Sunday, August 28, 2011

Legal Construction and the Second Amendment

In proper legal theory, one has to use the text of a law to determine its meaning and the rules of legal construction and interpreation to divine the meaning. We shall use this as our text for 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.

I picked this version because I don't want tiny minds making stupid comments about punctuation even though the four comma version might be better for the point I'm trying to make here. But we will use this version. Given the intellect of some people answering this, it is probably better to use smaller numbers (yes, and what comes after two????). After all, you give them 2+2 and they come up with 5.

Anyway, We are not going to discuss whether this is an individual, collective or civic right. We are going to analyse the sentence that is the Second Amendment. We will also look at it in light of what the Constitution says.

Why is there a "the right of the People to keep and bear arms" that "shall not be infringed" using the words above? What is the scope of this right?

If your answer is self-defence, then you are wrong since the phrase self-defence is not plainly written in the text. It is a common legal principle that one cannot infer something when it is not plainly written in the text. It is a principle of statutory interpretation that The express mention of one thing excludes all others, that is items not on the list are assumed not to be covered by the statute.

Again, Fighting government tyranny is not mentioned in the Second Amendment. Additionally, Fighting government tyranny makes no sense in light of Article III, Section iii. That means the insurrection theory is truly not supported by any serious constitutional scholarship. The concept of fighting government tyranny makes even less sense when you consider that Samuel Adams said, "Rebellion against a king may be pardoned, or lightly punished, but the man who dares to rebel against the laws of a republic ought to suffer death."

That means we must find our meaning in the text, not outside of it. We can also look for further guidance in the Constitution since the Second Amendment must be read within the framework of the constitution. However, a search of the Constitutional text will find that one constitutional purpose is to "provide for the common defence" and you don't have to read to far into the Constitution to find that stated.

Blackstone stated that, although the words of an enacting clause were 'generally to be understood in their usual and most known signification,' yet if its words, after due analysis, were 'still dubious' or 'ambiguous, equivocal, or intricate,' one might look to the context, which included 'the proeme, or preamble, [which] is often called in to help the construction of an act of parliament.' (1 Blackstone at 59-60).

Someone said that the proeme could be read as starting with Because. Which means a better way of reading this is Because a well regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

So, using the text above and the Constitution, The right to "Keep and bear arms" has something to do with "a well regulated militia" since that is mentioned in the text of the Second Amendment and is a purpose tied to "providing for the common defence" which is a purpose stated in the Constitution. It has nothing to do with self-defence since nowhere in the text of the Second Amendment or the Constitution is the phrase "self-defence" present or even hinted at.

We will now turn to the universally accepted authority for legal interpretation at the time of the Constitution's adoption, William Blackstone:

The citation from Blackstone regarding the "proeme, or preamble" is part of a larger section that consists of "observations concerning the interpretation of laws." 1 Blackstone at *58. One of those "observations" was: "BUT, lastly, the most universal and effectual way of discovering the true meaning of a law, when the words are dubious, is by considering the reason and spirit of it; or the cause which moved the legislator to enact it. For when this reason ceases, the laws itself ought likewise to cease with it." 1 Blackstone at *61.

Blackstone refers to this "when the reason ceases, the law ought to cease" principle several times in the Commentaries, which would seem to indicate that he considered it a fairly important interpretive principle. 2 Blackstone at *390-91 (discussing property interests in tame and domestic animals and noting "But here the reasons of the general rule cease, and 'cessante ratione cessat et ipsa lex' [The reason of the law ceasing, the law itself also ceases]"), 3 Blackstone at *219 (discussing the law of nuisance, and noting "But, where the reason ceases, the law also ceases with it : therefore it is no nuisance to erect a mill so near mine, as to draw away the custom, unless the miller also intercepts the water."), 4 Blackstone at *3 (noting that some aspects of Britain's criminal law "seem to want revision and amendment" and explaining that "These have chiefly arisen from too scrupulous an adherence to some rules of the antient common law, when the resons have ceased upon which those rules were founded . . . "), 4 Blackstone at *81 (discussing the law of treason, and noting that the "plain intention of this law is to guard the blood royal from any suspicion of bastardy, whereby the succession to the crown might be rendered dubious: and therefore, when this reason ceases, the law ceases with it . . ."), 4 Blackstone at *330 (discussing the plea of a former attainder, and noting "But to this general rule however, as to all others, there are some exceptions; wherein, cessante ratione, cessat et ipsa lex.").

Some of these seem to refer to common-law decision making, but he also applies this principle to statutes.

Which means that if the "cause/reason" for the Second Amendment was the "well-regulated militia", then it could be argued that when that reason ceased, the law ought likewise to cease with it. Thus, those who say that the militia portion is unimportant have made it clear that the reason is no longer valid, therefore, the Second Amendment is without effect and is now void.

