Author, Stopping Power: Why 70
Million Americans Own Guns & Self Control Not Gun Control
Webmaster, The World
Wide Web Gun Defense Clock
The following is reprinted from
the September 13, 1991 issue of Gun Week, and also appears under the
title "The Text of The
Second Amendment" in The Journal on Firearms and Public Policy,
Summer 1992, Volume 4, Number 1.
If you wanted to know all about the Big Bang,
you'd ring up Carl Sagan, right? And if you wanted to know about desert warfare,
the man to call would be Norman Schwarzkopf, no question about it. But who would
you call if you wanted the top expert on American usage, to tell you the meaning
Second Amendment to the United States
That was the question I asked A.C. Brocki,
Editorial Coordinator of the Los Angeles Unified School District and formerly
senior editor at Houghton Mifflin Publishers - who himself had been recommended
to me as the foremost expert on English usage in the Los Angeles school system.
Mr. Brocki told me to get in touch with Roy
Copperud, a retired professor of journalism at the University of Southern
California and the author of American Usage and Style: The Consensus.
A little research lent support to Brocki's
opinion of Professor Copperud's expertise.
Copperud was a newspaper writer on major dailies for over three decades before
embarking on a distinguished seventeen-year career teaching journalism at USC.
Copperud has been writing a column dealing with the professional aspects of
journalism for Editor and Publisher, a weekly magazine focusing on the
He's on the usage panel of the American
Heritage Dictionary, and Merriam Webster's Usage Dictionary
frequently cites him as an expert. Copperud's fifth book on usage, American
Usage and Style: The Consensus, has been in continuous print from Van
Nostrand Reinhold since 1981, and is the winner of the Association of American
Publishers' Humanities Award.
That sounds like an expert to me.
After a brief telephone call to Professor
Copperud in which I introduced myself but did not give him any indication
of why I was interested, I sent the following letter on July 26, 1991:
I am writing you to ask you for your
professional opinion as an expert in English usage, to analyze the text of the
Second Amendment to the United States
Constitution, and extract the intent from the text.
The text of the
Second Amendment is, "A
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 debate over this amendment has been whether
the first part of the sentence, "A
Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State," is a restrictive
clause or a subordinate clause, with respect to the independent clause
containing the subject of the sentence, "the right of the people to keep
and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."
I would request that your analysis of this
sentence not take into consideration issues of political impact or public
policy, but be restricted entirely to a linguistic analysis of its meaning and
intent. Further, since your professional analysis will likely become part of
litigation regarding the consequences of the
Second Amendment, I ask that whatever analysis you make be a professional
opinion that you would be willing to stand behind with your reputation, and even
be willing to testify under oath to support, if necessary.
My letter framed several questions about the
text of the
Second Amendment, then concluded:
I realize that I am asking you to take on a
major responsibility and task with this letter. I am doing so because, as a
citizen, I believe it is vitally important to extract the actual meaning of the
Second Amendment. While I ask that your analysis not be affected by the
political importance of its results, I ask that you do this because of that
After several more letters and phone calls, in
which we discussed terms for his doing such an analysis, but in which we never
discussed either of our opinions regarding the
Second Amendment, gun control, or any other political subject, Professor
Copperud sent me the following analysis (into which I've inserted my questions
for the sake of clarity):
Copperud:] The words "A
militia, being necessary to the security of a free state," contrary to the
interpretation cited in your letter of July 26, 1991, constitute a present
participle, rather than a clause. It is used as an adjective, modifying "
militia," which is followed by the main clause of the sentence (subject
"the right," verb "shall"). The right to keep and bear arms
is asserted as essential for maintaining a
In reply to your numbered questions:
[Schulman: (1) Can the sentence be
interpreted to grant the right to keep and bear arms solely to "a
Copperud:] (1) The sentence does not restrict the right to keep and bear
arms, nor does it state or imply possession of the right elsewhere or by others
than the people; it simply makes a positive statement with respect to a right of
[Schulman: (2) Is "the right of the
people to keep and bear arms" granted by the words of the
Second Amendment, or does the
Second Amendment assume a preexisting right of the people to keep and bear arms,
and merely state that such right "shall not be infringed"?;]
Copperud:] (2) The right is not granted by the amendment; its existence is
assumed. The thrust of the sentence is that the right shall be preserved
inviolate for the sake of ensuring a
[Schulman: (3) Is the right of the
people to keep and bear arms conditioned upon whether or not a
militia is, in fact, necessary to the security of a free State, and if that
condition is not existing, is the statement "the right of the people to
keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed" null and void?;]
Copperud:] (3) No such condition is expressed or implied. The right to keep
and bear arms is not said by the amendment to depend on the existence of a
militia. No condition is stated or implied as to the relation of the right to
keep and bear arms and to the necessity of a
militia as requisite to the security of a free state. The right to keep and bear
arms is deemed unconditional by the entire sentence.
