Last week saw another American mass shooting — five killed and five wounded in Aurora, Ill. — a year and a day after 17 people were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Like after Parkland, there was immediate hand-wringing about whether it was too soon to talk about the Second Amendment — and its commas.
The Bill of Rights’ punctuation doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it should. 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.”
Which raises an essential question: What’s up with that comma after “Arms”?
Whenever gun rights activists trumpet their God-given duty to carry semiautomatic weapons, they focus on “the right” as the subject of the sentence and “shall not be infringed” as the predicate. Everything up to the second comma is an absolute clause modifying the rest of the sentence, with a participle phrase (“being necessary to the security of a free State,” modifying “Militia”) thrown in there just to show off. The comma after “Arms,” then, is anachronistic. An error.
But is that actually how the sentence should be grammatically parsed? For a clue, take a look at the other nine amendments.
One, Three, Four, Five, Eight, Nine, and 10 all start with the subject of the sentence (“Congress shall make no law,” “Excessive bail shall not be required,” and so on). Six and Seven dispense with some very short phrases and clauses first to set the scene: in Six, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial;” and in Seven, “In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved.”
So the Second Amendment is the only one starting out with these cumbersome justification lines. That seems kind of sloppy, no?
What if we’ve been reading it wrong?
Let’s assume that the Second Amendment follows the same general sentence structure as everything else in the Bill of Rights, and that “Militia” is actually the subject. Then “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms” is merely a modifier, and suddenly much less weighted. The comma after “Arms” is setting off a modifying phrase — a very basic grammatical construct. I’ll spare you the sentence diagramming because you hated it when you learned it in grade school, but the non-clunky way of wording that sentence would be: “Because the right of the people to keep and bear arms is necessary to a free state, a well-regulated militia shall not be infringed.”
Under that reading, the founders were much more concerned with ensuring that the people could form a militia than they were about personal gun ownership. That reading also makes a lot more sense to contextualize the Third Amendment, which immediately follows: “No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.” The Second Amendment makes sure you can have a militia, while the Third makes sure they can’t barge in on you and refuse to leave. The ideas are connected.
Of course there is the tricky fact that the “right” in this Bill of Rights is unequivocally attached to “of the people to keep and bear arms.” But Amendments Three, Five, Eight, and 10 don’t mention the word “right” at all, so perhaps the word “right” isn’t as important as what’s actually being enumerated.
It’s never too soon to talk about commas. Your life might just depend on them.
The Angry Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world, and appears biweekly. That’s every other week, not twice a week, friends. Send comments, questions, and appositional clauses to email@example.com.