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  • Supreme Court rules that guns don't kill people; throwing out DC gun law, Scalia finds that linguists are mad hatters living on the other side of the looking glass

    On Thursday the U.S. Supreme Court, voting 5-4, threw out the Washington, D.C. ban on handguns because, in its view, the Second Amendment gives every American the right to own a gun.

    The Second Amendment states,

    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.

    Writing the majority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia agreed with a linguistic analysis that the Amendment’s prefatory first clause – stressing the importance of a well-regulated militia -- gives the reason for its operative second clause (3).  But wait, said Justice Scalia, there’s more. 

    True, Scalia writes, according to the amendment Americans have the right to keep and bear arms – specifically, guns – so they can serve in the militia (in the 18th century, militiamen [always men] were expected to show up with their own guns, a practice that is frowned on by the military today).  But, he adds, Americans also need those guns to exercise their longstanding Common Law right to kill one another in self defense, and to bear arms against animals as well as paper targets at firing ranges.  Scalia fails to explain why English Common law, one basis of American Constitutional Law, permits the British to enact strict gun control on their side of the pond. 

    Firing range target

    The linguists’ amicus brief in the Heller case read the Second Amendment in the context of eighteenth-century English grammar and lexicography to show what it meant to the framers, and what it still means today.  The majority disagreed with several of our findings.  The minority found our analysis more convincing.

    Always ready to insult those who disagree with his interpretations, J. Scalia called the linguistic analyses supporting the D.C. law “unknown this side of the looking glass (except, apparently, in some courses on Linguistics)” and worthy of the mad hatter” (16).   

    Justice Scalia makes a potentially obscene gesture 

    However, the justice’s explanations of what something means aren’t always convincing.  The Boston Herald was skeptical when J. Scalia explained that the gesture he used in 2006 to demonstrate his opinion of his critics, captured by the Herald photo shown above, is not obscene, just Sicilian, and that anyway, he’s American, not Italian.  Since cameras aren’t allowed in the Supreme Court, it’s not clear whether Justice Scalia accompanied his written opinion in the case of Washington, D.C. v. Heller with a similarly graphic gesture. 

    Justice John Paul Stevens and the three other dissenting justices weren’t convinced by Scalia’s explication of the Second Amendment, either.  In his dissent, J. Stevens complains that Scalia’s parsing of the amendment is “overwrought and novel” (17). 

    Looking at the same 27 words of the amendment, Stevens comes up with a linguistic analysis that is the polar opposite of Scalia’s: “When each word in the text is given full effect, the Amendment is most naturally read to secure to the people a right to use and possess arms in conjunction with service in a well-regulated militia” (16).

    According to Stevens, the text of the Second Amendment covers only the right to keep and bear arms for military purposes.  It doesn’t permit, or even discuss, gun ownership for hunting, personal self-defense, or committing crimes, even though guns are frequently used for these and other purposes (1). 

    Although J. Scalia equates linguists with mad hatters living on the other side of the looking glass, what goes on in linguistics courses actually illuminates how language works.  No Supreme Court ruling can change that.

    The majority and minority opinions in Heller show that two groups of highly-educated people can look at the same text and come to opposite conclusions about its meaning.  Former acting Solicitor General Walter Dellinger, who argued the Heller case for Washington, D.C., noted in a conference call after the decision that the justices apparently found no middle ground, no basis for compromise, as they decided this case.  That, and the closeness of the vote, suggest that the Second Amendment remains ambiguous both among justices of the Supreme Court, and beyond the Beltway as well. 

    A pro-gun demonstration

    But despite the closeness of the vote, one interpretation of the problematic text becomes law, the other becomes a legal footnote.  And that, in turn, suggests something else that students learn in linguistics courses: although both sides in Heller insist that they are reading the Second Amendment as it's meant to be read, words don’t make meaning, people do.

