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Kirby: Loaded language firing up Utah gun debate

Published February 18, 2013 11:12 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

I'm not conversant in the latest rhetoric over the right to bear arms. It's probably the result of years spent playing with words for a living. A loaded word can be dangerous.

It doesn't help that I sometimes wear a T-shirt featuring a grizzly carrying a rifle and the words, "I support the right to arm bears."

But just how far out of the loop I am became apparent at the state Capitol two weeks ago when I watched a group of heavily armed people holding up two fingers in some kind of salute.

At first I thought it was the peace sign. Waving two fingers was a popular anti-war gesture during my youth. The generation before me understood it to mean "V for victory."

Turns out two fingers is now a show of support for the Second Amendment. If you see people holding up the "peace sign" today, chances are they're armed with something more than flowers.

The language of the Second Amendment is important. Unfortunately, understanding it depends entirely on what you already think of guns. Check it out.

"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."

Couldn't be simpler, right? Wrong. Every single word in that sentence can be spun any way you or someone else likes.

For example, my granddaughter can't figure out why the government would even care about arms. Aren't most people born with two of them already?

So what did the writers of the Bill of Rights mean by "arms"? It's a good question. Arms during their day consisted of muskets and cannons, not rocket-propelled grenades and cruise missiles.

If you're easily frightened, "arms" could be anything, including handguns and shotguns. Hell, for TSA it's fingernail files, toenail clippers and more than 3.5 ounces of shampoo.

"Keep" is another important word in the Second Amendment. Keep? Keep your arms where? In a well-guarded armory? Home in a gun safe? Inside your pants? Slung across your back in the grocery store?

Infringed. This one is tricky. Does it mean infringing everyone from having a gun, or just the people who clearly shouldn't. And who are they?

What about "security?" The Second Amendment specifically refers arms being essential to the security "of a free state." But whose job is it really to protect the state?

This brings us to "militia." For some people this means the national guard or a legally constituted form of organized protection. It could even be the police or a duly sworn sheriff's posse.

For others, a militia is a group of trigger-happy muddle wits practicing fire team rushes in the woods against that eagerly anticipated day when it becomes security FROM the state.

If you're the kind of person who's afraid of all guns, the Second Amendment definitely means only a few responsible people should be allowed to own anything more dangerous than a BB gun.

But if you think a 35mm Oerlikon anti-aircraft gun is an essential part of any good home defense or deer hunt, then the Second Amendment clearly says you can have one.

That's America for you. The Second Amendment should be relatively easy to understand. I suspect it's not because we aren't.

Robert Kirby can be reached at rkirby@sltrib.com orfacebook.com/stillnotpatbagley.






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