Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Comma Triggers Gun Debate

What does a comma have to do with gun rights? Aside from the eerie likeness of a comma and a trigger, the two may have more in common than we ever realized. In fact, the Supreme Court is currently deliberating over a key test case of gun rights (i.e., the 2nd Amendment)—and the decision will rest largely on how they read commas.

Here's the 2nd Amendment as it appears in the US 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.”

Three pesky commas—and how to read them? Before reading on, make up your mind.

Gun rights advocates read the commas as "throat clearing"—front porch, if you will. They believe the first two phrases—up until the word "state" are unrelated to what follows. Therefore, they argue, the framers of the Constitution clearly protect the "right to bear arms."

Gun rights opponents read those first two phrases as modifying the right. In other words, they translate the Amendment this way: because militias are necessary for a free state, individual people must keep and bear arms. Since we have a well-funded militia, there is no need for—no necessary guarantee of—people bearing arms.

Wherever you come down on this issue, the pen—the lowly punctuation mark—may, indeed, be mightier than the sword. Maybe that's what the Irish poet Seamus Heaney had in mind when he wrote his poem "Digging" which opens this way: "Between my finger and my thumb/This squat pen rests, snug as a gun." (At least I think there's a comma in that last line!)

For a further explication, read the link of a recent New York Times Op-ed on this issue.

5 comments:

Brandon said...

When I first read the quote, I felt that it was stating that both a well-regulated militia and the right to bear arms should not be infringed. Adam Freedman, in the Op-ed, brings up three really good points 1) If you read the line without commas, it appears that the right of the people is only necessary to help the militia. I personally feel that just by removing the commas doesn't necessarily change the meaning of the quote because commas usually just list points to a sentence. 2) In the original Constitution, the words "state", "arms" and "militia" are capitalized, whereas "people" isn't, perhaps stating the importance of those words. 3) The main clause that forms from the "absolute clause" (as the article states) would say "Because a well regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed."

I also feel that the gun-right opponent's point is also pretty unwarranted. Although we have a well-funded and probably well regulated military, guns are still, under the framer's mind, necessary because the clause that "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed" is still written. Even if there aren't any reasons besides the "well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state" clause, I feel that the fact that it is listed in the Constitution is a reason that it should be taken into account. For example, there isn't a reason in the Constitution that we deserve the right to a speedy trial.

Although I believe both that citizens deserve a right to have a well-regulated militia and the right to bear arms, I personally feel that the right to bear arms should be limited to an extent. For example, a few months ago I blogged about perhaps limiting people to only own firearms used for hunting.

Sam B. said...

Adam Freedman says, "Advocates of both gun rights and gun control are making a tactical mistake by focusing on the commas of the Second Amendment." I believe that maybe we all are reading into the punctuation a little too much. Freedman poses the question that if we care so much about commas, why don't we care about the weird capitalization of the constitution? Regardless of my opinion, i think we may all be reading to much into one comma. I agree with the guns-rights activists that the commas were merely a stop-gap in order for the constitution to sound better. But, i do not agree with "the right to bear arms." So many people are dying senseless deaths to due the fact that just about anyone can have a gun. For instance, in the last month or so, 5 prominent athletes have been involved with altercations involving guns. We are endangering ourselves by allowing everyone to possess a gun, and that is why i believe we should severely limit the second amendment.

helfmank said...

When I read the 2nd amendment, it reads the same since I first learned about it in the 8th grade. It reads the same as it does now. Why would at this point in life would they need to start worrying about comma punctuation, in order to find out what they second amendment was really inferring. It was understood when the amendment was first written and had been ever since. I don't understand why they would change that now. Especially when there are more important issues to be worked on, given that the Judicial branch isn't as powerful as the other. As I have learned, they are a small circle.

Sara D said...

I have a hard time understanding why people are reading so much into 3 punctuation marks. I agree with Kevin, I think that the punctuation marks are pretty clear. I think this is just another one of those instances in which people try to find those little "loopholes" in the Constitution just so they can get what they want out of it. Personally, I agree with Sam in the fact that people should not be able to personally hold any weapons of any kind themselves. As we have seen in the past, it can only hurt, and really does no good for our society. It simply promotes violence, which is what our country is supposed to be opposed to.

Bolos said...

Hey New Trier students! This is actually Bolos' daughter... figured I have an opinion, might as well post it:

I agree with Sara- it seems like this is an argument purely created for the gun rights advocates to get what they want through a ridiculous loophole.

However, if we must argue about this, my take on it is as follows: the basic meaning of the sentence is "A well regulated militia... shall not be infringed." The two phrases in the middle are only there to describe why the militia is needed and what that will mean.

Some may argue that 'it still says "the RIGHT of the people..."' but it does NOT say that right shall not be infringed. It does NOT say that the right cannot be limited.

My personal opinion is that unnecessary incidents come from unlimited gun ownership, whether by accident or intentionally.

wow! okay... gotta go do wheaton north homework now! bye everybody!