No gun, comma, control

DENNIS BARON is a professor of English at the University of Illinois.

CITING THE second comma of the 2nd Amendment, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled March 9 that district residents may keep guns ready to shoot in their homes.

Plaintiffs in Shelly Parker et al vs. District of Columbia were challenging laws that strictly limited who could own handguns and how they must be stored. This is the first time a federal appeals court used the 2nd Amendment to strike down a gun law, and legal experts say the issue could wind up in the Supreme Court.

While the D.C. Circuit Court focused only on the second comma, the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution actually has three: “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 2-1 majority of judges held that the meaning turns on the second comma, which “divides the Amendment into two clauses; the first is prefatory, and the second operative.”


The court dismissed the prefatory clause about militias as not central to the amendment and concluded that the operative clause prevents the government from interfering with an individual’s right to tote a gun. Needless to say, the National Rifle Assn. is very happy with this interpretation. But I dissent. Strict constructionists, such as the majority on the appeals court, might do better to interpret the 2nd Amendment based not on what they learned about commas in college but on what the framers actually thought about commas in the 18th century.

The most popular grammars in the framers’ day were written by Robert Lowth (1762) and Lindley Murray (1795). Though both are concerned with correcting writing mistakes, neither dwells much on punctuation. Lowth calls punctuation “imperfect,” with few precise rules and many exceptions. Murray adds that commas signal a pause for breath. Here’s an example of such a pause, from the Constitution: “The judicial power of the United States, shall be vested in one Supreme Court” (Article III, Section 1). But times change. If a student put that comma in a paper today, it would be marked wrong.

The first comma in the 2nd Amendment signals a pause. At first glance, it looks like it’s setting off a phrase in apposition, but by the time you get to the second comma, even if you don’t know what a phrase in apposition is, you realize that it doesn’t do that. That second comma identifies what grammarians call an absolute clause, which modifies the entire subsequent clause. Murray gave this example: “His father dying, he succeeded to the estate.” With such absolute constructions, the second clause follows logically from the first.

So, the 2nd Amendment’s second comma tells us that the subsequent clauses, “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed,” are the logical result of what preceded the comma: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State.” The third comma, the one after “Arms,” just signals a pause. But the justices repeatedly dropped that final comma altogether when quoting the 2nd Amendment -- not wise if you’re arguing that commas are vital to meaning.

But that’s just my interpretation. As the D.C. Circuit Court decision shows us, punctuation doesn’t make meaning, people do. And until a higher court says otherwise, people who swear by punctuation will hold onto their commas until they’re pried from their cold, dead hands.