Last week in Newtown, Conn., a bipartisan panel of legislators heard from some of the parents of the kids who were massacred at school in mid-December. One father, obviously grief-stricken, asked openly why anyone needs to have a military-style assault weapon with a high-capacity ammo clip.
At least three hecklers shouted out. One yelled "Second Amendment!" and another said "The Second Amendment shall not be infringed!"
Who can argue with that?
Entire books have been devoted to the "real" meaning of the Second Amendment, which 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 read a book in which an entire chapter was devoted to the comma after the word "arms" and another to the definition of "militia." The book also argued that "people" is a collective term and so on. It's an argument that I'm sure will rage on long after we're all gone. I just wish that the framers of the Constitution hadn't voted down the proposal to add the words "for the common defence" after "to bear arms." That would have made my side's argument so much stronger.
But I don't want to rehash those arguments here. Those hecklers reminded me of the time I went to a gathering of gun owners and, for just one time in my life, I decided to be something of an annoyance. OK, maybe for the second time.
At a previous gathering of Tea Party members, I had gone around and asked people how many amendments there are to the Constitution. (See if you can get it right without having to look it up and, for a bonus, see if you know what the last amendment deals with. Here's a hint: It involves something that may come up for public discussion during the current debt-limit suspension.)
I got some amazing answers. One woman thought that there were 12, which would mean that, in her world, slavery hadn't yet been abolished. Another thought there were 55. (We should have a colony on Io by the time there are 55 amendments.) In all fairness, several people came close and a couple of people got the right answer (27). But, in strict terms, the vast majority of the people who had gathered to protest an administration that they felt had strayed too far from the Constitution didn't know one of the basic things about that Constitution.
So, I'm at this gathering of gun owners and it was a fairly representative cross-sample (meaning that just about everybody there was a middle-class white guy). I had in my possession a gift card for a local restaurant. It had been given to me by a guy whose son I had helped with math, and since I don't accept payment for such services rendered, I planned to pass the gift card along to someone else. Why not one of these guys?
I went around and asked people if they could correctly quote the Second Amendment. If they got it right, they would get the gift card. I understand that the language is rather stilted, having been written 225 years ago, but it's only one sentence. I ended up giving the card to one of my basketball players after she won a free-throw contest at practice.
Most of the answers I got were like "Something about the militia ... the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." Interestingly, there were more respondents who correctly started with the phrase "A well regulated militia" than those who remembered to include the phrase "of the people" in their response. More than a couple thought it simply said "The right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."
I'm not a hypocrite. I can't quote all of the amendments perfectly, but if there was one about which I got all tingly (like gun guys do with the Second), I think I would be able to get it right, especially if I used it as an argument for keeping my arsenal.
The really fun part came when I asked people for the definition of "infringe." I kept hoping that at least one of them would say that it meant putting a rifle in a buckskin sheath, like Davy Crockett (after which I would have to explain that such a response would mean that the right to keep and bear arms shall be fringed). But this was a sharp crowd, so no such luck.
At least half of the people came close enough to where I would have given them at least partial credit, but just about everybody over- or misstated the definition. It does not mean to abolish or eliminate. There are multiple dictionaries online and the definition that I found that most closely resembles that which Second Amendment enthusiasts cite comes from Merriam-Webster Online: To encroach upon in a way that violates law or the rights of another.
Seems a bit harsh, but I can go along with that, seeing as how the Supreme Court has ruled that placing some limits on gun ownership is not unconstitutional. So, if by some long shot (no pun intended), Congress passes one or more gun control measures, such action will not be an infringement of the Second Amendment, but a reasonable upholding thereof.