In 2008, the U. S. Supreme Court, affirming an individual right to bear arms, struck down a long-standing ban on possessing handguns in Washington, D.C. (District of Columbia v. Heller [07-290]). It also ruled that bear arms, a phrase once associated with military service, now simply means ‘to carry a gun.’ The Supreme Court can declare laws unconstitutional. But apparently it can strike down definitions as well.
The Second Amendment is the one about the right to bear arms. In case you haven’t heard from the National Rifle Association lately, 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.
Despite the Second Amendment’s focus on “a well regulated militia,” the Heller court ruled that bearing arms has nothing to do with the army. Anybody can bear a gun for any lawful reason. In his opinion in Heller, Justice Scalia said that bear simply means ‘to carry,’ and arms are simply ‘weapons.’ So bear arms means ‘carry weapons,’ any kind of weapon for any kind of purpose. According to Scalia, only when bear arms is followed by the preposition against does it suggest warlike behavior.
But bear arms does not stretch comfortably to fit nonmilitary situations. As the historian Garry Wills put it, “One does not bear arms against a rabbit.”
Early printed version of the right-to-bear-arms amendment. It was originally the fourth of twelve amendments proposed, the second of the ten that passed to form the Bill of Rights.
In oral arguments in Heller, Justice David Souter challenged Solicitor General Paul Clement’s insistence that bear arms means simply to carry guns outside the home. Souter asked, “But wait a minute. You’re not saying that if somebody goes hunting deer he is bearing arms, or are you?” Clement replied, “I would say that and so would Madison and so would Jefferson” [James Madison drafted the Second Amendment].
But Souter, pressing his point, wasn’t convinced: “In the eighteenth century, someone going out to hunt a deer would have thought of themselves as bearing arms? I mean, is that the way they talk?” Clement finally conceded that no, that was not the way they talked: “Well, I will grant you this, that ‘bear arms’ in its unmodified form is most naturally understood to have a military context.”
But the Court’s conservative majority disagreed. Of the many military references to bearing arms, Justice Scalia insisted, “the fact that the phrase was commonly used in a particular context does not show that it is limited to that context” (Heller, 15). So in the post-Heller world, it’s fine to bear arms against a rabbit.
The English phrase bear arms is a direct translation of the Latin arma ferre, and in Latin it suggests war (arma, or arms, being ‘implements of war’). Until recently, that has been the case in English as well. The Oxford English Dictionary, often cited as an authority by the courts, defines bear arms as “to carry about with one, or wear, ensigns of office, weapons of offence or defence” and to bear arms against as “to be engaged in hostilities with.” Both senses are primarily military.
Black’s Law Dictionary, another court favorite for looking up words, makes a distinction between carrying arms or weapons, which anyone can do “in case of a conflict with another person,” and bearing arms, which means “to carry arms as weapons and with reference to their military use.”
Above, definition of carry arms from Black’s Law Dictionary, 4th ed. Below, Black's definition of bear arms.
Confirming the military association of the phrase, Webster’s New International Dictionary (1919) defines bear arms simply as ‘to serve as a soldier,’ a definition that is repeated in Webster’s Second New International Dictionary (1934). But once groups like the National Rifle Association began flooding the language with prose in which bearing arms becomes a synonym for carrying guns, Webster’s Third (1961, s.v. bear) abandoned that traditional military restriction and changed the primary definition of the phrase to the more general, ‘to carry or possess arms,’ with the Second Amendment cited to illustrate the definition. ‘To serve as a soldier’ is demoted to a secondary sense.
Above: Oxford English Dictionary entry for ‘bear arms,’ with citations showing its military sense both with and without the preposition against. Below, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary entry for the phrase.
Dictionaries have shifted bear arms even further from its military roots to reflect the rhetoric of the NRA and Heller. The definition of the phrase in the recently-updated online Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged could have been written by Antonin Scalia himself. It adds a separate sense for bear arms against, and even that has some wiggle room--it can refer to fighting as well as war:
Justice Scalia, who likes to hunt, can bear arms against a rabbit any time he likes. After all, words don’t make meanings, people do. But even after the Supreme Court redefined our right to bear arms, it still seems odd to say, “A team of G-men bore arms to track down Al Capone,” or to warn a shady character, “Watch it, buster, I’m bearing arms.” And although Woody Allen might have consulted a dictionary for the proper spelling of gun before writing the stick-up note in “Take the Money and Run,” that note doesn’t say, “I’m bearing a gub.”
The stick-up note that Woody Allen hands a bank teller in “Take the Money and Run” (1969) doesn’t say, “I’m bearing a gub.”