[Schulman: (4) Does the clause "A
Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State," grant a right to
the government to place conditions on the "right of the people to keep and
bear arms," or is such right deemed unconditional by the meaning of the
Copperud:] (4) The right is assumed to exist and to be unconditional, as
previously stated. It is invoked here specifically for the sake of the
[Schulman: (5) Which of the following
does the phrase "
militia" mean: "well-equipped," "well-organized,"
"well-drilled," "well-educated," or "subject to
regulations of a superior authority"?]
Copperud:] (5) The phrase means "subject to regulations of a superior
authority"; this accords with the desire of the writers for
civilian control over the military.
[Schulman: If at all possible, I would
ask you to take into account the changed meanings of words, or usage, since that
sentence was written two-hundred years ago, but not to take into account
historical interpretations of the intents of the authors, unless those issues
can be clearly separated.]
Copperud:] To the best of my knowledge, there has been no change in the
meaning of words or in usage that would affect the meaning of the amendment. If
it were written today, it might be put: "Since a
militia is necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to
keep and bear arms shall not be abridged."
[Schulman:] As a "scientific
control" on this analysis, I would also appreciate it if you could compare
your analysis of the text of the
Second Amendment to the following sentence,
"A well-schooled electorate, being
necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and
read Books, shall not be infringed."
My questions for the usage analysis of this
sentence would be,
(1) Is the grammatical structure and usage of
this sentence, and the way the words modify each other, identical to the
Second Amendment's sentence?; and
(2) Could this sentence be interpreted to
restrict "the right of the people to keep and read Books" only
to "a well-educated electorate" - for example, registered voters with
a high-school diploma?]
Copperud:] (1) Your "scientific control" sentence precisely
parallels the amendment in grammatical structure.
(2) There is nothing in your sentence that
either indicates or implies the possibility of a restricted interpretation.
Copperud had only one additional comment, which he placed in his cover letter:
"With well-known human curiosity, I made some speculative efforts to decide
how the material might be used, but was unable to reach any conclusion."
So now we have been told by one of the top
experts on American usage what many knew all along: the
Constitution of the United States unconditionally protects the people's right to
keep and bear arms, forbidding all government formed under the
Constitution from abridging that right.
As I write this, the attempted coup against
constitutional government in the Soviet Union has failed, apparently because the
will of the people in that part of the world to be free from capricious tyranny
is stronger than the old guard's desire to maintain a monopoly on dictatorial
And here in the United States, elected
lawmakers, judges, and appointed officials who are pledged to defend the
Constitution of the United States ignore, marginalize, or prevaricate about the
Second Amendment routinely. American citizens are put in American prisons for
carrying arms, owning arms of forbidden sorts, or failing to satisfy
bureaucratic requirements regarding the owning and carrying of firearms - all of
which is an abridgement of the unconditional right of the people to keep and
bear arms, guaranteed by the
And even the
ACLU, staunch defender of the rest of the
Bill of Rights, stands by and does nothing.
It seems it is up to those who believe in the
right to keep and bear arms to preserve that right. No one else will. No one
else can. Will we beg our elected representatives not to take away our rights,
and continue regarding them as representing us if they do? Will we continue
obeying judges who decide that the
Second Amendment doesn't mean what it says but means whatever they say it means
Or will we simply keep and bear the arms of our
choice, as the
Constitution of the United States promises us we can, and pledge that we will
defend that promise with our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor?
I was looking at the "View" section
of the LA Times from December 18, 1991 - an article on James Michener
which my ex-wife Kate had saved for me to read - when the beginning of Jack
Smith's column caught my eye: "Roy
Copperud had no sooner died the other day than I had occasion to consult his
excellent book, 'American Usage and Style: The Consensus.'"
Thus I learned of the death of Roy
Copperud, the retired USC professor whom I had commissioned to do a grammatical
analysis of the
Second Amendment. It seems to have been one of the last projects he worked on.
It is certainly one of the most important.
Copperud told me afterwards that he, personally, favored gun control, but his
analysis of the
Second Amendment made clear that its protections of the right of the people to
keep and bear arms were unaffected by its reference to
militia. This sort of intellectual and professional honesty is sorely lacking in
public discourse today.
In my several letters and phone conversations
Copperud, I found him to be a gentleman of the old school.
The planet is a little poorer without him. -JNS