Twenty-four hours after the Oct. 1 massacre in Las Vegas, I was one of more than 100 gun-control advocates who gathered in front of the Delaware County office of U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan (R., Pa.) to call on the congressman to support a federal ban on military-grade weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
As at most rallies I've attended, there were signs and banners — "Demand action to end gun violence," "No reason for automatic weapons" — as well as T-shirts promoting "Stronger gun laws for safer communities."
In my two decades of activism for safer gun laws, I've also shared public spaces with counterprotesters holding signs claiming "Guns save lives," "More guns, less crime," and similar sayings.
These slogans, displayed on posters and placards carried by the two opposing sides of the gun issue, may be mere words, but they send strong messages about the underlying arguments for and against gun control.
In fact, words are the very crux of the issue.
The gun lobby's entire case rests on the 27 words of the 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."
The scope of the right that those words protect has seldom been challenged legally, and the words themselves have been questioned even less often. Since the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the 2008 case District of Columbia v. Heller, the amendment's meaning is now considered to be settled law: The Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to possess guns for self-defense. To gun-rights advocates, that right is sacrosanct.
A closer look at the language of the amendment allows for another interpretation. Grammatically speaking, the right guaranteed to "the people" in the Second Amendment is a collective right because people is a collective noun. The plural of the individual, or singular, noun person is persons — not people. That linguistic distinction was the same at the time of the framing of the Constitution and the drafting of the Bill of Rights as it is now, and it is a distinction the Framers maintained throughout the main document and the first 10 amendments. They used people for collective rights and persons for individual rights, which with the use of militia would mean the Second Amendment was not intended to grant unlimited gun ownership, as is often assumed today.
Other words in the Second Amendment bear scrutiny in interpreting the amendment's purpose. The Framers did not simply declare "The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed" as they might have done if their primary concern had been self-defense. Instead, they prefaced that statement with "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state…." Militia and free state: How do these 18th-century terms translate to concealed carrying of guns for personal protection in 2017?
The last words of the amendment — "shall not be infringed" — are actually less restrictive than has long been thought. And those words are the key to a full understanding of the amendment's meaning. Taken from the Latin infringere, infringe means to destroy — not to limit or restrict, as it is commonly defined today. The authors of the Constitution, Latin scholars that many of them were, likely intended only to protect the right to keep and bear arms from being abolished altogether — not to prevent government from enacting reasonable laws to reduce gun violence.
The gun lobby sits secure in the belief that the Second Amendment grants American citizens an absolute and untouchable right to gun ownership.
But as the nation reels from yet another mass shooting, should we not reexamine that right in light of the precise language and the exact words the Founding Fathers passed down to us in the Constitution?
One word on a placard held high above the crowd at the Springfield rally on Oct. 2 can answer that question for us: "Enough."
It's a word that should make us ready to demand long-overdue action on gun-control measures from state and federal legislatures, and, from the judiciary, a reconsideration of the Framers' real intention in their words "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."