“Rethinking the Second Amendment Can We Indeed Have Peace and Freedom Without Guns?” The last thing keeping us free in America.
“I wrote this essay some weeks ago, but I kept waiting to publish it til tragic mass shootings were no longer in the news. But that day looks as if it will never come, so I am publishing it anyway, with grief and mourning for those lost to gun violence, as we must nonetheless have this difficult conversation.
The last thing keeping us free in America, as the lights go off all over Europe- and Australia, and Canada – is, yes, we must face this fact, the Second Amendment.
I can’t believe I am writing those words. But here we are and I stand by them.
I am a child of the peace movement. A daughter of the Left, of a dashingly-bearded proto-Beatnik poet, my late dad, and of a Summer of Love activist/cultural anthropologist, my lovely mom. We are a lineage of anti-war, longhaired folks who believe in talking things out.
By the time I was growing up in California in the 1960s and 1970s, weapons were supposed to have become passe. When I played at friends’ houses in our neighborhood in San Francisco, there were posters on the walls: “War is Not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things.” Protesters had iconically placed daisies in the rifle barrels of unhip-looking National Guardsmen.
We were obviously supposed to side with the daisies.
Weapons were archaic, benighted — tacky. A general peace was surely to prevail, in the dawning Age of Aquarius.
My young adulthood too unfolded in a context that reviled all guns all the time. The media was seared with images of gun mayhem. Drive-by shootings devastated inner cities. Gun violence was glorified in hip-hop videos, which in turn was rightly denounced by leaders of victimized communities.
As I grew older, the catastrophes related to lawless gun violence in this country did not abate: Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook — the horrors were endless. After every burst of violence, the same questions were asked: how can we allow anyone access to any weapons as these cause such devastation?
Because there were mass shootings and criminal gun violence in America, and because Americans, unlike citizens of other nations, owned and had access to firearms, guns themselves were identified, uncritically, in my progressive circles – (or perhaps I should say, in my former progressive circles) as being the scourge. My liberal community generally reacted to gun violence with a simple, literal arithmetic. Surely the sensible reaction to these catastrophic scenes was simply to remove the guns. End of problem.
The catastrophic scenes of gun violence were connected, in my former circles, directly to all gun owners, but without much equivocation or nuance. And since none of us actually knew people who owned firearms, or had ever asked them why they did so, it was easy to believe in broad generalizations and crude, even racist stereotypes: all gun owners or NRA members, for instance, we were sure, were unexploded emotional landmines – any one of them could become a mass murderer in a heartbeat. All gun owners or NRA members were surely, we believed, one cheap beer or one fentanyl hit away from spraying a church or workplace or parade with bullets.
It was hard for us to conceive that anyone might own guns and actually be law-abiding, responsible and peaceful.
My former progressive circles even saw hunting not as a sign of conservatorship of the land nor a symbol of sustainable food sourcing, and a relatively humane one compared with the harvesting of animals in factory farms, but rather they saw hunting as a symbol of the bloodlust of backwoods yokels straight out of Deliverance.
We assumed all gun owners were driven by fear or by rage.
It certainly did not occur to us that anyone might enjoy marksmanship, or like being a collector, and that thus there might be good reasons to own more than one firearm.
We always interpreted the ownership of multiple weapons as a sign of mental instability. Obviously! Who would need more than one gun, we asked one another, even if one conceded that anyone needed a gun at all?
Living in safe (wealthy) neighborhoods, assuming that a stable democracy would last forever, and relying with our costly educations on talking above all, we could not fathom the “need” for guns or for gun rights.
We used to roll our eyes at the claims made by supporters of the Second Amendment. In my former circles, “2A” was often interpreted, even by Constitutional scholars, and certainly by the news outlets which we read, as applying only to government-run militias such as the US Army or the National Guard. I was told more times than I could count that the Second Amendment was never meant to apply to individuals’ ownership of guns; and I believed that.
Grammar too was used to make the case against individual gun ownership. Often, commentators in our circles described the phrasing of the Second Amendment as being so twisted and archaic that no one today could never truly confirm the Founders’ intentions regarding gun ownership by individuals.
Indeed, I heard these truisms so often, that when I actually sat down and read the Second Amendment carefully — as I was writing my 2008 book about the decline of democracies, The End of America — I was startled: because the Second Amendment wasn’t unclear at all.
“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.” [https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/United_States_of_America_1992]
Critics on the Left of individual gun rights often described this sentence as being opaque because it has two clauses, and two commas prior to the final clause; so they read the first two sections as relating unclearly to the last assertion.
But if you are familiar with late 18th century rhetoric and sentence construction, the meaning of this sentence is transparent.
The construction of this sentence is typical of late 18th into early 19th century English grammar, in which there can be quite a few dependent clauses, gerunds and commas that come before the verb, and the object of, the sentence.
Thus, the correct way to read the Second Amendment, if you understand 18th century English grammar, is:
“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.”
Or, translated into modern English construction: “Because a well-regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free State, therefore the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
Here is another example of many dependent clauses, commas and gerunds prior to the verb and object of the sentence: from the second paragraph of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense (1776):
“As a long and violent abuse of power is generally the means of calling the right of it in question, (and in matters too which might never have been thought of, had not the sufferers been aggravated into the inquiry,) and as the King of England hath undertaken in his own right, to support the Parliament in what he calls Theirs, and as the good People of this Country are grievously oppressed by the Combination, they have an undoubted privilege to enquire into the Pretensions of both, and equally to reject the Usurpation of either.” [https://oll.libertyfund.org/page/1776-paine-common-sense-pamphlet].
This would translate into modern English: “The good people of this Country are grievously oppressed by the combination of a long and violent abuse of power and of the King of England’s support of Parliament in what he calls his rights and theirs. Thus, the [good people of this country] have an undoubted privilege to enquire into [ask about] the Pretension [claims] of both [King and Parliament], and by the same token to reject the Usurpation [of rights] of either.” The logic of the sentence, with its multiple clauses, gerunds and commas before the final verb and object of the sentence, is perfectly clear to anyone who is familiar with 18th century rhetoric.
Here is the famous first sentence of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, with the similar construction — common still in 1813, though uncommon today — of two commas and two clauses prior to the verb and object of the sentence: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
So: there is no ambiguity whatsoever about the Second Amendment to readers of Paine and Austen. The Second Amendment says with zero ambiguity, in the English grammar of 1787, that Americans have an absolute right (“shall not be infringed”) to keep (own) and bear (carry) arms because they as individuals may be summoned to become a ‘well-regulated militia’. In the grammar of the 18th century, it’s the militia that is ‘well-regulated’ – orderly, in a clear chain of command, not a chaotic mob — and not the guns.