The Second Amendment means what it says – not what the NRA says it means

Attendees look at a display of assault rifles during the 2013 NRA Annual Meeting and Exhibits at the George R. Brown Convention Center on May 3, 2013 in Houston, Texas.
Attendees look at a display of assault rifles during the 2013 NRA Annual Meeting and Exhibits at the George R. Brown Convention Center on May 3, 2013 in Houston, Texas. Getty Images

Just as I was preparing to write this piece – for perhaps the dozenth time over the years – a News and Observer letter writer took the words out of my mouth, some of them at least.

Michael Graybeal belonged to the historic “Old Hickory” division when, armed with a loaded weapon, he marched through Wilmington in 1968 in a peacemaking display following the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He writes: “Since [his discharge] I was no longer a member of the well-regulated militia, I did not consider it my right under the Second Amendment to bear a weapon. I still don’t.” His letter was provoked by the wanton slaughter of 17 at a school in Parkland, Fla., and the continuing reduction of an important constitutional provision to baloney. Bravo, Mr. Graybeal! It is refreshing to hear this from a citizen who grasps the literal thrust of 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.”

The meaning is clear but has been twisted by the National Rifle Association (NRA) into a manifesto of permissiveness. Even advocates of sensible gun laws don’t always get it right and unwittingly parrot gun-lobby propaganda: as if the Amendment warrants the private and personal possession of powerful weapons.

In 1791, the time of its framing, the only relevant weapons were muzzle-loading, single-shot muskets of erratic accuracy, mostly used for hunting. So what was the “original intention” of those who wrote, passed and ratified the Second Amendment? The answer is twofold, and both linguistic and historical.

A word of elementary grammar. The Amendment is, in form, one unified sentence in which the first clause serves as the premise of the second clause. The two are interlocking; the second is conditioned on the first. Those who added it to the constitutional text were well aware of the centrality of the militia issue in Anglo-American history. In the then recent English civil war (1641-49) both sides claimed command of the militia, there being no “standing” (national) army. The royal and parliamentary combatants fought each other, and King Charles I was beheaded, over this unsettled issue, at least in part. The framers of the U.S. Constitution and its first 10 amendments knew this crucial history and sought to guarantee that command of any “well regulated militia” belonged to the people of the states, not to Congress or the president.

Linguistically, even a casual inspection of the Bill of Rights makes it clear that when these careful draftsmen intended to guarantee personal and private rights they used the word “persons,” but when speaking of a collective right they used the word “people” – as here.

Notwithstanding the labors of careful grammarians, the NRA and the gun fanatics it claims to represent have reduced the Second Amendment to an incoherent hash in public understanding. It is a mark of their success that even advocates of sensible gun laws often do not grasp its careful phrases or the interdependence of its two clauses. It is a heartless parody of constitutional language and law to pretend that there is anything “well regulated” about the supposed “right” of a mentally disturbed person to buy a weapon of war and turn it on the pupils of a public school – and yet that is the gun lobby’s terrifying logic. It is likewise a parody to say, as Donald Trump did following the Parkland shooting, that the NRA officials are “good people.” So they may be, but their aims are neither good nor public-spirited; they are self-indulgent and often deadly in final effect.

Contributing columnist Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is a former editor and columnist in Washington, D.C.

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