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The Second Amendment: 27 Words, Endless Interpretations

The Second Amendment is short on words but long on dispute.
The Second Amendment is short on words but long on dispute.

The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is like:

  • an Etch A Sketch. You can make it into pretty much whatever you want.
  • an optical-illusory M.C. Escher staircase that climbs back into itself.
  • How can something apparently so simple — a 27-word sentence — be so confusing? What is so hard to understand about "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"?

    As it turns out, after more than 200 years of intense scrutiny by people more versed in The Law than you and I — and in the face of seemingly endless American gun violence — the meaning of the Second Amendment continues to baffle and elude. In this case, the country's Founders have left us to founder.

    With the tragic multiple shootings recently in Colorado, Oregon, Connecticut and other places getting so much attention, friends and enemies of guns are, as usual, pushing and shoving each other. And the Second Amendment, also as usual, is caught right in the thick of it.

    Some Americans defend it. Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, tells NBC News that he is not interested in participating in a presidential task force to reduce gun violence "if it's a panel that's just going to be made up of a bunch of people that, for the last 20 years, have been trying to destroy the Second Amendment."

    Others howl for an overhaul. "America needs to repeal the Second Amendment," writes Kurt Eichenwald in Vanity Fair. And he wants to force gun owners to buy liability insurance.

    Is it a sweeping constitutional guarantee that individuals have unfettered access to guns, or a practical agreement that allows for citizen armies in times of extraordinary national need?

    Maybe it would help everyone to think about this complicated dictum in a more slant way, hold it up to the light and look at it from different angles, the way poets approach other tough concepts — such as love, hate and injustice.

    A Tone Poem

    After all, says U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, poetry has the "ability to help us deal with difficult things."

    Poetry, she says, "is the best repository for our most humane, ethical, and just expressions of feeling."

    So maybe we can understand the Second Amendment a little better if we think of it as sort of a tone poem. And use the language of the poet — metaphor and simile — to explore the beauty that lies within.

    So what is the Second Amendment like?

    The Second Amendment, says Karen L. MacNutt, a Massachusetts attorney and contributing editor to Women & Guns, "is like a good dog because it lies obediently at your feet but has big teeth to keep the bad guys away — even if you are poor, weak, male or female, black or white."

    "The Second Amendment is like a Rorschach test," Andrea Sachs wrote in Time. "Observers tend to examine it and discover whatever they already believe about gun control."

    The Second Amendment "is like a condom," noted a commenter on the Current TV website. "It's better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it."

    The Second Amendment, according to Heraldblog, "is like the crazy uncle living in the attic. Nobody wants to address the problem, so we just accept the absurdity of a constitutional amendment that protects unfettered gun ownership."

    Legal writer Stuart Taylor, co-author of Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It's Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won't Admit It, says "deriving the meaning of the Second Amendment from studying the entrails of dead hamsters would produce exactly the same result as has the Supreme Court's painstaking parsing of the amendment's hopelessly inscrutable language and history."

    Conservative and liberal justices alike, Taylor says, "would confidently arrive at diametrically opposed interpretations perfectly matching their personal political opinions. They would be wiser to leave such subjective policymaking to elected officials."

    Because in the end, trying to find a meaningful metaphor to help explain the Second Amendment is like, well, it's like trying to find a meaningful metaphor to help explain the Second Amendment.

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    Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.