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Why is it that Cecil Adams [February 10], as well as the NRA, have different copies of the United States Constitution from my own? The Second Amendment in my own library clearly starts out with the words “A well-regulated militia…” What is well-regulated about a private citizen with a stash of guns in his basement? The opening words of this amendment seem to clearly indicate that the possession of guns was not meant to be beyond control. –Ed Cohen, Chicago

Let’s put it this way: it was not meant to be beyond regulation. The question is whether the power to regulate encompasses the power to ban. So far as guns are concerned, the courts have held that it does. You may say outlawing guns altogether was not what you had in mind. But it’s certainly what some people have in mind, at least with respect to broad categories of firearms such as handguns, and a few would happily prohibit guns, period. Federal case law currently offers virtually no protection against such draconian measures.

Put yourself in a gun owner’s shoes. While the first half of the Second Amendment is no miracle of clarity, the second half is about as plain as it can be. “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” But gun-control advocates deny this sentence means what it seems perfectly evident it says, and the courts have backed them up. Gun owners’ recognition that one of their most cherished rights has been interpreted out of existence accounts for the apocalyptic tone in which their arguments are often framed.

But let’s get back to “well-regulated.” A number of serious scholars have disputed the idea that this phrase necessarily means “subject to a lot of regulations.” The historian Robert Shalhope, for example, makes a good case that for the framers it meant “duly constituted”–that is, subject to civilian authority. The framers, in other words, did not propose to have armed gangs of self-appointed militiamen roaming the streets. Some take Shalhope’s argument a step further and say that “well-regulated” applies only to the militia and does not constrain an individual’s right to keep and bear arms in any way. A more reasonable interpretation, however, is that if the government can regulate the militia it can regulate the individuals in it, provided it does so in a way that does not make a shambles of their basic Second Amendment rights. For that reason I think even if the amendment had been interpreted more in line with the framers’ intent the regulatory landscape would not necessarily look a lot different from the way it does now. But it’s silly to think the framers would guarantee a right in one half of the Second Amendment only to allow the government to unguarantee it in the other half.

However odd it strikes us today, the framers regarded private gun ownership as one of the pillars of their liberty. They had recently defeated one of the most powerful nations in the world using an army that in the early going had consisted of amateur soldiers using their own weapons. They considered these citizen militias vastly preferable to standing armies, which in their experience had been instruments of oppression. They also had no professional police force upon which to depend for defense of their lives and property. It seemed natural to them that ordinary folk should have the right to own guns.

That was then, you may say, and this is now. In the 1990s it may well be foolish, as a matter of public policy, to allow law-abiding private citizens to own guns (although I’m not persuaded this is so). But it seems pretty clear that’s what the founders intended, and it eats at the heart of the constitutional process to simply wave that right away. No one doubts today that slavery is bad, but the constitution as written permitted it, and a duly ratified amendment was required to put the matter right. Likewise we should concede that the Second Amendment means what it seems to mean and that if we want to control guns to the point of prohibition, amending the amendment is the honest thing to do.

Is there something you need to get straight? Cecil Adams can deliver the Straight Dope on any topic. Write Cecil Adams at the Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago 60611, or E-mail him at cecil@chireader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration/Slug Signorino.