Like the Third Amendment against the peacetime quartering of soldiers in private homes, the Second Amendment used to be one of those obscure constitutional provisions that Americans could safely ignore. Legal opinion was agreed: this relic of the late eighteenth century did not confer an individual right “to keep and bear arms,” only a collective right on the part of the states to maintain well-regulated militias in the form of local units of the National Guard. While a few gun nuts insisted on their Second Amendment right to turn their homes into mini-arsenals, everyone else knew they were deluded. Everyone knew this because the Supreme Court had supposedly settled the matter by unanimously dismissing any suggestion of an individual right in 1939.
But now everyone knows something else. Ever since a University of Texas law professor named Sanford Levinson published a seminal article, “The Embarrassing Second Amendment,” in the Yale Law Journal in 1989, the legal academy has had to take another look at a provision that Laurence Tribe, the doyen of liberal constitutionalists, described ten years earlier as having no effect on gun control and as “merely ancillary to other constitutional guarantees of state sovereignty.” Now such comfy notions are out the window as the National Rifle Association’s view that the Second Amendment confers an individual right to own guns gains ground. While some scholars, such as Mark Tushnet, author of the new study Out of Range, argue that an individual-rights reading still allows for extensive gun control, others are frank enough to admit they’re not sure what this oddly constructed amendment does and does not allow (although they’ll still hazard a guess). As a prominent constitutional scholar named William Van Alstyne once remarked, “No provision in the Constitution causes one to stumble quite so much on a first reading, or second, or third reading.” It is as if the legal academy, shaking its head over the First Amendment, suddenly could not make up its mind as to whether that hallowed text protected free speech or prohibited it.
What’s going on here? Surely a mere twenty-seven words, loosely tethered together by three commas and one period, can’t be that impenetrable. But they are; and if ever there was a Churchillian “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” the Second Amendment is it.
Perhaps the best way to begin unraveling this puzzle is to think of the amendment not as a law but, with apologies to Tom Peyer and Hart Seely, as a bit of blank verse:
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.
It’s rhythmic and also somewhat strange, as proper modern verse should be. As to what it actually means, the questions begin with “well regulated” in line one. The phrase is confusing because when Americans hear the word “regulation” or any of its cognates, they usually think of government restrictions on individual liberty. But if a government-regulated militia is necessary for a free society (the meaning, presumably, of “a free State”), then how can the amendment mandate an individual right that the same government must not infringe? It is as if the amendment were telling government to intervene and not intervene at the same time.