Pine and Roses is passing along this thought-provoking piece by Isaak Spain as a follow-up to our popular article America’s Desensitization to Gun Violence. Let’s Shoot Grandma was originally published on Jul 17, 2023 on Isaak’s blog What I’m Reading. We encourage you to check out his blog which is described as covering “my love for old science fiction paperbacks, anarchist cookbooks, and everything linguistics; my disdain for right-wing misinformation, corporate shenanigans, and everything capitalism.“
As any middle school English teacher will tell you, the sentences “Let’s shoot grandma” and “Let’s shoot, grandma” have two very different meanings. Most middle schools use the verb “eat” in place of “shoot,” but the point stands that punctuation saves lives. The commas are no less life-saving in the Second Amendment of our United States Constitution, the full text of which reads:
U.S. Constitution – Second Amendment
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.
In written language, the comma helps readers avoid the fallacy of accents, misunderstandings, and shootouts. Unfortunately, punctuation is not foolproof, and plenty of fools have taken the bench in the Supreme Court. The Founding Fathers sure loved their subordinate clauses, and the commas characteristic of the Bill of Rights’ old-timey grammar have caused legal headaches since their inception. These misunderstandings have entered the popular consciousness, too, and led to a culture embracing the position that gun rights are individual rights, not community rights.
I can’t say I blame anyone for getting it wrong. The world is a scary place, and right-wing fear-mongering has us feeling isolated from our communities and lacking trust in our neighbors. Individualistic gun culture certainly has its appeal. The Second Amendment contains four clauses, three commas, and language ambiguous to modern readers, so without context, readers are free to project their own fearful worldview onto the Second Amendment. We call this interpretive mechanism “Originalism” without a trace of irony.
Sic erat scriptum, fellow blogger Cory Allen Heidelberger noted in parenthetical clarification. Heidelberger explained how “a comma should never separate a subject and a predicate unless there is some intervening descriptive phrase or dependent clause” before presenting what he thought was the operative clause of the Second Amendment, complete with “erroneous” comma:
Read Second Amendment Literally: Ban Making and Selling Guns – Cory Allen Heidelberger
The right of the people to keep and bear Arms, [sic] shall not be infringed.
Most people take “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms” to be the subject of the Second Amendment. The real subject of the amendment, however, has always been “a well regulated Militia.” It is the so-called Militia that “shall not be infringed” in the predicate. “The right of the people to keep and bear Arms” answers what exactly this Militia is, while “being necessary to the security of a free State” answers why it is necessary in the first place. These phrases clarified important points to the Framers of the Amendment, but only the subject and predicate of the sentence are necessary to read it.
The operative clause comes from the subject and predicate, not any subordinate clauses. You can derive this form from the full text of the amendment by removing everything that comes between the first and last commas:
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.
Using this method, the operative clause of the Second Amendment reads, “a well regulated Militia shall not be infringed,” without any grammatical errors. In fact, contrary to Heidelberger’s claim, there is nothing “erroneous” about the Second Amendment’s commas at all. They play a crucial role in demonstrating that the noun phrases “being necessary to the security of a free State” and “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” are appositive phrases separable from the operative clause.
Purdue OWL defines appositive phrases as noun phrases “set beside another… to explain or identify it.” Appositive phrases support the sentence’s operative clause, but readers can set them aside without changing the core meaning of the sentence. In written language, we often make this separation clear with commas, as in the Second Amendment or this example from Purdue OWL where I bolded the appositive phrase:
“My brother’s car, a sporty red convertible with bucket seats, is the envy of my friends.”
Remove the appositive, and the sentence still makes sense:
“My brother’s car is the envy of my friends.”
Without the appositive phrase, we are left with no inclination as to why anyone is envious, but the sentence remains valid. Appositives simply serve to clarify whos, whats, whens, and whys. According to a write-up in ThoughtCo, “two, three, or even more appositives may appear alongside the same noun” to answer more than one Wh-. ThoughtCo provided the following example:
Saint Petersburg, a city of almost five-million people, Russia’s second-largest and northernmost metropolis, was designed three centuries ago by Peter the Great.
