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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Deja Vu All over Again

Reposted from October 2015 and likely to be reposted again and again and again, usque ad mortem accipit nos (see, Mr. O’Toole and Mr. Needham, I did pay attention.)

Guns, Laws, and Common Sense: Not Mutually Exclusive. 

Once again we face the horror of a school shooting. The politics of these issues need be stripped away so we can devise a solution.  Time is of the essence since lives are at risk.

One idea which might demonstrate a clear intent to set aside partisan bickering and seek a solution would be for all elected officials, Democrat and Republican alike, to refuse to accept donations from the NRA, related PACs, or any lobbying group associated with the firearm industry. Much like the issue over automobile safety liability championed by Ralph Nader and the automakers buying support in Congress through campaign contributions to stop Nader’s efforts we need to isolate these vested interests in arriving at a practical solution.

“Those who do not learn history, are doomed to repeat it” George Santayana

In light of the recent spike in mass shootings, the usual hysteria from both sides of the issue ensued. We have those that propose to eliminate all firearms. They lack any realistic proposal or plan for accomplishing such purpose, We have those that choose an unsupported interpretation of the Second Amendment that prohibits ANY laws that restrict or control private, non-militia related possession of weapons regardless of the nature of those weapons.

What we don’t have is rational discourse or commitment to do more than chant slogans or repeat tired and meaningless historical failures. The pattern is familiar. Incident, outrage, prayers, virulent accusations back and forth, search for rational motivation to irrational behavior, relapse into forgetfulness.

The cycle of response to such incidents is the classic process of grief. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Except we replace acceptance with resignation to the insolubility of the issue because it is not simple.

One of the things I find most frustrating about opinions in this country is the lack of foundation upon which most people base their argument. I am willing to bet many of the staunchest supporters of the right to own firearms have never read the Second Amendment. I bet the same holds true for those that hold the opposite opinion.

They chant slogans and rhetoric without any fundamental understanding of the complexities involved.

For those of you so inclined to explore issues with a sense of logic and fullness of examination, I invite you to read a dissent by Justice John Paul Stevens (a Republican appointee by President Ford) in the case DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA v. HELLER (No. 07-290) 478 F. 3d 370, affirmed.

Take the time to read the case, but here are some selected quotes

“The Second Amendment was adopted to protect the right of the people of each of the several States to maintain a well-regulated militia. It was a response to concerns raised during the ratification of the Constitution that the power of Congress to disarm the state militias and create a national standing army posed an intolerable threat to the sovereignty of the several States. Neither the text of the Amendment nor the arguments advanced by its proponents evidenced the slightest interest in limiting any legislature’s authority to regulate private civilian uses of firearms. Specifically, there is no indication that the Framers of the Amendment intended to enshrine the common-law right of self-defense in the Constitution.”

“The view of the Amendment we took in Miller (Miller, 307 U. S., at 178. )—that it protects the right to keep and bear arms for certain military purposes, but that it does not curtail the Legislature’s power to regulate the nonmilitary use and ownership of weapons—is both the most natural reading of the Amendment’s text and the interpretation most faithful to the history of its adoption”

“Since our decision in Miller, hundreds of judges have relied on the view of the Amendment we endorsed there we ourselves affirmed it in 1980. See Lewis v. United States, 445 U. S. 55, 65–66, n. 8 (1980).3 No new evidence has surfaced since 1980 supporting the view that the Amendment was intended to curtail the power of Congress to regulate civilian use or misuse of weapons. Indeed, a review of the drafting history of the Amendment demonstrates that its Framers rejected proposals that would have broadened its coverage to include such uses.”

“With obvious purpose to assure the continuation and render possible the effectiveness of such forces the declaration and guarantee of the Second Amendment were made. It must be interpreted and applied with that end in view. “The Militia which the States were expected to maintain and train is set in contrast with Troops which they were forbidden to keep without the consent of Congress. The sentiment of the time strongly disfavored standing armies; the common view was that adequate defense of country and laws could be secured through the Militia—civilians primarily, soldiers on occasion. “The signification attributed to the term Militia appears from the debates in the Convention, the history and legislation of Colonies and States, and the writings of approved commentators.” Miller, 307 U. S., at 178–179.

What is clear is that the Second Amendment does not prohibit the states from enacting legislation to impose controls on the private, i.e. non-militia related, possession and use of firearms.

Now let me be clear, I do not oppose private ownership of firearms. I am not opposed to hunting, not opposed to recreational shooting but I think we all must acknowledge the risk that firearms pose to society.

Which leads us to access to firearms. If the NRA is so strongly supportive of the so-called “right” to bear arms, why would they be opposed to stringent regulations regarding purchasing and carrying these same weapons?

If the claim that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” is true, then let’s ensure those “people” that obtain firearms do so honestly, are qualified to do so, and maintain that qualification. The goal being equal protection for everyone.