I know I will have lost the simpler minded readers with the citations from Blackstone, but it is rather simple:

The right to keep and bear arms is tied to the militia since no other purpose is mentioned in the text. Additionally, if we look in the Constitution, we find that one of its stated purposes is to "provide for the common defence". So, it would seem far more likely that the right is in some way tied to a "well regulated militia" than some other purpose.

Of course, with my federalism and stare decisis posts, we can see that the supporters of an individual right don't mind playing fast and loose with the law. The scary bit is that there has become a cottage industry of "scholars" who have been foisting this theory on an unquestioning public. No one has asked "how can self-defence be covered when it is not specifically mentioned? Isn't it a tenet of statutory interpretation that the express mention of one thing excludes all others?"

Also, you don't need to go beyond the text of the Constitution to find mention of the militia and Congress' power to "provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining the Militia". Again, nothing mentioned in the US Constitution regarding personal defence. However, the language, which is within the Constitution might provide a clue as to the reason for "the right of the People to keep and bear arms". That purpose is to provide that congress continues its obligation to arm the militia according to Article I, Section 8, Clause 16.

One other point that shoots down the individual right interpretation is that there is quite a bit of commentary surrounding the adoption of the Constitution which point to concerns based upon article I, Section 8, clauses 15 & 16, not private purposes. The fact that private purposes were mentioned in various proposals only adds weight to the fact that they were not included in the text of the Second Amendment.

The express mention of one thing excludes all others, that is items not on the list are assumed not to be covered by the statute.

This is not English literature, this is law and subject to the rules of legal construction, not grammar.

The meaning of the language of the statute must be determined in light of its objectives, purposes, and practical effect as a whole. If a statute is so ambiguous that a judge cannot make a reasonable construction of its disputed provisions, and a reasonable person could not determine from reading it what the law orders or prohibits, it is void for vagueness because it violates the guarantee of Due Process of Law.

That means if you find the language to be unclear, then the law is void for vagueness.

So, if the reason for the Second Amendment is not:

"A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State"

Then the law is no longer valid.

If this is all unclear, then it is void for vagueness.


  1. Is there no right to self-defense what so ever because “self-defense” is not mentioned in the constitution? Including self-defense with a Tazer, mace, or fists?

  2. I think you are getting the point.

    Self-defence is not a right, it is a mitigating defence.

  3. Is mitigating defense with a firearm acceptable? I don’t care what we call it, so long as people don’t get punished for defending themselves.

  4. Really, TS, mitigation means that the crime is reduced in severity.

    Deadly force should not be a first option, but an extreme one.

  5. English common law recognizes the right to self-defense, & it is what Blackstone knew.

  6. Tennesse Budd, I seriously doubt you are aware of the English Common Law.

    Under common law, Self-defence is not a right, it is a mitigation.

    Self defence in English law is using reasonable force against an unjust threat. Self-defence is a justification rather than an excuse-that is the defence is asserting that the actions were not a crime at all.

    Blackstone’s writings concerning the law of self-defence which are:

    THE defence of one’s self, or the mutual and reciprocal defence of such as stand in the relations of husband and wife, parent and child, master and servant. In these cases, if the party himself, or any of these his relations, be forcibly attacked in his person or property, it is lawful for him to repel force by force; and the breach of the peace, which happens, is chargeable upon him only who began the affrayd . For the law, in this case, respects the passions of the human mind; and (when external violence is offered to a man himself, or those to whom he bears a near connection) makes it lawful in him to do himself that immediate justice, to which he is prompted by nature, and which no prudential motives are strong enough to restrain. It considers that the future process of law is by no means an adequate remedy for injuries accompanied with force; since it is impossible to say, to what wanton lenghs of reapine or cruelty outrages of this sort might be carried, unless it were permitted a man immediately to oppose one violence with another. Self-defence therefore as it is justly called the primary law of nature, so it is not, neither can it be in fact, taken away be the law of society. In the English law particularly it is held an excuse for breaches of the peace, nay even for homicide itself: but care must be taken that the resistance does not exceed the bounds of mere defence and prevention; for then the defender would himself become an aggressor. --Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book the Third, Chapter the First: Of the Redress of Private Wrongs by the Mere Act of Parties p.3

    The defendant does not have the right to determine what constitutes "reasonable force" because the defendant would always maintain they acted reasonably and thus would never be guilty.

    I should also add that deadly force was seen as the last option during Blackstone's time, as the above quote points out.

    Under such a doctrine, one whould have to show that there was an imminent particular threat affecting the particular circumstances in which the weapon was carried.

    Since deadly force was the last option in the common law, I seriously doubt that would allow for the non-militia use of arms.

    Also, you have to get around Expressio unius est exclusio alterius ("the express mention of one thing excludes all others")--that is the words self-defence are not mentioned in the Second Amendment.