Grammar, guns and society

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Walden3's picture
Walden3
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: Feb 9 2009
Posts: 21
Grammar, guns and society

Let me start with
a disclaimer – this isn’t intended as another post about guns. The guns
reference is incidental to the broader point about how we make laws and shape our
society. For the record, though, I’m from the
UK and guns aren’t part of my culture. On
one level they scare the xxxx out of me and I think they should be un-invented.
But I am also pretty convinced by the well made arguments of Aaron, Dogs et al
that in certain circumstances they are essential. I’d like to think that the
UK won’t breakdown so quickly that law and
order vanishes over night, but then again what does history tell us about
collapsing complexity?

 

So…below is an
article (See link http://illinois.edu/blog/view?blogId=25&topicId=632&count=1&ACTION=VIEW_...)
about grammar, guns and human laws. On one level it’s a legal argument about
what the 2nd Amendment ‘really’ means. I’ve seen pieces on this site
about what the
US constitution ‘really’ means and wondered
if such certainty is possible or even desirable. Do we really want to live
according to what people a couple of hundred years ago thought or do we want to
shape our own world today? Sure we need some fixed points around which to hinge
a stable society, but where do these points come from? I’d argue they come from
us, so let’s step up and make it happen.

 

And there’s the
rub. How do we make it happen? One of the things that’s great about this site
and keeps me coming back is the practical action we can take on a personal
level. How to prepare psychologically, socially and practically for a rapidly
changing world is essential. Its terrific stuff and I thank you all.

 

Political action is harder and my sense is most of us
are so removed (or at least feel removed) from the powers that shape our laws
that we have given up trying to influence things – at least at the party
political level. Is that right? It seems to me that powerful vested interests
and lobby groups have cajoled and bought our lawmakers leaving the majority of
us disenfranchised and disillusioned. What percentage of the population votes
in western democracies?

 

I think a major problem is size. Everything (i.e.,
central government, economics, appetites) is just too big and I’m reminded of
Schumacher’s ‘Small is beautiful: Economics as if people mattered’. My sense is
that whether we like it or not, everything will get smaller in the near future,
and to my mind more beautiful as a consequence. Let’s just hope the process
isn’t too painful.

 

 

Guns and grammar: punctuation doesn't make meaning,
people do

Prof Dennis Baron, UIUC

Citing the second comma of the 2nd Amendment, the
U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the
District of Columbia ruled March 9 that
district residents may keep guns ready to shoot in their homes. 

Plaintiffs in Shelly Parker et al vs. District of Columbia were challenging laws
that strictly limited who could own handguns and how they must be stored. This
is the first time a federal appeals court used the 2nd Amendment to strike down
a gun law, and legal experts say the issue could wind up in the Supreme Court.

While
the D.C. Circuit Court focused only on the second comma, the 2nd Amendment to
the Constitution actually has three: "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." The 2-1 majority of
judges held that the meaning turns on the second comma, which "divides the
Amendment into two clauses; the first is prefatory, and the second
operative." 

The court dismissed the prefatory clause about militias
as not central to the amendment and concluded that the operative clause
prevents the government from interfering with an individual's right to tote a
gun. Needless to say, the National Rifle Association is very happy with this
interpretation. But I dissent. Strict constructionists, such as the majority on
the appeals court, might do better to interpret the 2nd Amendment based not on
what they learned about commas in college but on what the framers actually
thought about commas in the 18th century.

The most popular grammars in the framers' day were
written by Robert Lowth (1762) and Lindley Murray (1795). Though both are
concerned with correcting writing mistakes, neither dwells much on punctuation.
Lowth calls punctuation "imperfect," with few precise rules and many
exceptions.
Murray adds that commas signal
a pause for breath. Here's an example of such a pause, from the Constitution:
"The judicial power of the
United States, shall be vested in one
Supreme Court" (Article III, Section 1). But times change. If a student
put that comma in a paper today, it would be marked wrong.

The first comma in the 2nd Amendment signals a pause.
At first glance, it looks like it's setting off a phrase in apposition, but by
the time you get to the second comma, even if you don't know what a phrase in
apposition is, you realize that it doesn't do that. That second comma
identifies what grammarians call an absolute clause, which modifies the entire
subsequent clause.
Murray gave this example:
"His father dying, he succeeded to the estate." With such absolute
constructions, the second clause follows logically from the first. 

So, the 2nd Amendment's second comma tells us that
the subsequent clause, "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms,
shall not be infringed," is the logical result of what preceded the comma:
"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a
free State." The third comma,
the one after "Arms," just signals a pause. But the justices
repeatedly dropped that final comma altogether when quoting the 2nd Amendment —
not wise if you're arguing that commas are vital to meaning. 

But
that's just my interpretation. As the D.C. Circuit Court decision shows us,
punctuation doesn't make meaning, people do. And until a higher court says
otherwise, people who swear by punctuation will hold onto their commas until
they're pried from their cold, dead hands.

bklement's picture
bklement
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: Jan 26 2009
Posts: 108
Re: Grammar, guns and society

Perhaps it is more important to look at the meaning rather than the punctuation.

 Jefferson (as well as many others that were instrumental in the writing of the constitution) wrote about the people being armed.

 For example Thomas Jefferson said “The constitutions of most of our States assert that all power is inherent in the people; …that it is their right and duty to be at all times armed.”

