English Professors Bare Arms
You know you've got a humdinger of a Supreme Court case when a covey of grammarians -- "scholars who teach, write and speak about English, linguistics and the principles of grammar" -- feels the need to chime in with a "friend of the court" brief. And, indeed, the Second Amendment fight District of Columbia v. Heller is just such a case. Hear ye, hear ye, the English departments have weighed in! Their verdict: The Second Amendment bestows a "collective" not an individual right to bear arms.
"Under longstanding linguistic principles that were well understood and recognized at the time the Second Amendment was adopted," Professors Dennis Baron, Richard Bailey and Jeffrey Kaplan conclude, "the 'well-regulated militia' clause necessarily adds meaning to the 'keep and bear arms' clause by furnishing the reason for the latter's existence. The first clause is what linguists call an 'absolute construction' or an 'absolute clause'. It functions by melding the sentence 'A well-regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free State' together with the sentence 'The right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed' to express this thought: 'Because a well regulated Militia is necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed."
They continue: "The unmistakable military language employed throughout the Amendment informs us of two things: (i) that the right that is protected is the right of the people to serve in the military and keep military weaponry for such service (the meaning of the words 'keep' and 'arms' and of the idiom 'bear Arms" in the second clause tell us that), and (ii) that the kind of military service that is protected is that which is in a 'well-regulated' militia (the modifier 'well regulated' in the first clause tells us that)."
Got it? Good, because I'd be willing to bet that at some point during oral argument (not yet scheduled) someone is going to mention it, either in ridicule or in earnest. And the pro-gun-rights lawyers will have to tangle with the people who study 18th-Century language for a living.
I believe the Second Amendment, like many of the others, was drafted with mischievous and purposeful ambiguity by the "framers" to resolve contemporary problems by delaying them for decades (in the case of slavery) or even for centuries (in the case of gun rights). And why should we expect otherwise? After all, our modern-day "framers" in Congress often resort to the drafting dodge, making a mish-mash of language and leaving it to the poor judges to sort it all out. It's the oldest legislative act of cowardice in the book.
So, go professors, go professors, go professors, go. The fact that they got their act together to file a brief in this case is a landmark moment for English departments all over the world.
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