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Thursday, April 18
The Indiana Daily Student

Syntax and the Second Amendment

Once, after reading the Second Amendment aloud in an English class, a certain professor at this University declared the United States Constitution does not protect the right of individuals to bear arms, it simply is not in the text.

Militias, the professor explained, rely on a cohesion a group of unrelated individuals lacks — plus, there’s no way men of Revolutionary America could have anticipated semi-automatic weapons.

And, for that matter, wouldn’t you just feel so uncomfortable if students were allowed to carry concealed weapons to class? Would concealed carry laws not fundamentally change the intimate environment of a college classroom?

Indeed, the professor’s oratory conjured up many rationales as to how exactly the text of the Second Amendment neglects an individual’s right to bear arms. All of them ignore what humanities departments across the country also too often sacrifice in the name of their humble opinion, the text.

So let’s take a look at the text. The Second Amendment is a relatively straightforward sentence, yet people treat it like it’s James Joyce. I think it’s all the commas.

Punctuation was excessive in the 18th century (see the First and Third Amendments), as were capital letters. In fact, two of the commas in the Second Amendment are unnecessary, the first and the third: “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.” Thus, it is a sentence made of a dependent clause followed by an independent clause.

The author of this sentence structured it so that the second clause is emphasized. There is a passive verb form in the first clause (“being”), and an active verb in the second (“shall not”). These verb forms dictate how the sentence must be read, with “shall not” combining the subject noun “the right” with the nonexistent object noun “by the government” (“The right ... shall not be infringed [by the government].”).

The militia clause is merely a reason why the people shall be able to bear arms. “Militia” is not the subject of the sentence.

For any person with a basic understanding of the English language, this is the only proper interpretation of the Second Amendment, and any other is an attempt to ignore the language.

The Second Amendment does not suddenly mean something different than it did two hundred years ago just because a crazy man guns down twenty children during school — its second clause remains as independent today as it did yesterday.

As Justice Scalia says, “By trying to make the Constitution do everything that needs doing from age to age, we shall have caused it to do nothing at all.”

In the mean time, we will sit obediently in intimate classrooms as authoritarians with Ph.D.’s convince us the words of the Second Amendment preclude an individual from asserting his autonomy with a gun. On this campus, as long as we ignore the text, we’re unarmed.

­— acarlis@indiana.edu

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