The meaning of words evolves over the centuries. This evolution causes confusion when contemporary readers try to understand the original meaning of old writing.
The verb “resent” for example, once meant to express emotion, good or bad, in response to the actions of others. In the 17th Century, a person might write honestly to a friend, “I deeply resent the wonderful box of chocolates you sent me.” A modern reader could easily misunderstand the meaning of “resent” in that sentence and believe that the writer felt angry at his friend.
I think this same problem bedevils contemporary discussions of the 2nd Amendment. The meaning of key words and phrases in the passage evolved over the last two centuries. Applying modern definitions of these words obscures the original clear meaning of the amendment.
The 2nd Amendment in its original form reads:
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.
Today, “regulated” most commonly means, “placed under government oversight.” Militia implies the civilian reserve of the national military. “security of a free state” means protecting the national government from external attack. “The people” means all citizens considered in concert. Given these modern definitions and shadings, a naive reader might interpret the 2nd Amendment as stating:
A military reserve, supervised by the national government, being necessary to protect the State from external attack, the right of the people collectively to maintain and use weapons shall not be infringed.
Indeed, many advocates of disarming law-abiding citizens argue that the 2nd Amendment does define merely the right of individual American states to maintain a military reserve for the federal government.
However, such a reading not only requires massive ignorance about the thinking and experience of the founders and their generation but also a lack of awareness of the changing definitions of words.
In 1792, “regulated” as applied to military matters contained no connotation of political oversight or control. Instead, it meant trained and organized. In a time when soldiers fought by moving in large, coordinated formations, order meant everything to military effectiveness. They used “regular” in the sense we use when we speak of of a regular angle or polygon. “Regulated” military units were organized into consistent, interchangeable units that made battlefield information management more efficient. “Unregulated” military units were just unorganized groups of men that could not fight as effectively as did “regulated” units. The use of “regulated” versus “unregulated” held no connotations of political control at all but merely described the units’ state of military organization.
With the passage of time, armies raised by centralized governments proved more organized than those raised by citizens. The phrase “regular army” evolved to mean one controlled by a centralized authority and “irregular army” evolved to mean an ad hoc one. The original use of the words to describe the organizational state of the army at any given time disappeared.
In 1792, “militia” held no connotations of a military reserve. Instead, the term applied entirely to self-organized groups of citizens operating out of their own shared authority. A “militia” differed from an “army” in that a central executive such as a monarch raised armies, but when citizens acted themselves they raised “militias”. Nothing in the use of the word “militia” prior to the 20th Century implied any degree of state sanction. In both colonial and frontier times, groups of citizens raised “militias” on their own authority at any time of their choosing and organized them as they saw fit. Prior to the Civil War, most campaigns against Native Americans were carried out by militias organized in frontier communities. Indeed, for people of the founders’ generation, no current American military organization would qualify as a “militia”. State executives were given the authority to call out the militia but the inherent moral and legal authority to form a “militia” rested with the civilian population.
In 1792, “free state” did not mean a country free from external attack but rather a non-despotic government.
In 1792, “right” meant an inherent ability instead of the modern sense of “granted privilege” or “entitlement.”
In 1792, “the people” definitely meant “each individual citizen.”
In 1792, “keep and bear” meant “possess and use.”
In 1792, “arms” meant “weapons.”
So, if we update the language of the 2nd amendment into its modern equivalents we get something like:
Well trained and coordinated groups citizens organized for military action being necessary to prevent the devolution of governments into despotism, the inalienable ability of individual citizens to possess and use weapons shall not be abridged.
Clearly, the founders (and all their fellow citizens who voted for the Constitution) viewed the widespread possession of weapons by private citizens as a bulwark against the evolution of the state into despotism. They remembered all too well that the Revolution began at Lexington and Concord when the British attempted to seize the weapons of the people.
Regardless of how one views the wisdom of gun control at any level, attempts to mutate the meaning of the Constitution should give everyone pause. If the Left can essentially define away the 2nd Amendment, that will set the precedent for the Right to define away another amendment. Before long, we might find we have no meaningful Constitution remaining and that we have no rights and liberties save those which the powerful elites du jour say we have.
Honestly interpreting the the 2nd Amendment in historical context protects everyone by preserving the Constitutional mechanisms that control the innately corrupting power of the state. Playing word games with the Constitution in order to solve a short-term problem will certainly backfire in the long run.