The massacre of children at a Connecticut elementary school by a deranged young man using an assault weapon riveted the attention of Americans on a subject that they never leave alone for very long, and that their legislators have found no endurable solution for: finding a balance between the protection of the putative right to own guns, and the protection of life, liberty, and happiness that is threatened by the very people who own those guns. The challenge is to craft laws that will adequately protect the public while remaining consistent with the second amendment of the US Constitution, which is now specifically interpreted to mean that individuals have a right to possess a firearm for traditionally legal purposes, such as self-defense.

A 2008 Supreme Court case, District of Columbia v. Heller, is the cornerstone on which this interpretation of the amendment rests, and the arguments put forward in the majority opinion in this case are very specific about language and definitions. Here is a pertinent excerpt:

Before addressing the verbs keep and bear, we interpret their object: Arms. The term was applied, then as now, to weapons that were not specifically designed for military use and were not employed in a military capacity. Thus, the most natural reading of "keep Arms" in the Second Amendment is to "have weapons." At the time of the founding, as now, to "bear" meant to "carry." In numerous instances, "bear arms" was unambiguously used to refer to the carrying of weapons outside of an organized militia. . . The phrase "bear Arms" also had at the time of the founding an idiomatic meaning that was significantly different from its natural meaning: "to serve as a soldier, do military service, fight" or "to wage war." But it unequivocally bore that idiomatic meaning only when followed by the preposition against. Every example given by petitioners' amici for the idiomatic meaning of "bear arms" from the founding period either includes the preposition "against" or is not clearly idiomatic. In any event, the meaning of "bear arms" that petitioners and Justice Stevens propose is not even the (sometimes) idiomatic meaning. Rather, they manufacture a hybrid definition, whereby "bear arms" connotes the actual carrying of arms (and therefore is not really an idiom) but only in the service of an organized militia. No dictionary has ever adopted that definition, and we have been apprised of no source that indicates that it carried that meaning at the time of the founding. Worse still, the phrase "keep and bear Arms" would be incoherent. The word "Arms" would have two different meanings at once: "weapons" (as the object of "keep") and (as the object of "bear") one-half of an idiom. It would be rather like saying "He filled and kicked the bucket" to mean "He filled the bucket and died."

This unusually detailed analysis about the historical meaning of words, in which the minority justices are accused of resorting to zeugma to make their point, was written by Justice Antonin Scalia. He is known for his close attention to linguistic matters. Scalia is identified as a textualist (one who believes that a statute's ordinary meaning should govern its interpretation) and an originalist (one who holds that interpretation of law should be based on what reasonable persons contemporaneous with the law thought it meant). This position can be arduous to defend because of the lack of facilities that would ensure it against doubt and dispute: namely, mind-reading combined with time travel. Our only access to the minds of the Founding Fathers and the milieu in which they thought and lived is their language. Here are a few things you can find by poking around the language that survives from the time when the US Constitution and its amendments were committed to paper.

Two collections of writings that bear on this investigation are the Federalist Papers (essays promoting the ratification of the United States Constitution by the then inchoate United States) and the Anti-Federalist Papers (papers written in opposition to ratification of the Constitution). Both collections of papers are available online and searchable.

The term "arms" (always plural) does in fact come up repeatedly in the Federalist Papers: 14 times in all, a couple of times denoting human appendages, but usually with reference to weapons of war and weapons carried by soldiers. Here are some typical examples:

At present I mean only to consider it as it respects security
for the preservation of peace and tranquillity, as well as against
dangers from foreign arms and influence, as from dangers of the like
kind arising from domestic causes.

Carthage, though a commercial republic, was the aggressor in the
very war that ended in her destruction. Hannibal had carried her
arms into the heart of Italy and to the gates of Rome . . .

To oblige the great body of the yeomanry, and of the other classes
of the citizens, to be under arms for the purpose of going through
military exercises and evolutions . . .

To these would be opposed a militia amounting to near half a million of
citizens with arms in their hands, officered by men chosen from
among themselves, fighting for their common liberties, and united
and conducted by governments possessing their affections and

Words that designate a single, portable weapon, such as gun, musket, flintlock, pistol, rifle, and firearm, do not appear in the Federalist Papers. Neither do the words owner or ownership appear in the Federalist Papers, although these words are both central in the debate that is going on today concerning people and guns.

