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IPFS News Link • Constitution

Understanding Sixteenth Century Grammar Explains the Specificity and Succinctness...

• By Erwin J. Haas MD MBA

"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 first clause has always been a bit of a mystery, but any thoughtful student of Latin, (the aging altar boys on the Supreme Court probably forgot or never understood their Latin) would recognize the gerundive construction. This succinctly expresses the fitness or necessity of its subject to the rest of the sentence. The Latin gerundive creates a kind of polarity that contrasts or creates tension between one phrase and the other. Latin uses this all the time and those of us who translated a lot of that language got "that old gerundive feeling" both in translation and in how we would write English if we tried to write poetry or sound like Shakesphere.

Think about how the first clause contrasts with the second in the following sentence; "The weather being bad, we decided to stay indoors". This sentence sounds stilted to modern ears but we all understand it to say "Because the weather was bad…". Those of us who have retained that old gerundive feeling would normally construe the first phrase of the second amendment as "Because a well regulated Militia", or "In light of the fact that a well regulated Militia (or army) is a necessity for the State,…." in modern language. The Founding Fathers had that old gerundive feeling and used it to express economically and accurately what they wanted to say.

The other key word used in the amendment is "Arms"; the founders did not say "guns". Arms are used by soldiers to bully people and to kill enemies. As a parallel issue, Letters of Marque and Reprisal in the constitution allow for arming private merchant ships so that they could be used for war. The Founders had no problem entrusting Arms and the means of waging war to its citizens. Using guns for protection against robbers or for hunting was not the purpose envisioned in the second amendment. The use of Arms that the Founders envisioned were of course by frontiersmen against hostile Indians, the English and the French. But most of the Founders had also been at war with the King of England and had themselves needed to obtain and use arms. They were nervous about the government that they had just created and clearly meant that the people retain the means to rid themselves of this new government if it became as obnoxious as the King of England had been.


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