    Comedian Eddie Izzard 

    As Eddie Izzard put it, “the National Rifle Association says that, ‘Guns don't kill people, people do,’ but I think the gun helps.”  On the other hand, as the NRA also tells us, it’s people, not their writing instruments, who both make meaning and misspell words.  And that’s why the framers of the Constitution had the foresight to give us all spell checkers, and linguists routinely caution us not to put too much faith in the thesaurus that comes with our word processors. 

#1
ipeckh1@lsu.edu Jun 30, 2008 10:05 am

 

Excerpt from notes I'm writing for students at LSU.

 

Should Everyone Have Hir Own Gun?

A final note on politics, grammar, and clear writing: If you want to see and discuss the damage that poor writing can do, look at the Second Amendment:

 

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.”

 

You might try in your class to interpret precisely what that sentence means. A good way to approach this discussion would be to examine the effects of commas (whether they should or shouldn’t be there and how the meaning changes as a consequence of their presence and absence) and conjunctions (like “and”). Another good way to interpret the second amendment is to research the historical events and discussions in the Congress that led to it (e.g.: a militia verses a standing army). It’s also worth noting that people of different political persuasions cite different versions of the Second Amendment, casually deleting commas to prove their points.

 

You might consider in your class how the meaning would be changed if the writers had said one of the following:

 

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State and the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

 

or

 

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, and the right of each person to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.”

 

The founding mothers and fathers who wrote the second amendment clearly could have improved their writing J. Think of the arguments and occasional acts of violence this ambiguity has provoked. If they had just written what they meant, everyone could have gone happily off to dinner.

#2
ipeckh1@lsu.edu Jun 30, 2008 3:48 pm

Ok: I'll add a 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. 

they would consider a noun phrase an absolute (A well-regulated Militia)?  And was it 18th century common pracitce to place commas between rather simple subjects (the right of the people to keep and bear arms) and verbs?  "A well-regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State" would seem like a comfortable absolute hardly needing a pause for breath--or did they all speak like George Bush:  I think that everyone pause pause pause understands pause pause that the pause Weapons of Mass Desctruction pause pause are now in Syria.

I noted in one document that the secretary changed a structure (I don't have it at hand--should be doing other things) composed by the framers Independent Clause; but Independent Clause to Independent Clause, but Independent Clause  [that was in one of the earlier statements proposed for the 2nd Amend.

#3
ipeckh1@lsu.edu Jul 1, 2008 7:05 am

I have just glanced at the Decl of Ind and Jefferson's version to get a scan of punctuation patterns. They look quite modern to me, the primary difference (this was just a scan) being the use of commas between coordinated phrases, whereas mondern convention tends to restrict them to coordinated clauses.  Inserting a comma between a noun and the modifying participle in an absolute after only three words would seem odd--unless one could find many other instances of good writers who followed the same construction.  I admit that it seems equally odd that one could infringe a Militia.  It seems as if "rights" of the Militia is a suppressed subject.  I enjoyed, at any rate, reading your brief.  Great work.

#4
ipeckh1@lsu.edu Jul 3, 2008 9:51 am

I keep thinking about this:

 

 

“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.”

 

or

 

“The right of a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State and to the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” 

 

or

 

“The right of a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, and the right of each person--including women, indentured servants, and slaves--to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.” 

#5
SamuelRiv@gmail.com Aug 6, 2008 8:06 pm

Or how about, "Since arms were a lot different back in our day, what with muzzle-loaders and smoky powders, a steak knife was more effective for committing a crime; we need proper weaponry to keep us safe from tyranny, so don't take our guns!"

But I guess an amicus filed by a military historian would have had Scalia citing the oft-forgotten "Ye Olde Uzi Sub-machine-gunne" as contemporary arms for the time, also.

Popular physics is in a pretty rotten state thanks to misguided bestsellers from string theorists (*cough*Hawking=idiot*cough*), and judging from the previous posts, people have really missed the point of linguistics, too. While I admire your efforts for the good of the country, such analyses may in the end only weaken the cause of scientific literacy.

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