In landmark decision, Supreme Court rules that guns don't kill people

Dennis Baron debaron at ILLINOIS.EDU
Sat Jun 28 05:58:34 UTC 2008

There's another new post on the Web of Language:

Supreme Court rules that guns don't kill people; throwing out DC gun  
law, Scalia finds that linguists are mad hatters living on the other  
side of the looking glass

On Thursday the U.S. Supreme Court, voting 5-4, threw out the  
Washington, D.C. ban on handguns because, in its view, the Second  
Amendment gives every American the right to own a gun.  ...

Writing the majority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia agreed with a  
linguistic analysis that the Amendment’s prefatory first clause –  
stressing the importance of a well-regulated militia -- gives the  
reason for its operative second clause (3).  But wait, said Justice  
Scalia, there’s more.

...  Americans also need those guns to exercise their longstanding  
Common Law right to kill one another in self defense, and to bear arms  
against animals as well as paper targets at firing ranges.  Scalia  
fails to explain why English Common law, one basis of American  
Constitutional Law, permits the British to enact strict gun control on  
their side of the pond.

The linguists’ amicus brief in the Heller case read the Second  
Amendment in the context of eighteenth-century English grammar and  
lexicography to show what it meant to the framers, and what it still  
means today.  The majority disagreed with several of our findings.   
The minority found our analysis more convincing.

Always ready to insult those who disagree with his interpretations, J.  
Scalia called the linguistic analyses supporting the D.C. law “unknown  
this side of the looking glass (except, apparently, in some courses on  
Linguistics)” and “worthy of the mad hatter” (16).

Justice John Paul Stevens and the three other dissenting justices  
weren’t convinced by Scalia’s explication of the Second Amendment,  
either.  In his dissent, J. Stevens complains that Scalia’s parsing of  
the amendment is “overwrought and novel” (17).

Looking at the same 27 words of the amendment, Stevens comes up with a  
linguistic analysis that is the polar opposite of Scalia’s: “When each  
word in the text is given full effect, the Amendment is most naturally  
read to secure to the people a right to use and possess arms in  
conjunction with service in a well-regulated militia” (16).
Although J. Scalia equates linguists with mad hatters living on the  
other side of the looking glass, what goes on in linguistics courses  
actually illuminates how language works.  No Supreme Court ruling can  
change that.

The majority and minority opinions in Heller show that two groups of  
highly-educated people can look at the same text and come to opposite  
conclusions about its meaning. ..

find out what else linguists can learn from this landmark decision on  
the Web of Language


Dennis Baron
Professor of English and Linguistics
Department of English
University of Illinois
608 S. Wright St.
Urbana, IL 61801

office: 217-244-0568
fax: 217-333-4321

read the Web of Language:

The American Dialect Society -

More information about the Ads-l mailing list