neighbors = well regulated Militia, and my wife = the people; and if we juxtapose S2 to SA then mother-in-law = well regulated militia, and Fred = the people.

So what does the Second Amendment mean? Opponents of the people's right to keep and bear arms contend the Second Amendment is some form of the backwards conclusion interpretations of the first two examples we saw above. They argue that the right to keep and bear arms applies only to the well regulated militia or standing army.[ii] Opponents assert, in effect, that SA guarantees only the right of a soldier to have and hold a rifle. They contend that the apparent conclusion of SA ("the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed") is not a conclusion -- it is an antecedent.

Why would the people who wrote the Second Amendment write it backwards? As we have seen, there are two viable reasons. (Ignoring the possibility of such poor writing skills that SA was accidentally written backwards and that it is, as written, nonsense. Let's hope the framers were smarter than that.)

The first possibility is that the writers of the Second Amendment left something out. There is a missing piece in the Second Amendment. What could this missing piece be? Perhaps it is permission. SA might mean something like this.

We are a new country.  We will have a standing army (well regulated militia). We need the permission of the people in order to equip that army with deadly weapons. Therefore, with the people's permission, we grant to the soldiers who will serve in that army the right to keep and bear arms (while they are in the army).

Why would the Framers leave out a crucial piece of information from a constitutional amendment? If they needed permission from the people to arm the army, why not just ask for it? Maybe they were just incompetent. Or maybe.... (We should leave further conjectures about this question to conspiracy theory buffs.)

Perhaps those wild and crazy Founding Fathers were just having a laugh when they wrote the Second Amendment. Perhaps the whole bit about people keeping and bearing weapons is an ironic conclusion to the Second Amendment. This version of SA, exposing the intended irony, might read:

We are a new country.  We will have a standing army (well regulated militia). The members of the army will be the only citizens who can keep and bear arms. This might make the remaining unarmed citizens a little jumpy. Therefore, we        will inform the people, with this amendment, that the purpose of the militia is to protect the people; and because the weapons carried by the militia are the only weapons allowed, the people do not need weapons because the militia has weapons. (Tee-hee.)

Gotta love those framers' sense of humor.

What does the Second Amendment really mean?

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,

(We are a new, free country. It is necessary to have a trained, weapon equipped, standing army to help keep us free. And because we will have a standing army),

the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

(if the army gets guns, so do the people, in case the army ever gets out of line.)

Cause: The government-controlled army has guns. Effect: The people, via constitutional amendment, demand, and are guaranteed, the right to weapons as well.

In short, the Second Amendment means what it says and it says what it means. Either that ... or my wife just ran off with Fred.

            Quod erat demonstrandum.

Larrey Anderson is a philosopher and writer living in Idaho.  He can be reached at ldandersonbooks.com


[i] If space permitted (and if had not been overly complicated) I would have added an ironic interpretation to S1 and a missing information interpretation to S2. (Say, my neighbors have always been noisy and my wife was having a little fun, and that Fred left his home because he had a fight with his spouse.) The important point is that there are three explanations for S1, S2, and SA other than the "clear meaning" explanation:

  • 1. The statements are backwards, i.e., they are all very poorly written.
  • 2. The statements each have missing information (either by purposeful omission or carelessness).
  • 3. Each of the statements is ironically constructed.
[ii] This includes most modern decisions from the Supreme Court.