I was sitting on our back porch, looking across the stream into the woody hill beyond, thinking about: the hunting season, which will soon begin; the Second Amendment; the Democratic debate a few days ago in which Bernie Sanders embarrassed himself trying to balance a progressive stance for gun control against the prevailing view of his constituency, rural, rugged New Englanders (or those who like to think of themselves as such); hunting, again, and the hunters who would start appearing among the trees across the way, bearing arms; the phrase “bearing arms,” and how one would not say that hunters “bear arms,” that bearing arms refers to arms carried in order to do battle; then, what does the OED have to say about “bearing arms?”
In the Oxford English Dictionary, “to bear arms” falls under the first sub-sub-sense of the sixth sub-sense of the first sense of “bear,” which is “to carry.”
I;6;a: To carry about with one, or wear, ensigns of office, weapons of offence or defense. to bear arms against: to be engaged in hostilities with.
But isn’t it still true that hunters “bear” weapons in the simple sense of the word, “to carry?” That’s debatable.
The OED’s primary definition (I;1;a) of the verb “to bear” is: To support the weight of (anything) whilst moving it from one place to another; to carry. Now usually restricted in prose to the carrying of something weighty or which requires an effort.
Of the OED’s fifteen citations for this primary meaning of “bear,” beginning with one from Beowulf and ending with one from Ivanhoe, in all but three a heavy burden of some sort is being borne. The three exceptions are all comical (one, admittedly, inadvertently so):
From a 1450 etiquette book, The Book of Courtesy: “With mete ne bere þy knyfe to mowthe.” (“It is not polite to bear one’s knife to one’s mouth.”)
From Love’s Labour’s Lost: “She hath one a' my Sonnets already, the Clowne bore it, the Foole sent it.”
From Fletcher and Massinger’s Elder Brother: “Court admirers...ever eccho him that beares the bagge.” “Bag” in the sense of a purse, with money.
For a long time I’ve thought that the way to crack the NRA interpretation of the one-sentence Second Amendment was to concentrate on the words “well regulated.” Now, I think a good case also could be made that the sense of “bear arms” in the Second Amendment is not simply “to carry weapons,” but “to carry about with one, or wear...weapons of offence or defense” and directly refers to the militia.
But what about “to keep [arms]”? Did the framers intend to guarantee the right to keep any and all weapons, or just “weapons of offence or defense?” To speak of the right to keep a weapon, a muzzle-loader hanging on the wall, for example, would have been as absurd in colonial America as speaking of the right to keep a plough or a tea-kettle. A gun was a tool.
Anyway, the Second Amendment does not mention weapons. It speaks of arms.
Sense I of the OED’s definitions of “arm (commonly in pl. arms)” is: Defensive and offensive outfit for war, things used in fighting.
There is no mention of hunting weapons in the definitions or in the citations for “arms”. The word in the OED that best describes the “arms” which the NRA reads into the Second Amendment is “firearms.” (“Gun,” in the OED, is too broad, since it includes cannons and other ordnance.)
An American in 1788, assured of his or her right to keep and bear arms, would have known that “arms” referred to weapons carried for offense and defense, and included not only guns, but swords, also grenades, even clubs, and did not refer to household firearms used for hunting or varmint control.
I searched Bartelby for quotations that included the phrases “bear arms” and “bore arms” and found dozens. Among them (besides The Bill of Rights), passages from:
Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis
John Locke (“A gentleman in any age ought to be so bred, as to be fitted to bear arms, and be a soldier.”)
Paine’s Common Sense
William Pitt’s On the Refusal to Negotiate with France (1800)
A list of the usages of “bear” in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable: “To bear arms. To do military service.”
All the passages bore out the same military meaning of bearing arms – except one, from Hamlet:
Costello: Was he [Adam] a gentleman?
Abbott: He was the first that ever bore arms.
Costello: Why, he had none.
Abbott: What, art a heathen? How dost thou understand the Scripture? The Scripture says Adam digg’d; could he dig without arms?
“Why hasn’t anyone else ever thought of this brilliant argument for the original intent of the Second Amendment?” I purred to myself. "I should pass it on to Mike Bloomberg, to the Brady Campaign, to my nephew, who is in the ACLU, so it can be used in the next Supreme Court gun case." Ah, dreams of glory! – as is so often the case, dashed to smithereens by a Google search.
