Friday, 22 March 2013

The 'right' to bear arms?

Liz Morrish investigates the language of the Second Amendment.

I spent the recent Winter Break in the USA, arriving in New York on the day of the appalling mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. It seemed from the voices of outrage that this incident might open the way to reform of the permissive laws on gun ownership in the US. Indeed, a whole week passed before any sign of 'pushback' from the politically powerful National Rifle Association. I listened to the Vice President of America's National Rifle Association, Wayne Lapierre, defending what he assumed is his constitutional right to bear arms. To this speaker, it is a Right which is hardly necessary to justify, and brazenly, in the certainty of his analysis, he proclaimed, "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."

This may seem an absurdity to most people in Europe where gun ownership is restricted by law, but in the USA it is well received by a large proportion of the population whose gun ownership rates are 88.8 per 100 people. Indeed CNN were claiming that there are more gun sale outlets in the US than all supermarkets and McDonalds burger restaurants combined.  How did guns become so essential to American culture? Why is personal gun ownership so vigorously defended by so many people? The NRA is fond of pointing to the US Constitution's Second Amendment which is said to guarantee the citizen's right to bear arms, but rarely is the full text of the amendment quoted. What the statute actually says is: "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 right to bear arms is frequently cited by proponents and adversaries of gun control laws, but in the weeks after the Newtown tragedy, I did not hear any mention of the important first clause. 

I am not writing as an expert on constitutional law, rather, I write as a linguist versed in English grammar. There are three things to note about the construction of this statute: firstly, the initial clause ("A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state…”) is a reason-type subordinate clause - it provides the justification for the provision of the main clause. Secondly, we note that this clause is non-finite - it contains no tensed verb - and this usually gives the proposition a general applicability. Thirdly, and most importantly, the clause is placed first, and so fulfils the grammatical role of theme and focus of the sentence. In layman's terms, this first clause is the most important bit of the sentence.

For the founding fathers of the US constitution to have laid so heavy an emphasis on a "well-regulated militia" suggests that this was considered the necessary and appropriate context for the keeping and bearing of arms. They might have envisaged a situation similar to that found in Switzerland where young adult males are expected to serve in a people's militia, and to keep their weapons at home as part of their military obligations, in a state which has no standing army. We can be sure that the second amendment was not drafted with a view to providing untrained civilians with unfettered access to the assault weapon of their choice. At some point, the US state decided to entrust its defence to a national professional military arm, not a civilian militia.  It is unfathomable that Members of Congress could attempt to justify the carrying of concealed weapons on university campuses and the routine arming of teachers. It is already common to find US college campuses employing their own armed police force. We can only hope that they are "well regulated", but the consequences of both police and students having guns is a prospect I'm glad we do not face at NTU or the UK generally.

The US quite rightly defends its Constitution vigorously, but the language of the statute ensures that there need be no undermining of its wisdom in order to bring about serious restriction on gun ownership.   

Liz Morrish is Principal Lecturer in Linguistics in the Centre.

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