Here are my modest suggestions for dealing with the issues.

  1. Background checks for all firearms purchases
  2. Automatic relinquishment of all firearms upon conviction for any felony or possessing a firearm while intoxicated with a lifetime ban on ownership.
  3. Mandatory licensing of all persons owning firearms with annual renewals (we require hairdressers to renew their license more often than a gun permit)
  4. Seven-day waiting periods for any purchase (pistol, long gun, or shotgun)
  5. Minimum mandatory sentence of 10 years for any criminal act committed while in possession of a firearm, 20 years for the use of a firearm during the commission of a crime. (Perfect opportunity to empty the prisons of non-violent drug offenders and replace them with gun violators)
  6. Mandatory drug screening for all firearms licenses
  7. Mandatory liability insurance for all gun owners.
  8. Remove the product liability protections of weapons manufacturers to come in line with all product liability law. This is a biggie.  See  Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act PLCAA is codified at 15 U.S.C. §§ 7901-7903.
    This prohibits gun manufacturers and dealers from liability. We can sue companies for making soap look like candy, or food service companies for serving scalding coffee, but not weapon manufacturers for producing an inherently dangerous and easily misused product.  It strains credulity.

The other argument is that those that commit these acts suffer from mental disabilities. While this is certainly an aspect of the case, most of those charged with these crimes ultimately stand trial. They may have exhibited irrational behavior but it does not rise to the level of diminished capacity or being unfit to stand trial. A character flaw is not a defense to criminal behavior.

Take all of the tax revenue from the sale of firearms, ammunition, licenses, or any firearm related items and direct it toward access to mental health treatment. Sounds like the proverbial win-win to me.

Here is another rather interesting read, http://www.law.harvard.edu/students/orgs/jlpp/Vol30_No2_KatesMauseronline.pdf

The article dispels certain misconceptions about weapons and the dangers posed and underscore others. Remember knowledge is power, some would prefer to keep us in the dark. Don’t let that happen.

This is a dangerous world. It would seem to me that the American people, if they truly believe this to be the greatest country on the Earth, are wise enough to recognize we have a problem in this country and an obligation to deal with it. Isn’t it enough that a parent worries about things that can happen to a child without adding sending them off to school involving a calculated risk?

There are many smart people in this country, unfortunately very few run for office. We need to encourage intelligent dialog to deal with the problem of gun violence, not useless pandering to a select few.

Some would suggest that arming everyone is the solution. I think about that whenever I see images from other countries with everyone firing AK-47’s in the air and driving Toyota pickup trucks with anti-aircraft weapons.

I do not want to live in an America that is nothing more than an armed camp. The idea that we can eliminate all risk is silly, life is full of uncertainty; the idea that we cannot find a realistic solution to such a serious problem is nonsense. All it takes is for all of us to pay attention, understand the truth, and demand that those in position to find solutions do so or face finding a new place to live and a new job away from Washington DC.

The Folly of Prayer vs. Guns

Here we are, just a few days out from the latest mass shooting, and what have we learned? A systemic failure allowed the shooter to buy firearms. He escaped from a mental health facility. He was court-martialed, imprisoned, and then dishonorably discharged from the Air Force for a conviction relating to domestic violence.

There’s a possibility of a rape case. Murky and unclear on what happened.

We also learned that bump stocks, the accessory which acted as a force multiplier in Las Vegas converting a legal semi-automatic weapon into what was essentially a full-auto, are once again for sale. This contributed to the high casualty count in Las Vegas; just a short time ago and we’ve already forgotten.  (http://money.cnn.com/2017/11/01/smallbusiness/slide-fire-bump-stocks/index.html.)

This restarting of sales, despite now long forgotten long-winded speeches on the floor of the House and Senate to ban such items, boils down to one thing; profits matter more the people.

The company that sells them, after what they must have considered a respectful pause (perhaps it was 58 days, one for each of the dead) ramped up sales again understanding the short-term memory of Americans and the inertia that is our government.

Plz godAnd just like Las Vegas and the incidents before it, scenes of prayers and candlelight vigils with imprecations to “Almighty God” for his compassion and intervention inundate the media.

Let’s get one thing straight. Not one prayer, in the history of the world, has ever prevented anything from happening. No matter how sincere the individuals gathered in prayer may be, not one prayer ever worked.

Now I know there be wailing and gnashing of teeth by the religious who’ll say I cannot know for certain what prayers worked. Nonsense. I saw hundreds of thousands of people, sincere people, pray after each mass shooting incident. While I wasn’t privy to their words, I can make an educated guess that many prayed for God to prevent such incidents.

God didn’t, couldn’t, or wouldn’t.