Back in 1999, Gary Wills, making the same argument, wrote, “One does not bear arms against a rabbit.”
From Robert J. Spitzer’s The Right to Bear Arms: Rights and Liberties Under the Law by (2001):
[Don B.] Kates argues [in an article in the Michigan Law Review, “Handgun Prohibition and the Original Meaning of the Second Amendment”] that the phrase “bear arms” in the Second Amendment means to carry them and must refer to personal weapons and therefore to a personal or individual right (1983). A person cannot, for example, bear or literally carry an artillery piece or a cannon. But as historian Garry Wills notes, the phrase “bear arms” has a long historical lineage that refers specifically to the equipment used by soldiers in war. As Wills says [in A Necessary Evil, 1999], “One does not bear arms against a rabbit.”
Some also cite debate from Pennsylvania during its consideration of the new Constitution. In a motion that was defeated, but supported by a minority of convention members, the following wording was offered:
That the people have a right to bear arms for the purpose of defense of themselves and their own state, or the United States, or for the purpose of killing game; and no law shall be passed for disarming the people or any of them, unless for crimes committed, or real danger of public injury from individuals; and as standing armies in the time of peace are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be kept up; and that the military shall be kept under strict subordination to and governed by the civil power.
...if we accept for a moment the idea that these opinions did have some bearing on the Second Amendment, we note that the paragraph provides for governmental authority to disarm citizens in the cases of “crimes committed” and “danger of public injury.” It therefore would have endorsed the government's power to regulate the ownership of firearms.
Unfortunately, the argument – that the “arms” of the Second Amendment refers to military weapons only – has been made often to the courts and the courts have rejected it. The historical evidence that to the Framers “arms” meant weapons used for organized defense and offense, and not weapons for personal use, is so overwhelming, that the courts’ extending the definition of “arms” to include all firearms is just one of those anomalies of reason which induce in one a numbing despair, or the conviction that one has been transported to an alien planet.
After the Sandy Hook massacre of twenty small children, gun control advocates assumed that that would be it: public revulsion at last would put paid to the gun manufacturers’ absurd constitutional rights crusade. Indeed, after Sandy Hook fifteen states did pass gun control laws. In five states, controls were strengthened; the new laws in the other ten states weakened controls.
Back to last week’s Democratic debate: Lincoln Chafee, probably the most hopeless of the Democratic hopefuls, pointed at a way forward for gun control. In The Washington Post transcript of the debate, Chafee said,
The reality is, despite these tragedies that happen time and time again, when legislators step up to pass commonsense gun safety legislation, the gun lobby moves in and tells the people they're coming to take away your guns.
And, they're successful at it, in Colorado and others states, the legislators that vote for commonsense gun safety measures then get defeated. I even saw it in Rhode Island. So, I would bring the gun lobby in and say we've got to change this. Where can we find common ground? Wayne Lapierre from the NRA, whoever it is, the leaders. “Come on, we've go to change this. We're not coming to take away your guns, we believe in the Second Amendment, but let's find common ground here.”
Considering what a failure the gun control movement has been, it is obvious that it needs a new strategy. An appeal to the leaders of the NRA, as Chafee suggests, would not do any good, but what about an appeal to the NRA rank-and-file? If NRA members – faced with the media drumbeat of one insane shooting after another – could be genuinely assured that the government will not arbitrarily take away their guns, but will concentrate on keeping guns out of the hands of other people, surely some of them could be convinced to hop onto the gun control bandwagon.
One of the perks of owning guns is that it bolsters the egos of a forlorn middle-class. This feel-good aspect of gun ownership, the sense of power, importance, and heroic potential which accompany owning a gun, would be heightened if gun ownership were seen as a privilege, rather than a right. The way to reconcile gun owners to gun control is to point out that increased gun controls would make them members of a more exclusive club.
Just a few well-publicized apostates within the NRA would weaken the organization’s all-for-one-and-one-for-all culture. It would only take a few NRA members calling for gun control to show other members that opposition to the NRA leadership does not bring disgrace and isolation; some would realize that such opposition, which would be viewed with interest and approval by the general media, could be a route to power within the Association. The solution to the gun control problem is a revolt from within the NRA.