And it’s not just about who gets to play with the
guns, but what specific toys you get. 1 If “the right of the
People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed,” why
should there be any limit on the type of weapon you can buy?
If the Second Amendment’s purpose is to make sure citizens can
fight against a tyrannical government, why not allow them to buy
an Abrams tank if they have a spare $23 million? 2 After all, a tank
is just a tractor with a big gun on it! 3
The Second Amendment’s history is complicated, not because we
lack sources or contemporaneous accounts, but because contemporary politics dictates conflicting interpretation. 4 Much of this
has to do with how we Americans feel about our heritage and a
dichotomy in American mythology.
On the one hand is Hawkeye who, as generations of American
schoolchildren know, never misses with either rifle or tomahawk. 5
He is a fictionalization of the real-life, albeit legendary, Daniel
Boone or Davy Crockett. 6 The Hawkeyes, Boones and Crocketts
bravely live on the frontier and fight for civilization but are not
really part of it. 7
“Hawkeyes” fight alone; they are rugged and most certainly individual. In the end, though, they have to leave civilization for a new
wilderness; their continued presence threatens the community. 8
Still, with their individual guns, they are literally “straight shoot-ers.” 9 They exemplify the individual right to bear arms.
On the other hand, there is the sheriff or soldier defending America
as part of an official force. They either bring or maintain society’s
law and order. Though they are certainly strong individuals, they
live in society, not outside it. Look at Gary Cooper as Sergeant
York, a civilized Christian pacifist who soldiers to save democracy. 10 Cooper also brings civilization to the “wild west” when he
stands up to the bad guy, Frank Miller, in HIGH NOON. 11
John Wayne helps win the “wild west” as the soldier upholding the
myth that Colonel Friday was an American hero in FORT APACHE. 12
He appears again as the consummate soldier in SANDS OF IWO
Although these heroes play with just as many guns as the
“Hawkeyes,” they do it as officials. 14 They exemplify a collective
1. Regarding what you get under the various Second Amendment absolutist arguments, see TUSHNET at 31.
2. See John-Peter Lund, Do Federal Firearms Laws Violate the
Second Amendment by Disarming the Militia?, 10 TEX. REV. L. &
POL. 469 (2006).
A single M1A2 Abrams Tank in 2007 costs just over $23 million,
not counting other outfitting costs. U.S. Dep’t of Defense, Budget for
Fiscal Year 2007: Program Acquisition Costs by Weapon System, at
51 (2006), at http://www.defenselink.mil/comptroller/defbudget/
fy2007/fy2007_weabook.pdf (last visited July 28, 2008).
Interestingly, the gun on the Abrams tank is smoothbore, i.e., not
rifled. Thus, it bears a remarkable similarity to the firearms at the time
of the American Revolution, most of which were smoothbore muskets.
3. The Arms: The Tank: The tank gets its name from its origins in
the Royal Navy when Winston Churchill supported experiments on
“land ships” in 1915. To keep the new weapon a secret, the English
labeled the crates “tanks” when they shipped them to France. Tanks
have “hatches,” “hulls,” “bows” and “ports,” reflecting their naval
origin. The basic idea of a tank traces all the way back to the
Renaissance, with even Leonardo da Vinci designing one.
4. The Second Amendment is the
only one of the Bill of Rights with
a preamble—“[a] well regulated
Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State”—which raises
the question of whether the
Amendment grants an individual
right. It is also a grammatical mess.
As originally written the Second
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.
Modern editions of the Constitution often drop the capitals for the words Militia,
State, People and Arms and drop the incorrect commas after Militia and Arms:
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.
What this gives is a complex sentence (meaning a sentence with one independent clause and
one or more subordinate clauses) starting with the subordinate or dependent clause,
A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state,
Followed by the independent clause,
the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
See the classic WILLIAM STRUNK, JR. & E.B. WHITE, THE ELEMEN TS OF ST YLE 5–8 (3d ed. 1979).
Also, any general grammar such as JOHN E. WARNER, MARY E. WHIT TEN, FRANCIS GRIFFITH, ENGLISH
GRAMMAR AND COMPOSITION 107 (1973) or CELIA MILLWARD, HANDBOOK FOR WRITERS 41–43 (1950).
If you attribute meaning to grammatical convention, then it argues for the reading that the
Second Amendment is about not infringing on the “right of the people to keep and bear
arms.” This is enough to make your average NRA member a grammarian!
But what did a comma mean to the founders?! According to a popular 18th-century grammar, CHARLES GILDON & JOHN BRIGHTLAND,
A GRAMMAR OF THE ENGLISH TONGUE 149
(1711), “After a Comma always follows
something else which depends upon
that which is separated from it by a
Comma” (original emphasis). What
follows the comma in the 2nd
Thus, in 18th-century grammar, the second part of the Second Amendment was
dependent on the first part,
A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, … .
This is enough to make your average
gun control advocate not just a grammarian but an historical grammarian!
5. See TUSHNET at 27 (2007) (dis-
cussing Hawkeye’s iconic nature).
Hawkeye (aka “Natty Bumpo,”
Pathfinder,” “the trapper,” “The
THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS has led to
various movie and TV adaptations
including the 1932 serials starring
Harry Carey, the 1957 TV series star-
ring Lon Chaney and John Hart, and
the 1992 movie starring Daniel Day
Chingachgook, which also has a
really good soundtrack. THE LAST
OF THE MOHICANS (20th Century
Fox 1992). From Cooper’s
“Hawkeye” comes Iowa as “The
Hawkeye State.” The navy has a
carrier-based tactical surveillance
plane called “the Hawkeye,” aka
“the eyes of the fleet.”
The Second Amendment
Modern re-creation of a tank from da Vinci’s drawings Leonardo da Vinci
James Fenimore Cooper 1822