The Second Amendment guarantees the "right to bear arms," right? It's right there in the Constitution between the First Amendment, which gives people the right to annoy you, and the Third Amendment, which is probably very important. (I looked it up. It says soldiers can't crash on your couch without an act of Congress.)
To paraphrase Inigo Montoya of "The Princess Bride," we keep using that phrase "the right to bear arms," but I do not think it means what we think it means. As we have a national conversation about guns, it might be nice to make sure we're all reading the same Second Amendment.
The first thing you notice when you read the Second Amendment is that it's a grammatical mess of bad syntax and vague meaning. Read it for yourself:
"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."
I learned to write a better sentence than that in the seventh grade. First, "well regulated" lacks a hyphen, and the dependent introductory clause dangles there uselessly, kinda-sorta requiring militias to ensure security but confusing the basic thrust of the sentence. If you squint and tilt your head, you can infer that the Second Amendment states that the federal government is not allowed to limit your right to own or carry a gun. Because freedom, or something.
It's a badly written sentence. The only thing the Second Amendment clarifies is that the worst writing is done by committee. If that were the extent of it, we could rest easy, knowing that Congress intended that they should never mess with my right to keep and bear arms, till death do us part. But here's the thing that makes me think the Founding Fathers might have needed adult supervision: The Second Amendment that's in the Constitution isn't the version Congress voted on. Someone changed it before it went to the states. Doesn't that just make you want to turn the Bill of Rights over and find the treasure map on the other side?
Here's the text of the Second Amendment that Congress actually voted on:
"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."
This one's even worse. What's the subject of the sentence, "militia" or "right"? Doesn't this read as if they were dying to get out of town, shouting out phrases, and assuming that the guy writing it down would clean it up? But one wig-wearing slave-owner's self-evident truth is a 21st-century American's confused mess. Do we have an absolute right to a well-regulated militia or to keep and bear arms?
Lost in the gun debate — and in the impenetrable mess of the dueling versions of the Second Amendment — is that the Founding Fathers thought there was a point to having a gun: "the security of a free state." As long as we're projecting our 21st-century views onto the bad syntax of harried 18th-century revolutionaries, I read that as Americans can take up arms to defend their country, not against their country.
Somehow, the most hysterical voices against gun safety equate our duly elected leaders with tyranny. Because President Barack Obama thinks guns should be "well-regulated," he's become their enemy. For their most devoted defenders, guns have become a reflexive right. We have the right to own guns so we can have guns in case someone wants to regulate your guns.
The point of having guns isn't to have guns. We have guns to protect our selves and to hunt, but the reason they are constitutionally protected is to ensure "the security of a free state."
There's a word for those who would take up arms against our government, and it's not "patriots." If you have a gun to protect yourself against someone regulating your gun, then what you love isn't America, or freedom, but your gun.
A friend of mine fought in Iraq with the 101st Airborne. He says, "If people want to play with guns that badly, let them join the Army," which, when you think about it, is one kind of a well-regulated militia.