It underscores the wasted energy and placebo effect that is prayer.  Even my friend and co-blogger on the Heretic and the Holy Man, Kent Harrop, concedes that prayer is not enough. (https://greenpreacherblog.com/2017/11/07/when-prayer-isnt-enough/)

Although he still sees the value in the effort, I disagree.  People prayed to end each and every war. Followed by more wars. People pray and the world continues to turn.

What we require is action. And in our capitalist society, economic action produces results. To change things, to motivate Congress and your fellow Americans to come to grips with the problem of gun violence, you must hit them in the pocketbook.

If profits matter more than people, there lies opportunity.

But what about the Second Amendment and the sacred right of bearing arms? It is a difficult aspect of America to reconcile. But, this article in the NY Times does a good job of putting the heart of the problem in perspective. Our willingness to allow easy access to high-capacity weapons is what differentiates us from the rest of the word.  You cannot stop someone intent on causing harm, but you can limit the means available for him to do so. (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/07/world/americas/mass-shootings-us-international.html)

The Second Amendment provides the right of self-defense to all citizens.  To interpret that to mean carrying concealed weapons to and fro in society is a stretch. To interpret the Second Amendment to mean there can be no limitation on weapons possessed by a citizen, or the amount of ammunition, magazine capacity, or other factors is a fallacy. We already do it to a certain extent, albeit minimal.

The latest shooting underscores the issue.  Aside from the fact he shouldn’t have been able to buy the weapons in the first place, he went to that church with fifteen magazines and fired over Four Hundred and Fifty rounds.

There is not one logical, rational, or legal argument to support an individual owning such level of firepower.

That is the risk of adhering to a strict, inviolable Second Amendment. Safeguarding innocent lives should trump any such interpretation.

To argue that the Second Amendment prevents ANY restriction on possession of firearms is nonsense. It is an argument supported by the NRA and those members of Congress on their payroll, and it must end.

Now, there will be a chorus of voices shouting, “but an Armed American Stopped the carnage.” “If not for him, more would have died.”

If we end gun violence with gun violence, we enter a never-ending cycle. An infinite loop. A zero-sum game. If we accept this, we must resign ourselves to future incidents.

There is one common denominator in most incidents we see from our home-grown shooters, domestic violence. And the history of our dealing with this issue is one fraught with inconsistency and failure.

We have prisons full of non-violent drug offenders, yet treat those who commit domestic violence in a much less serious way. Will jailing all those convicted of domestic violence solve the entire problem? No, but I think it a better use of prison space than someone caught possessing marijuana.

Until we recognize domestic violence as a warning sign and deal with it, i.e., lifetime ban on firearm ownership, forfeiture of all firearms, these incidents will continue.

Until we impose reasonable limitations on magazine capacity and quantity and type of ammunition, these incidents will continue. To kowtow to the argument that AR-15 type firearms are necessary for hunting and limiting weapons capacity infringes on Second Amendment rights is idiocy.

I have no issue with anyone of sound mind owning firearms. I have no issue with anyone owning an AR-15 if they choose that as a weapon for hunting or self-defense. I have an issue with the availability of bump stocks and no restrictions on owning high-capacity magazines and enough ammunition to fire 450 rounds in a church.

On the argument that an armed citizen was the answer to ending the problem, such a philosophy frightens me. The qualifications for getting a concealed carry permit are a joke. There are minimal requirements to show not only the ability to fire a weapon but the wherewithal to judge the circumstances under which identifying and firing on a target is necessary and prudent.

Here’s an interesting point, most Police Department, particularly in large cities, tell their officers not to resort to using their weapons off-duty unless necessary.  The reason? Responding officers face not only dealing with an armed suspect but sorting out the good guys from the bad guys. Just look at the number of “Friendly fire” incidents where cops killed other cops. Add minimally trained civilians into the mix, and it is only a matter of time before a cop kills or is killed by a well-intentioned civilian. Thus, compounding the tragedy.

There are no easy solutions to these problems, but motivating Americans to do something about it may lie in my earlier point. Money talks. If the NRA isn’t willing to compromise, stop supporting them. If Congress doesn’t listen, stop contributing. If companies sell unlimited quantities of ammunition, stop patronizing them.

If we can sue automobile makers for defective products, if  we can hold tobacco companies responsible for a “legal” products bad side effects, if we can sue McDonald’s for selling hot coffee, all of which has made things safer, then why not gun and ammunition makers?

If we do not work toward a solution to the problem, resign yourself to future similar headlines. If you want to waste time praying, have at it. But know this, it will fail, and more innocent people will die because we are unwilling to face our responsibilities.

One definition of insanity is repeating the same action and expecting a different result. That’s the history of prayer in ending these incidents. Hold your faith in any manner you chose, but human intelligence and effort are necessary to solve this problem.

It’s been a while since I sat in a church, but I read all the books. I recall these words, God helps those who help themselves.

Time for us to do something, save praying for the World Series where no one dies.