The Anti-Federalist Papers, written anonymously by then prominent opponents of the Federalists, favored a decentralized, minimalist United States, in which any form of central government would have severely limited powers, with states that were largely self-governing. The Anti-Federalists were even opposed to the establishment of a national standing army. Here are some quotes from their writings.

They [the newly formed Congress] well know the impolicy of putting or keeping arms in the hands of a nervous people, at a distance from the seat of a government, upon whom they mean to exercise the powers granted in that government.

The European governments are almost all of them framed, and administered with a view to arms, and war, as that in which their chief glory consists.

At the distant appearance of danger to these [the natural and unalienable rights of men], we took up arms in the late Revolution.

The Anti-Federalist Papers also do not mention guns, rifles, or firearms, owner, or ownership. That notwithstanding, if you read through some of the amici briefs supporting Heller in District of Columbia v. Heller, you will find that many writers there also take the unusual license of purporting to know exactly what the Founding Fathers were thinking and talking about.

What were the Founding Fathers, and their peers and detractors, thinking and talking about? This is a question that is also on the mind of my VT colleague Dennis Baron in a recent blog post. (He co-authored the "Linguists' Brief" that Scalia references in his opinion.) It seems a stretch, given their centrally important writings, to posit that they had already settled the matter of keeping arms as it is being debated today since their writings do not reflect that they addressed the subject in any way that resembles the context of the current debate.

It seems impossible now to remove the constitutional question from the issue of gun control. What would the debate be like if it were discussed simply as a present and pressing problem, without reference to the weighty authority imposed by the imagined thoughts of the estimable but long-dead Founding Fathers? It's unsettling that the current debate so much resembles a pattern that can be discerned in other contemporary debates: take a canonical and sacrosanct text, insist on a particular reading of a part of it as the only intended and true interpretation, and then use the perceived authority of the text as a weapon to diminish the views of those who disagree with you.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Friday February 1st 2013, 1:16 AM
Comment by: Bruce B. (Salem, MA)
Great article. Thanks.
Friday February 1st 2013, 4:10 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
This article is very interesting, as is the Linguists' Brief that you link to!
Friday February 1st 2013, 8:33 AM
Comment by: john F. (roseville, MN)
Very interesting and thought provoking article. I question the implied premise that the right to own and bear arms is incompatible with the protection of life, liberty, and happiness. My belief is that they are complementary concepts. Of course, I am biased.
Friday February 1st 2013, 8:36 AM
Comment by: Joe ..."crazy about words" (greenport, NY)
Thank You, Orin!

Indeed we have not held the 2nd amendment up to the light of current context, as we have so many other parts of the Constitution. It is not only language which has evolved, but our entire culture.

So many laws that are beneficial to the overall good do limit individual freedom. Those relating to protecting us from inhaling secondary smoke come to mind.

If we keep on going as we are, billionaires will be buying weapons of mass destruction as a constitutional right!

Joe Mc Kay
"Crazy About Words"
Friday February 1st 2013, 8:46 AM
Comment by: Dwight H.
OK. Throw out the Constitution. We cannot know what it means, so it serves no purpose. Then we in the present, who are so much more intelligent than our ancestors, can solve our problems out of whole cloth without reference to them. What did they know anyway? We can just divorce current issues from the past because it has no relevance. But can we? Should we? The question is not only what did they intend, but why these issues were important. The Constitution reflects not just the opinions of the founders, but the fundamental will of the people as the structure of the government under which they agreed to live. That is what makes it so unique and so precious. Its purpose was to define the responsibilities and limits of that government and to protect the people from overreaching and abuse of authority. They believed that the right to "keep and bear" was one of those "inalienable rights." Apparently they feared a government monopoly on the use of force and did not wish to deny the people a fundamental tool of self, family, and community defense, not to mention the other uses of firearms. That seems clear enough. One only has to look at history then and since, without reference to the Constitution, to figure that out. It seems to me that they had good reason. Have these issues gone away or changed out of all relevance? If so, the people can agree through their representatives to amend the constitution; there are specified ways to do that. However, current officials cannot do so unilaterally based on their own wishes concerning what the Constitution should mean. That is not the rule of the people, but tyranny. Is the will of the people clear and canonical and sacrosanct? I would say so and I believe most citizens of this great country agree.
Friday February 1st 2013, 10:00 AM
Comment by: WIlliam C. D.
Your opening paragraph states...

