What a, very strange, piece of writing

Setting aside all the various issues with its interpretation–and honestly, I’ve pretty much conclusively come to the conclusion that it should simply be repealed entirely–I realized anew that other day just how weird the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution is. It’s just a strange piece of writing, even for its time.

I came to this when I read news of an unfortunate encounter with a police officer that took place in Rochester. (I know, a bad police story, big shocker there.) Summing it up: a cop parked his cop car in a space outside a hospital’s Emergency entrance that is marked for ambulances and EMT vehicles only, because…it doesn’t matter. I’ve long observed that cops take it as a given that they get to park wherever the hell they want, for any reason. But now an ambulance comes in with a patient, and in parking, bumps the cop’s car. This pisses off the cop, who can’t think the actual thing he should have thought: “Yikes, I shouldn’t be parked here, my bad.” No, the cop jumped out and started being all “KNEEL BEFORE COP!!!” while the EMT was all “I really gotta get this person into the hospital for treatment.” And since the EMT did not KNEEL BEFORE COP!!!, the cop put the EMT in cuffs. (The cop is now on desk duty. Personally, I think he should be on laundry duty, but that’s just me.)

As I have always noticed how cops tend to view themselves as somehow above the laws they’re supposedly enforcing, I looked up the Second Amendment and recast it as follows:

“A cowed populace, being necessary to the security of a police State, the right of the constabulary to do whatever it wishes, shall not be infringed.”

I wanted to make sure I got the wording exactly the way I wanted it, complete with the Amendment’s phrasing and punctuation. And that’s when I realized, typing it out, how strange a piece of actual writing the Second Amendment is. I mean, look at it:

“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.”

There is, quite famously, no helpful text to explain just how the first clause relates to the second, which has naturally caused all manner of unfortunate shenanigans in American history. And what is with all those commas? There are three commas in this single sentence, separating this thing into four distinct language clauses. Just on its own, the Second Amendment is a linguistic calamity. I can’t believe anyone at the Convention didn’t look at this thing and say, “Guys, this makes no sense as written and we need to clarify it.” That was a room full of good writers (as well as drunkards and nitwits), and yet, this terribly-written Amendment was allowed to stand. Why? Well, maybe they thought the meaning they intended was so clear and unlikely to change that it would never be an issue. Or maybe they figured, given the general ambivalence to the Constitution at the time, that it would be fixed on revision anyway. Or maybe…well, who cares. Fact is, we’re saddled with it. As is. Which is itself absurd, but hey, 21st Century America is, if nothing else, a great national monument to absurdity.

I also glanced at the other Amendments surrounding the Second. Were they all this badly written? Why…no! Here’s the First:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

That’s pretty damned clear. The commas are used logically, and the clauses clearly relate as part of the same sentence. Odd capitalization abounds, but that was just a Thing back then. (I assume there was some Rule by which those writing chose which words to Capitalize.) But the First reads very clearly: Congress is forbidden to do this.

The other Amendments are all pretty specific in the way they limit government, except for the Ninth and Tenth, which are clearly intended to forestall arguments down the road of the “Well, the Constitution doesn’t specifically SAY you can’t do this, so you CAN!” or vice-versa. (Pssst, Messrs Jefferson et al: It didn’t work.) So then I look back at the Second, aghast anew at is appalling lack of specificity, its foggy language, and its unique phrasing (nowhere else is the construct “shall not be infringed” used).

Bad writing has consequences, folks. Especially when a big part of your country’s population has decided to treat a certain piece of bad writing as if it was handed down by God on a third tablet.

(For an amusing bit of Constitutional comedy, here is John Mulaney in one of his SNL monologues. The relevant bit is at the 3:52 mark:

I love the line, “They knew how to make a pen, they were just being jerks.”)


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One Response to What a, very strange, piece of writing

  1. Roger says:

    The common law use of guns as self-defense in the home doesn’t mean walking around with an AR-15. the recent gun legislation will be so very ineffectual…

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