The Second Amendment
Posted On April 22, 2023
“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 often a waste of time to get into arguments about things that really bear down into the level of people’s identity. The second amendment certainly qualifies as this for many people. There are those who see this Amendment as the most important statement of the Constitution, even though it is an amendment to the document. Some have made the Constitution into a pseudo-religious document seeing it as something divinely inspired. For some people, this means the document is a symbol of their core identity, even if the actual document, its history, wording is not understood. Identity doesn’t deal with rationality after all. Identity is about beliefs, values, affiliations, and more. It’s like the flag – it becomes a symbol in which people can place whatever meaning they want on it.
But words have meaning. The language of the second amendment has a meaning – it’s not just defined however you want to define it. This is true of all the language of the Constitution – including all the amendments.
Now, I’m not Constitutional scholar. But I do have a background in political science. And I’m a writer – words matter and have meaning. I often talk about the meaning of words that show up in Scripture in order for people to have a better understanding of what the words and verses mean and how they apply to our lives, what the context is, and what God is saying.
The Constitution and the Bible are often read in similar fashions by people. People tend to be either literal interpreters of Scripture or more towards reading Scripture understanding that it is full of complexity and is open to continual interpretation because our relationship with God continues to evolve and grow as history progresses. Likewise, people take a similar view of the Constitution as well – originalists see the Constitution as a closed document in which the original meaning is the only one that hold weight while others see the Constitution as a living document needing to be re-interpreted based on what is going on in society and what the social contract is at a given time.
And so, I want to examine the language and words of the second amendment.
“A well regulated” – Dictionary.com defines well regulated as meaning “controlled or supervised to conform to rules, regulations, tradition, etc.” This implies that regulations and rules are a part of what it means to be well regulated. You can’t be well regulated if anything goes and there are no restrictions, rules, or a governing body overseeing the enforcement of such regulations and rules. This part of the amendment implies that order and control is important.
“Militia” – Wordnik.com offers three definitions for this word.
- An army composed of ordinary citizens rather than professional soldiers.
- A military force that is not part of a regular army and is subject to call for service in an emergency.
- The whole body of physically fit civilians eligible by law for military service.
In all three definitions there is a governmental body that oversees and has the authority to call up citizens for military service. This still implies that there is a sense of order and control. Which is important when we are dealing with the potential for deadly force. Deadly force without order leads to chaos and fear.
“being necessary to the security” – necessary means essential so that without this whatever it is will fall apart. Security, as defined by Wordnik.com again offers three definitions:
- Freedom from risk or danger; safety.
- Freedom from doubt, anxiety, or fear; confidence.
- Something that gives or assures safety, as.
Security is equated with safety, predictability, freedom from things that can cause harm. If a society is facing daily mass shootings, and our children are being the target of such shootings along with “accidental” shootings at front doors, parking lots, driveways, and front lawns, then that society is lacking security by definition.
“of a free State” – Again Wordnik.com offers three definitions to this term:
- A political entity whose political status is less than that of a fully sovereignnation-state, as with the former Congo Free State and the former Irish Free State.
- A Federal state, with allegiance to a larger entity, as currently with Germany, and earlier, the relationship between the states of the Holy Roman Empire and the Emperor, and later, the states of the German Empire under the Hohenzollerns.
- An independent or autonomous political entity whose formal status and relationship to other states is undefined.
The first two definitions don’t apply to this since they are talking about a nation that is subject to another governmental body. In this case the third definition is appropriate. A free state is not a state that allows its citizens to have license to do whatever they want. That is not freedom. Freedom comes with responsibilities – both responsibilities that allow people to do certain things as well as restrictions on what they can do in order to provide for the common good of the society. We’re back to that idea of security and what it means. A free state is about a national governing body that is autonomous from other governmental bodies – making it an equal among the governing bodies (not better or worse, having more or less authority than other governing bodies).
“the right of” – Wordnik.com again offers three definitions:
- Conforming with or conformable to justice, law, or morality.
- In accordance with fact, reason, or truth; correct.
- Fitting, proper, or appropriate.
Rights come with responsibilities by definitions. Rights come with supervision and an authority holding those with the right accountable. The idea of license to do what one wants without consequences or oversight is the antithesis of what a right is. License is not equal to rights. License is anarchy. Rights have responsibilities. License leads to chaos. Rights lead to order in society. The two should not be confused and are not interchangeable.
“the people” – The term comes with two definitions from Merrian-Webster.com:
- : the ordinary people in a country who do not have special power or privileges
- used to refer to the government of the U.S. or of a particular state in the name of a legal case
Those imply two different ideas as you can tell from the definitions.
“to keep” – Wordnik.com offers these definitions:
- To retain possession of.
- To have as a supply.
- To provide (a family, for example) with maintenance and support.
Keep is more than just to own or possess. It also means to provide proper maintenance, training, etc. Again, there are responsibilities that come with keeping something.
“and bear Arms” – Merriam-Webster.com offers these definitions:
1: to carry or possess arms
2: to serve as a soldier
And arms are defined by Wordnik.com as:
- Instruments or weapons of offense or defense.
- The deeds or exploits of war; military service or science.
- Anything which a man takes in his hand in anger, to strike or assault another with; an aggressive weapon.
“shall” – This is a tricky one. The debate is always about whether shall means must or if it means something less mandatory. Here’s an interesting little bit of history around the word shall:
“In 1995, for instance, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in Gutierrez de Martinez v. Lamagno that under certain contexts, shall could be construed as may. The decision does not imply that shall always means may, but rather that unless expressly defined, context determines whether shall is mandatory or precatory.” – (Source: https://legalknowledgebase.com/shall-vs-must-supreme-court-case).
This is interesting to say the least. Again, the meaning of words matters. The amendment doesn’t use the word must. It uses shall.
“not be infringed.” – The Century Dictionary offers these definitions to the base word infringe:
- To commit a breach or infraction of; act contrary to, as a law, right, or obligation; transgress, either by action or by negligence; violate; break.
- To annul or hinder.
- To encroach; trespass; intrude: followed by on or upon: as, to infringe upon one’s rights.
To add to all of this, the Constitution Annotated website offers a nice summary of the history around the second amendment that was interesting to read. What it shows is that interpretations are often changing through history.
So, what does all of this leave us with? Again, I’m not a Constitutional scholar, I’m someone who plays with words and meanings to gain better understanding of them in order to communicate ideas, typically in a theological sense. Our history shows that this amendment is highly debated and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.
How one reads the second amendment is often clouded by a person’s relationship with it. If it is seen as symbolic of how one defines their identity, then it really doesn’t matter what is presented. The importance of defending one’s identity will always trump anything else. Pre-conceived ideas and beliefs will outweigh anything else. If the second amendment isn’t a part of one’s identity, then other ideas and beliefs will act as a lens through which we look at the amendment.