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As the U.S. Supreme Court justices sit down to ponder whether they should rule on the constitutionality of the District of Columbia’s strict gun control ordinance, it is becoming apparent that they are stepping into a quagmire. No, not the political quagmire over gun control. Another suddenly intense debate is enveloping the case � this one over what all those commas in the Second Amendment meant in late 18th-century America. The Second Amendment says: “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.” The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ignited this esoteric debate on March 9 by ruling that, because of the Second Amendment’s second comma, the first half of the amendment � the militia half � is basically a throat-clearing preface that does not qualify the individual right to bear arms that the second half protects. Judge Laurence Silberman, who wrote the 2-1 decision, went on to conclude that the district’s handgun ban violates that individual right. Parker v. District of Columbia, No. 04-7041. Grammarians and gun control backers quickly pounced, saying the D.C. Circuit got it flat wrong. Gun rights advocates have hustled to counter that view. “The first clause is not precatory surplusage,” D.C. Attorney General Linda Singer insists in her brief appealing the Silberman ruling. The case is now titled District of Columbia v. Heller. “I seriously doubt that the Supreme Court will base its decision on the rules of grammar in 1791,” said Dennis Henigan, legal director of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. The first thing to know about commas back then is that there were lots of them, said Dennis Baron, a professor of English at the University of Illinois. The one-sentence Second Amendment contains three, at least in the version on display at the National Archives, and in the online version to which the Supreme Court’s own Web site links. “If you wrote the Second Amendment in your freshman college theme [today], the teacher might send it back circled in red,” Baron said. The Silberman opinion, like other texts over the years, omits the third comma from its recitation of the Second Amendment at one point in the decision. Scribes in the 18th century often threw commas in to signal a pause for breath, said Baron, and he thinks that explains commas one and three. Most of the debate rages over the second comma and what it signifies grammatically. Baron says that, then and now, the comma makes what precedes it an absolute clause, creating a cause-and-effect relationship with the clause that follows. “The absolute clause directs how we interpret the events of the main clause,” Baron said, offering a modern-day example: “The rain being over, we were able to open the windows again.” Under this view, the Second Amendment is really about militias, and the right to bear arms serves the needs of militias; it is not about articulating an individual right. George Mason University School of Law Professor Nelson Lund disagrees. In his view, the militia part of the amendment is “grammatically independent of the rest of the sentence,” and does nothing to qualify the command contained in the second part. “The Second Amendment has exactly the same meaning that it would have had if the preamble had been omitted.” Lund’s assertion mirrors Silberman’s view, and would energize the Second Amendment as embodying an individual right. It is difficult to predict how the Supreme Court justices, some of whom claim deep loyalty to the precise original words of the Constitution, will referee the grammar debate.

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