Some justices now seem to have morphed originalism even further to lessen a reliance on the old dictionaries. They simply pronounce that the constitutional text controls without ever referring to the original meaning of the words. This approach is evident in Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s opening address to the Federalist Society convention a year or so ago. He paid tribute to the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision of District of Columbia v. Heller guaranteeing an individual’s right to own guns. Alito criticized Justice Breyer’s dissent in that case. Breyer had proposed a balancing test that would weigh self-defense against public safety. Alito stated that if a judge uses such a balancing test, the balance will almost always come to rest where the judge wants it to. Instead, Alito told this conservative group, “Heller, I am sure you know, holds that the Second Amendment actually means what it says.” Breyer was allowing personal values to control the constitutional right. Alito, certain that he knew the “proper” interpretation of the text, claims an unbiased conclusion.

This is not the place to trace the history of the Second Amendment’s interpretation or what it now does or does not mean. Instead, I am struck by the implications of Alito’s statement. He implies that those who would allow some gun control are using Breyer’s balancing test, and that means that they are relying on their own preferences rather than adhering to the Constitution. The conservative majority in Heller, Alito maintains, was not following individual preferences but was simply reading and enforcing the words as written. We in the majority are constitutionally pure (he implies); the dissent is not. (Thought experiment: For how many of the justices in the majority did the outcome in Heller fail to coincide with their individual preferences?)

But how should we interpret the words as written? The Second Amendment 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.” I don’t mean to delve into those opening “militia” words about which much has already been written. (Reports state that that first clause is not reproduced in the lobby of the NRA headquarters, only the last part of the provision. Why is that?) Instead, I ask whether there is one, single unambiguous meaning for “the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed”? (I will also ignore the intriguing question of why that last comma exists.)

For Alito the Second Amendment words say unambiguously that individuals have the right to own guns. Period. Full stop. The end. The provision, however, does not expressly grant rights to individuals as Heller held it did. It states that it is a “right of the people.” Wouldn’t the Amendment more clearly have granted an individual right if it had said, “No one’s right to keep and bear arms, shall be infringed”? (Okay, we’ll keep the mysterious comma.) Or perhaps it would have been even more clear if the Second Amendment read: “Every person has the right to own and use firearms.” But it does not make these more unambiguous assertions. Instead, on its face, the provision grants a collective right, not an individual one.

The text also does not grant a right to “own.” Instead it says there is a right to “keep and bear.” Does “keep” mean the same as “own”? Have you never kept something without owning it? And you can keep an object in many places. I might keep a boat at the marina. I keep my tools at work. If a law required me to remove my Winchester or Glock from my home and store it at an armory, wouldn’t I be keeping a gun at the armory?

The Second Amendment right, however, is not just to “keep” guns; it is to keep and bear them. Why the conjunction? The right is not just to keep but to keep and somehow use. “Use,” however, is not the word in the text. Instead, it specifically reads “bear.” That could imply that only those arms are protected when they are “borne,” which seems a narrower word than “use.” And what does it mean to “bear arms”? What did it mean then? What does it mean now? Do we “bear arms” outside the military? When I go deer hunting, do I “bear arms”? (If so, don’t hunting seasons and other hunting restrictions infringe on my right to keep and bear arms?) When I grab the revolver because I think I hear a burglar, do I “bear arms”? Did Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton “bear arms” in their famous duel? If I drunkenly point a pistol at my spouse during an argument, am I “bearing arms”? (That last one was a hypothetical; the spouse and I never argue.)

Furthermore, the Amendment does not directly refer to guns. It reads “arms.” The Supreme Court shrugged off an originalist notion that “arms” must be limited to eighteenth century weapons. In this instance, Heller allowed the word “arms” something other than an originalist meaning, but then how are we to decide what arms are now included in the protection? Perhaps the 1828 Webster’s dictionary would provide an approximation of what is meant. If so, “arms” are defined there as “Weapons of offense, or armor for defense and protection of the body.” If a rifle (clearly a weapon of offense) is protected, why not a machine gun, a flamethrower, a cannon, a killer drone, a switchblade, and so on? Aren’t they all “weapons of offense”? Does the text really make it simple to decide what kinds of firepower and killing machines are protected?

Finally, the Second Amendment on its face does not create a right. Instead, it indicates that a right is not to be violated. This, of course, only raises the question, “What was that right?” It is not spelled out in the Constitution, only that the right “to keep and bear arms” shall not be infringed. The scope of that right is not actually in the Constitution’s text, and we must have to look outside the document to find it.

(Concluded August 29)


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