Did a Comma Kill Americans? Grammar and the 2nd Amendment.

Let’s try a different approach to the 2nd Amendment.  Instead of historical analysis, let’s do something simple like a basic grammatical breakdown of the sentence.

Here is the language from the Constitution

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.”

A basic approach is to strip out both independent clauses separated by commas thus the sentence would read,

A well-regulated militia shall not be infringed.”

The meaning is unclear, thus the need for the modifying phrases which, one might argue, are subordinate clauses and thus elemental to the meaning. We need to clarify what they modify.

The subject of the sentence is “a well-regulated militia.” Everything else modifies or describes the subject.

The first phrase, “being necessary to the security of a free State,” defines the need for the subject. In different language one might say “To maintain security of a free state, a well-regulated militia is necessary.”

The meaning is the same.

Let’s look at the second phrase separated by a comma. “the right of the people to keep and bear arms.” What does this phrase do? What does it change or describe? The next phrase, also separated by a comma, complicates the matter.

One method is to remove the intervening comma separated phrase and see what that reveals. Thus, we have,

A well-regulated militia the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

Makes little sense without the missing language.  Let’s put it back and take out the last phrase.

“A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms.”

Again makes no sense without the ending phrase. Suppose we add it back without the comma?

“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.”

Now it makes sense. The subject of the sentence, “a well-regulated militia,” modified by the phrase “being necessary to the security of a free state,” followed by the phrase “the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

It’s that last comma that confuses things.

If we write it this way, “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 meaning is clear and brings clarity to “a well-regulated militia.”

Richard Henry Lee, one of the leaders of the revolutionary period, is best known for his resolution in the Second Continental Congress where he said,

That these united Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance from the British crown, and that all political connection between America and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved….”

Lee also had said something very interesting about the right to bear arms.

“To preserve liberty, it is essential that the whole body of people always possess arms, and be taught alike, especially when young, how to use them…” (emphasis author’s)
Additional Letters from the Federal Farmer, 1788

Perhaps, even back then, the men who crafted the right the bear arms knew it came with responsibility and required training, thus the “well-regulated militia” now makes sense.

As with any sentence, breaking it down to its parts clarifies the meaning. The subject of this sentence is “a well-regulated militia” everything else is there to support and describe what makes up this “well-regulated” entity and the right of the people to equip themselves and participate.

“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.”

Could it be a misplaced comma contributed to the unnecessary deaths of thousands of Americans?

Who said grammar doesn’t matter?

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