E Plebnista

I am not a gun guy. It’s a fair statement to say that there is one thing in the world that I hate, and it’s guns.

Guns have no purpose other than to kill. Worse, they are impersonal. They do not discriminate. A two year old playing with a rifle can be just as deadly as a man who’s been hunting with the same weapon for seventy years.

If I could wave a magic wand, and send all guns into the sun, I would.

But, “The Second Amendment,” you say. “It’s my right to have a gun.”

Yes. The Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States does affirm that the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. But when you affirm that right, you are saying to the world, “I promise to keep this gun safe until times of emergency, and never become a threat to the security of a free state.”

But it was not the second amendment proposed by James Madison in 1789. That had to do with the apportionment of the House of Representatives.

And what we call today the First Amendment was the fourth. Madison proposed nineteen specific changes to the document that defines our country, which were eventually argued and consolidated down to twelve.

Ten were accepted by the states in the 1791. One (the original second amendment, I might add) finally passed muster in 1992, and became the Twenty-Seventh.

So why do I bring this up today? Because people are arguing comma placement again, as they always do when someone is shot. Because people like me who don’t like guns and want them gone are in direct opposition to those who want guns to prove they are free from tyranny.

I don’t have a magic wand, and you are free to celebrate your freedoms in any way you see fit, as long as you don’t threaten my life, liberty, or pursuit of happiness (apart from the implied unhappiness I have that guns exist at all). I’m not even angry at the neighbor who sets off a cannon whenever he (presumably) feels like it in the middle of a residential neighborhood. I don’t see how it is necessary to the security of a free state, but I absolutely recognize that is a form of speech, and he is free to express it.

But I am moved to write today by comma placement.

Here’s Madison’s proposed text from June of 1789

The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country: but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person.

Notice the absolute lack of commas. Not a one. A semicolon and a colon block off the passage about a well regulated militia. Semicolons denote two closely related independent clauses. A colon separates independent clauses when the latter explains, illustrates, or limits the first.

Commas, commas are messy. They are imprecise. They are nuanced, and rely on a common framework for clarity.

Commas give you this, a statement specifically designed for ambiguity.

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.

Note the differences. Two statements became four, with the commonly accepted rules of sentence construction demanding that all subsequent statements are subservient to the first. To pass the amendment, it had to shift from “No one can take away your guns” to “We need a well regulated Militia.”

A compulsory Militia at that, given that the conscientious objector clause was specifically removed. When the Selective Service Act of 1917 established the Draft, there was no way to indicate your convictions until you were actually called up.

In 2017, there still isn’t.

Which brings us back around to the freedom of speech, as defined by the First Amendment. Here’s the official text:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

And here’s what Madison proposed:

Fourthly. That in article 1st, section 9, between clauses 3 and 4, be inserted these clauses, to wit: The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, infringed.

The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments; and the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable.

The people shall not be restrained from peaceably assembling and consulting for their common good; nor from applying to the Legislature by petitions, or remonstrances, for redress of their grievances.

If you read that as three separate amendments, you’re right. But if you followed my link above, you may have noticed that the text about bearing arms was in the same section, as were some other gems you may recognize.

No soldiers shall in time of peace be quartered in any house without the consent of the owner; nor at any time, but in a manner warranted by law.

No person shall be subject, except in cases of impeachment, to more than one punishment or one trial for the same offence; nor shall be compelled to be a witness against himself; nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor be obliged to relinquish his property, where it may be necessary for public use, without a just compensation.

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

The rights of the people to be secured in their persons, their houses, their papers, and their other property, from all unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated by warrants issued without probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, or not particularly describing the places to be searched, or the persons or things to be seized.

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, to be informed of the cause and nature of the accusation, to be confronted with his accusers, and the witnesses against him; to have a compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor; and to have the assistance of counsel for his defence.

The exceptions here or elsewhere in the Constitution, made in favor of particular rights, shall not be so construed as to diminish the just importance of other rights retained by the people, or as to enlarge the powers delegated by the Constitution; but either as actual limitations of such powers, or as inserted merely for greater caution.

Because Madison believed in freedom. He’d fought for it. He’d sacrificed for it. He’d seen what happened when these truths were not self evident. And he felt that the right to bear arms was on equal footing to the free exercise of religion, the right to peaceable assembly, and the freedom of the press.

So my opinions on guns aren’t likely to change, and according to the framers, they don’t have to. They are tools, and in the hands of a skilled person, can kill people real good. Words can do the same, and I’m using them the best way I know how.

But my opinion on freedom is equally inviolate. It has to be, or all the pain and sacrifice we as a nation have gone through has been for nothing.

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