 When you read the other works written by these folks there is no question on the intent of the second ammendment.

 

 

A. M.'s picture
A. M.
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Oct 22 2008
Posts: 2368
Re: Grammar, guns and society

Walden,

Even if you want to disect the language, the founding fathers intent has been made extremely clear in dozens of quotes on the subject.

The best thing we can do is;

1. Acknowledge that Americans have the right to keep guns for whatever reason they choose, upto and including defending against tyranny.

2. Educate people on the responsibility associated with rights; this would aid in creating legal framework that holds the individual accountable, rather than an industry or inanimate object and keeps with the constitutional guidelines laid out by our forefathers.

3. Allow organizations like the NRA to re-focus on training and facilitating safety and responsibility amongst gun owners rather than diverting all their legal and monetary attention to combatting "anti-gun" legislation, which is redundant and proposterous for several reasons, not the least of which is it's already illegal to commit crimes.

Divisive language is the tool of the forked-tongued. My understanding of law and legal processes has made me very distrustful of rhetoric.

Cheers!

Aaron

caroline_culbert's picture
caroline_culbert
Status: Platinum Member (Offline)
Joined: Oct 2 2008
Posts: 624
Re: Grammar, guns and society
Walden3 wrote:

 

So…below is an article (See link http://illinois.edu/blog/view?blogId=25&topicId=632&count=1&ACTION=VIEW_...) about grammar, guns and human laws. On one level it’s a legal argument about what the 2nd Amendment ‘really’ means.  I’ve seen pieces on this site about what the US constitution ‘really’ means and wondered if such certainty is possible or even desirable. Do we really want to live according to what people a couple of hundred years ago thought or do we want to shape our own world today? Sure we need some fixed points around which to hinge a stable society, but where do these points come from? I’d argue they come from us, so let’s step up and make it happen.

I agree.  As the Constitution is interpretable by all, in an infinite number of ways, it is a sort of evolutionary device.  That is, it has evolved in many ways.

 


Walden3 wrote:

I think a major problem is size. Everything (i.e., central government, economics, appetites) is just too big and I’m reminded of Schumacher’s ‘Small is beautiful: Economics as if people mattered’. My sense is that whether we like it or not, everything will get smaller in the near future, and to my mind more beautiful as a consequence. Let’s just hope the process isn’t too painful.

I agree.

RussB's picture
RussB
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: Dec 9 2008
Posts: 101
Re: Grammar, guns and society

While I agree that self-proclaimed "strict constructionists" have a problem here if they want to read it as an individual right, which most of them do. They can't, consistent with their proclaimed position, just laugh off the "militia" clause.

As for what the original intent was: People like to picture the framers as having been a conclave of civics gurus, and that the whole text in its alleged infinite wisdom sprang whole from their collective forehead.

But that's not how it really was. Plenty of sausage-making went into the wording of many sections, including in the case of the 2nd amendment.

Here, it was the result of a compromise between the majority, who wanted it as an individual right, and a minority who wanted it explicitly tied to militia service (although there was not much difference in those days - most able-bodied men were in some kind of militia).

The compromise wording was meant to acknowledge the militia's importance as the "highest" reason to own a gun, but still preserve the individual-rights baseline.

(So much for "originalists", who do seem to want to fetishize the framers as a kind of collective god.)

As for the rest of us, who want to use both durational wisdom and the common sense of the here-and-now to come up with reasonable, just, and workable constitutional interpretations, while we should not fetishize the words (or commas) as a rule, we should recognize which words are of pivotal significance.

In this case, it's a historical fact that "militia" was not meant to be a pivotal term. Yet if we look at the rest of the document, we see that "the people" is, and that everywhere it applies to the people as individuals, not as members of any officially organized group.

Given the consistency of this usage, it's hard to believe that the framers would sloppily include that same term "the people" in the 2nd Am. but have it mean something else. If they had meant something different they would have phrased it, "members of the militia" or something like that. 

Craigmandu's picture
Craigmandu
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: Feb 10 2009
Posts: 24
Re: Grammar, guns and society

I have very mixed feelings on the subject in this thread.

Firstly, what was common ways of life at 1776 are nothing like what they are today.  There have been so many different advances, changes, etc.. in the human lifestyle that I have a hard time feeling like the framers of the Constitution were much more than simple leaders of their time coming up the best thing they could think of at THAT time.  Which may or may not really be plausible in our modern age.

The truth is no matter how you slice it, removing or greatly re-structuring the ability of "individuals" to keep/bear arms does not foster any better form of lilfe than we currently have.  Under no circumstance could it.  Without this right there is nothing to keep government from performing atrocities against the people that dwarf any current ones.  To take away any avenue that commoners have to defend themselves against rogue governments is to enslave them completely and utterly.

Wording of the Constitution or the "thoughts" of forefathers play far too much as a means for Government (congress, courts, executive branch), to foster or "claim" their agendas correct. 

Walden3's picture
Walden3
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: Feb 9 2009
Posts: 21
Re: Grammar, guns and society

Thanks for your thoughts and comments - that's why I posted it.  Hopefully it wasn't too much af a distraction from the main thrust of the CC. RussB - really interesting insight into majority/minority compromise.

Cheers

Freddy

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