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  • Corpus linguistics, public meaning, and the Second Amendment

    Conservative jurists claim to focus on the text and nothing but the text as they seek to discover the original public meaning of the Second Amendment. But it’s not clear that the amendment ever had a single shared meaning, or if it did, whether that meaning is recoverable. That’s true of any text, not just legal ones. The best we can hope for when investigating an older text is to examine how it was discussed around the time it was written and to use historical sources to glean the meaning of any difficult or ambiguous words or phrases. And even so, there’s no guarantee that a reasonable reader in 1791 would interpret the Second Amendment the same way as their equally-reasonable neighbor. When the Supreme Court said in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) that it had determined the original public meaning of the Second Amendment, its reading, like any linguistic interpretation, involved both an examination of the text and a certain amount of guesswork. . . .

    Corpus linguistics, which some hail as better than dictionaries for legal interpretation, allows us to access and analyze large swaths of digitized text. Take this example  . . .