"finding a balance between the protection of the putative right to own guns, and the protection of life, liberty, and happiness that is threatened by the very people who own those guns."

...Implies that everyone that owns a gun is threatening everybody else whether they own a gun or not!

I suggest you re-examine the facts and statistics on this issue as they clearly show that the general population has nothing to fear from law biding gun owners who, as the data also shows, only threaten criminals, game animals, and the U.S. Government.

I would also suggest a reevaluation of the definition of 'Gun Owner' as criminals rarely own guns. That is to say they usually steal them or obtain them through illegal channels thus further reinforcing the argument that they are criminals who own illegal guns.
Friday February 1st 2013, 10:03 AM
Comment by: WIlliam C. D.
As there is no edit feature here, I'd like to correct my last sentence to read ... "criminals who have illegal guns in their possession."
Friday February 1st 2013, 11:36 AM
Comment by: Allan F. (New York, NY)
The second amendment begins with a qualifying phrase that encompasses all that follows, yet this phrase is universally ignored in the multitudinous discussions of gun control. "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state..." was established long ago in the form of the National Guard. The Guard's weapons are surely "well regulated." The logical conclusion is that the founding of the National Guard fulfilled the premise of the second amendment and thus rendered it moot. Why is this premise never discussed?

Allan F.
Friday February 1st 2013, 11:53 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Allan F: good point! That premise is in fact discussed in great detail in this paper by my friend and colleague Jeffrey Kaplan; he is the same Jeffrey Kaplan who is a co-author on the Linguists' Brief that is linked to in the article.

Dwight H: I agree wholeheartedly with the spirit of your comment but you do the very thing that I think is the greatest danger here: you assume that your reading of the Second Amendment is the only true and accurate one, while disregarding other, cogently argued interpretations, such as Mr. Kaplan's.
Friday February 1st 2013, 1:15 PM
Comment by: Craig J.
I truly wish the paid contributors to the Visual Thesaurus site would stop using it for thinly veiled issue advocacy; I feel duty bound to waste my time in response. Even given your linguistic sleight of hand, and granting your ahistoric approach to constitutional law, there are good and sufficient reasons for law-abiding citizens to own and carry (gasp!)semi-automatic rifles and handguns with (horrors!)mutliple rounds. Keeping and bearing arms allows we the people to shoot back at our "betters" in government when (more or less inevitably, given human nature) they misbehave as did the German National Socialists, Italian Fascists, and Communists in Russia, China, Cambodia, etc.; it also acts as something of a deterrent to such misbehavior in the first place. Another reason to be armed, and one that went without saying in early America, and should go without saying in any time and place, is to permit those of us who aren't big, beefy and aggressive to fight back against those who are (hear that, ladies and GENTLEmen?). Way down on the list of things protected are duck hunting and target shooting for sport. With or without the authority of the dead past (about which, see Faulkner quote on the subject of the dead past), present reason should protect our right to keep and bear arms. And no, I don't have a gun (I live in the benighted state of Illinois), and don't belong to the NRA, but I am glad that others own guns and join up. The more, the better. In a nation of more than 300,000,000 souls, the gunshot deaths suffered from wingnuts and unexecuted criminals represent the price we pay for the good results mentioned above. Don't let your efforts to achieve the perfect destroy the good.
Friday February 1st 2013, 5:17 PM
Comment by: Barbara S. (Arlington, VA)
"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state..." was established long ago in the form of the National Guard.

So, the National Guard was originally comprised of ordinary citizens with weapons?! Who then became "well regulated" in how to organize and use them in combat against what they viewed to be a monster oppressive government?! Scandalous.

Some Brits are still very proud, and that's ok; Hell, I'm a proud Southerner. I know what it's like to be on the losing side.

