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2A In Webster's English

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  • zaraster

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    Mar 19, 2008
    In Webster's English

    Stephen P. Halbrook

    Halbrook, an attorney and research fellow at The Independent Institute, Oakland, Calif., is author of "The Founders' Second Amendment: Origins of the Right to Bear Arms."

    Anticipating the Supreme Court's expected late June decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, which will decide the constitutionality of a D.C. law restricting gun-ownership rights, many analysts have turned to the Founders' writings in an effort to understand the Second Amendment. What analysts need to do -- recognizing that language and word usage change over time -- is turn to America's first dictionary.

    The Second Amendment states simply, "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 Supreme Court questioned whether the D.C. statute "violate[d] the Second Amendment rights of individuals who are not affiliated with any state-regulated militia, but who wish to keep handguns and other firearms for private use in their homes."

    For the answer, turn to Noah Webster.

    Known as the Father of American Scholarship and Education, Webster believed that popular sovereignty in government must be accompanied by popular usage in language. In "A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language," published in 1806, and "An American Dictionary of the English Language," published in 1828 and adopted by Congress as the American standard, Webster defined all the words in the Second Amendment.

    "People" were "the commonality, as distinct from men of rank," and "Right" was "just claim; immunity; privilege." "All men have a right to secure enjoyment of life, personal safety, liberty and property," he wrote.

    Thus in the language of Webster's time, "the people" meant individuals and individuals have "rights."

    "Keep" was defined as "To hold; to retain one's power or possession; not to lose or part with ... To have in custody for security or preservation"; "Bear" as "to carry" or "to wear; name; to bear arms in a coat"; and "Arms" were defined as "weapons of offense, or armor for defense and protection of the body."

    Only civilians would "bear arms in a coat" -- soldiers carried muskets in their hands, while officers carried pistols in holsters.

    Thus the words "keep and bear arms" suggest a right to hand-held arms as a person could "bear," such as muskets, pistols and swords, but not cannon and heavy ordnance that a person could not carry.

    "Infringe" was defined by Webster as " ... to violate, either positively by contravention, or negatively by non-fulfillment or neglect of performance."

    "Militia" was defined as "able bodied men organized into companies, regiments and brigades, with officers ... and required by law to attend military exercises on certain days only, but at other times left to pursue their usual occupations" and "Regulated" as " ... subject to rules or restrictions." A well-regulated militia consisted of civilians, not soldiers.
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