How the Dictionary Defines the Second Amendment

Noah Webster (1758–1843), whose name has become synonymous with “dictionary” because he founded the modern Merriam-Webster dictionary (first published in 1828 as An American Dictionary of English Language), argued that a constitutional republic must have real and constant definitions for the words within its laws and constitution; after all, politicians could simply semantically rewrite the Constitution if the words don’t have concrete definitions that can be looked up by anyone. This is why the U.S. Congress adopted Webster’s 1828 dictionary as the American standard.

This became an important point in the twentieth century when anti-gun politicians and activists attempted to read the individual right out of the Second Amendment by redefining its words. So let’s see how Webster’s dictionary defined the Second Amendment and therefore how the people who ratified the U.S. Bill of Rights defined our liberties.

Webster defined “militia” as “…able bodied men organized into companies, regiments and brigades, with officers of all grades, and required by law to attend military exercises on certain days only, but at other times left to pursue their usual occupations.”

Next Webster defined “people” as “the commonality, as distinct from men of rank.” Therefore, in the language of Webster’s time, “the people” meant average citizens.

So, at the very least, we know people “left to pursue their usual occupations” included all able-bodied men from adolescence to senility. Also, the fact that they were “organized into companies” doesn’t alter the definition of the word “militia,” as there is no historical evidence to suggest that the gradual end of the practice of having volunteer militias changed the definition of the word “militia.” Obviously, arguing that the use of the word “militia” in the Second Amendment isn’t “the people” is counter to history and dishonest.

Webster’s dictionary defined “right” as “just claim; immunity; privilege.”

“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” was “to carry” or “to wear; name; to bear arms in a coat.” (Notice that this definition includes concealed carry.)

And “arms” were defined as “weapons of offense, or armor for defense and protection of the body.” Now also realize that only civilians would “bear arms in a coat,” as soldiers carried firearms in their hands or in a holster.

So all these simple definitions clearly indicate that individual citizens have the right to carry a firearm, concealed or otherwise. And therefore Webster defined the words “keep and bear arms” to literally mean a right to hand-held arms that a person could “bear,” such as muskets, pistols and swords, but not artillery pieces and so on that an individual could not carry.

How about the Second Amendment’s clause stating the right of the people to “keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed”? Webster defined “infringe” as “to violate, either positively by contravention, or negatively by non-fulfillment or neglect of performance.” That’s pretty clear. The government can’t ban handguns or long guns.

In the Heller decision five justices on the Court didn’t have a problem with a clear, honest definition. On June 26, 2008, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the Second Amendment is indeed an individual right. The Court upheld a federal appeals court ruling, thereby striking down D.C.’s gun law, which outlawed handguns altogether and barred operable rifles or shotguns in residents’ homes. Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, held that: “In sum, we hold that the District’s ban on handgun possession in the home violates the Second Amendment, as does its prohibition against rendering any lawful firearm in the home operable for the purpose of immediate self-defense.”

In doing so the Court was upholding the dictionary. What should be shocking to freedom-loving people it that though all the historical evidence—and even the dictionary—shows that the Second Amendment is clearly an individual right, four out of nine justices still voted to expunge the Second Amendment from the U.S. Bill of Rights. Such a flagrant disregard of the truth, and indeed the will of the American people, is why gun owners are worried that the prospect of a second Barack Obama presidency could mean a reversal of Heller if President Obama is able to get more anti-gun justices on the Supreme Court.

For more, check out Saving the Bill of Rights.

2 Responses
  • Paul L Balaich

    Websters definitions of the Constitution 2nd Amendment is an outstanding
    piece of work! Their remarks concerning politicians constant attacks on the amendment should be read by all including Congresspersons who often forget the oath they took when they entered a political office. As a military veteran who served my Nation honorably and faithfully for 21 & 1/2 years, Websters Dictionary warms the cockles of my heart. Thank you!

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