I agree with Craig J.
Friday February 1st 2013, 6:40 PM
Comment by: mac
has the Constitution led us to our current state of affairs wherein we seem unwilling to fix this broken government? (it sure looks to be broken).
seven articles and twenty-seven amendments. is it time for a constitutional convention?
everything changes and yes, morality too.
Friday February 1st 2013, 11:14 PM
Comment by: Clarence W.
From the first time I was chased by thugs with knives as a 10 year old, I understood that my right to life, liberty and happiness was contingent upon having the means to meet deadly force with deadly force.
Saturday February 2nd 2013, 11:52 AM
Comment by: Craig J.
Note to mac: If morality can change, it's a humbug, a fantasy. It is either built in to natural law, established by the Creator, or something we make up as we go along, like little kids doing role play. If the last is the case, morality is constructed by power, not reason, and that point of view leads to excesses like those of the French and Russian Revolution, and Hitler,Stalin, Pol Pot,Mao Tse Tung, et al. You can have your theory of moral relativity, I'll stick with absolute morality and natural law and the ongoing efforts to understand them.
Saturday February 2nd 2013, 1:31 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
As this comment thread has already illustrated Godwin's Law, I'd like to ask that any further discussion hew to the linguistic points of Orin's column to avoid any partisan name-calling.
Saturday February 2nd 2013, 10:49 PM
Comment by: Carl S. (Oceanside, CA)
A very deep and enchanting article. I for one believe in the concept of a living constitution and bill of rights, just as people live and change, these documents were never intended to be "cast in stone" but to be flexible enough to keep this democracy safe and sound as it grew and thrived, and changed. So, beyond the linguistic morass of the law, we come face to face with weapons of -war- being loosed upon the citizenry when the laws must be brought up to conform with the realities of the times.
So, in summary, there is no sense of self defense implied in the word ...
Sunday February 3rd 2013, 5:54 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
(Some comments have been removed in the interest of maintaining civil discourse.)
Sunday February 3rd 2013, 8:35 PM
Comment by: James T.
Hargraves should stick to lexicography and stay away from philosophy. His position appears to undermine the usefulness of his own profession.

Contrary to the comment by Allan F., the term "Militia" in the Second Amendment does not refer to the National Guard. It refers to any body of citizens who organize themselves for the armed defense of themselves, their families, and their communities. We could use some neighborhood militias in Chicago. Also, the reference to Militia is not a qualifier, but a statement of primary purpose, which in no way limits the applicability of the mandate that follows it.
Monday February 4th 2013, 7:03 PM
Comment by: Barbara S. (Arlington, VA)
"As this comment thread has already illustrated Godwin's Law, I'd like to ask that any further discussion hew to the linguistic points of Orin's column to avoid any partisan name-calling."

Interesting that you've indicated which side of the argument you're on to the effect that anyone arguing otherwise has lost and yet no one can remove your posts...

...That brings me to the on-topic point that I believe Mr. Orin's column to be a name calling-out in the context of linguistic study.
Monday February 4th 2013, 7:55 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor

In my duty as a moderator, I have removed comments falling on both sides of the argument. Neither side has a monopoly on civility, or incivility as the case may be.
Monday February 4th 2013, 8:43 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Ben, it does seem that there are quite a few articles that are politically oriented.

If that is to be so, then I think the discussion is bound to be political also.

Absent the name-calling, and any trolling, I think it is good that we remind the columnists from time to time that there is more than one political point of view in the United States, as there is in Canada.

Monday February 4th 2013, 8:49 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I understand the historical context in a somewhat different fashion from that presented here.

At the time of the revolution, the American people had not been able even to import an iron (or steel?) shovel. All that was controlled by the mother country.

I think there might have been an undercurrent of 'we always have to be able to take care of ourselves' present.

And in much of the populace, it still exists. If everything depends on the ability and will of the government to protect our rights and values, if we are totally dependent on the elected or co-opeted will, then we have no rights to defend, only orders.

I think there is a major division in the United States (and somewhat in Canada) regarding this.

Much of the appeal of the New World was that it was not The Old one, with all its control.

Europe has much to recommend it. But the attitude collectively is different.
Wednesday February 6th 2013, 7:00 PM
Comment by: Barbara S. (Arlington, VA)
I'll have to take your word for it, Ben. I didn't get a chance to read the posts before they were deleted. I appreciate you working to keep things sane.

These are brilliant comments, Jane. I think this is why so many people become frightened at the notion of altering the 2nd.

"I think there might have been an undercurrent of 'we always have to be able to take care of ourselves' present.

And in much of the populace, it still exists. If everything depends on the ability and will of the government to protect our rights and values, if we are totally dependent on the elected or co-opeted will, then we have no rights to defend, only orders."

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