ThoughtCo reminded readers not to overwhelm their audience with too many appositives, but the Framers were not receiving advice from the internet. Besides, they were more interested in technicality than readability. In his “biography” of the Second Amendment, Michael Waldman explained the Bill of Rights was written into the Constitution as a concession to the state governments in order to secure power for the federal government. “The young men who crafted the Constitution were the first American political leaders to feel the force of public distrust,” he wrote. In order to preserve the union, the Federalists had to give up something. Yet the Framers “did what politicians do when faced with a difficult electorate: they weaved, and retreated, and gave up as much as necessary and as little as possible.” After much deliberation on the Second Amendment, the federal government gave up the idea of a standing army and guaranteed the states’ right to muster “a well regulated Militia” for common defense. (6)
As in any well-crafted concession, however, adjectives like “well regulated” and appositives like “being necessary to the security of a free State” narrowed the scope of the Amendment as much as possible. The Federalists gave up as little ground as possible to the States. Extrapolating their words to write an individual mandate into the Amendment is ridiculous, yet after a century of intense lobbying efforts, the Supreme Court finally relented in the 2008 decision District of Columbia v. Heller.
Believe it or not, gun control is less strict today than at any point in American history. Even conservative states like South Dakota have a long, forgotten history of gun control, but they traded gun control for gun deaths long ago. In a Politico analysis, Colin Woodard observed how “it’s the southern swath of the country — in cities and rural areas alike — where the rate of deadly gun violence is most acute, regions where Republicans have dominated state governments for decades.”
Conservative control of the narrative is so strong that even liberals like Heidelberger are not immune from their influence on the Second Amendment. I learned commas in the sixth grade, appositives in the seventh, and civics in high school. Heidelberger clearly understood all the rules, too. Unsurprisingly, though, liberal Americans like Heidelberger did not fair any better against the century of pro-gun lobbying that culminated in the Court deciding Heller. Confronted with an “erroneous” comma, Heidelberger remained deeply entrenched in the idea of the Second Amendment imposed on him, me, and countless other Americans.
More than anything, the story of the Second Amendment illustrates how little language means after an idea takes hold. It does not matter what the Second Amendment actually says, it just matters what people believe it says. The Bible provides another illustration of this phenomenon. Most Christians believe something about the Bible, but they have no idea what it really says. (Homosexuality is somehow sinful, despite the word “homosexuality” being newer than the Second Amendment.) Some nonchristians say “There is no hate like Christian love” because the Christian idea of love has drifted so far from the written word as to become indistinguishable from the Biblical or even popular definition.
As any good union representative will tell you, language matters, but enforcement of the language matters more. Just as Christians failed to hold onto the Bible, Americans failed to hold onto the Second Amendment. This has resulted in violence all across the nation. Maine is the safest of all fifty states when it comes to violent crime, yet just a few months ago, one of my union brothers was wounded in a senseless shooting. Suicides by firearm, mass shootings, and other forms of gun violence are so frequent that we have become desensitized to them. Just last week, another union brother and his wife were present at a shooting on Independence Day. My brother went back to work the next day, but a few days later, his wife experienced an event that triggered a trauma response. He took the day off to take care of her, but management refused to excuse his time. He received a write-up for absenteeism on July 12. Our country has normalized gun violence to such an extreme that experiencing a shooting is no longer a valid reason to take time off work!
It’s not just the right. Go far enough left, and the guns come back. I don’t think the Second Amendment should be the end-all-be-all gun law in this country, yet I cannot help but feel happy the right’s push for gun rights has had the side effect of enabling the people they hate to protect themselves. I support common-sense gun control like waiting periods for first-time gun buyers and incentives like tax write-offs for safety equipment, but I do not want the government to dictate who can belong to a Militia, like Ronald Reagan did when he restricted the black community as governor of California. As Reagan clearly showed, when the government decides who is “well regulated” and who isn’t, it hurts the very people the Second Amendment is supposed to keep safe.
Punctuation saves lives, but so do we. Perhaps doing away with Heidelberger’s “erroneous” comma is a good thing. Without putting a stop to hate, fear, and the countless other factors contributing to gun violence, the Second Amendment will continue to hold this nation hostage. Without a shift toward community ownership of guns and their consequences, Americans will just keep killing each other in the names of Jesus and Jefferson. In this cultural landscape, joining an organization like the Socialist Rifle Association and learning how to shoot has become the responsible thing to do.
- “Appositives.” Purdue Online Writing Lab. Accessed 3 January 2023.
- Heidelberger, Cory Allen. “Read Second Amendment Literally: Ban Making and Selling Guns.” Dakota Free Press, 30 December 2022.
- “How to Build Sentences with Appositives.” ThoughtCo. Accessed 9 January 2023.
- Waldman, Michael. The Second Amendment: A Biography. Simon & Schuster, 2014.
- Woodard, Colin. “The Surprising Geography of Gun Violence.” Politico, 23 April2023. Accessed 14 July 2023.