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Saturday, Jan 26 2013 10:00 PM

ROBERT PRICE: Commas have a lot of say-so in gun debate

By The Bakersfield Californian

I'm one of those punctuation nerds who gets mildly irritated when people who should know better place apostrophes in places they shouldn't. The world is full of punctuation police like me; how else do we explain the success of books like "Eats, Shoots & Leaves," Lynne Truss's witty little volume of sarcastic scolding that sold like a prequel to "Fifty Shades of Grey"?

Misapplications of the apostrophe are easy to spot, commas somewhat less so. That's because comma use follows two primary schools of thought. We can choose between the serial comma, as promoted by the Chicago Manual of Style, or more spare use, as dictated by the AP Stylebook. Rumors that the comma-use conflict erupted into violence between rival gangs of copy editors turned out to be another parody invention of The Onion's, but a certain underlying truth made the story funny.

Sometimes, though, misunderstood applications of punctuation have serious and even life-altering consequences. Consider this mouthful: "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." A word or two is missing there, right? And commas are running wild like it's a punctuation jailbreak.

For those who are personally and politically invested in those 225-year-old words, however, there is no doubt. The Founding Fathers clearly decreed that personal ownership of guns is a virtually limitless right. An individual right. Or ... the right of gun ownership was founded on the need of the young, vulnerable nation to maintain an army of its citizenry. A collective right. Pick one. Contradictory interpretations, each as clear as it can be.

Linguists and etymologists have parsed and diagrammed the Second Amendment backward and forward -- and guess what? They disagree, too.

The pivotal player in this long-running drama is also the smallest one -- the comma. That's how Adam Freedman saw it in his New York Times op-ed published in December 2007, a few weeks after the Supreme Court agreed to hear District of Columbia v. Heller, which struck down Washington, D.C.'s strict handgun ordinance.

Judge Laurence H. Silberman, whose U.S. Court of Appeals had previously invalidated the D.C. ordinance, cited the comma that followed the word "State" as evidence that the Second Amendment bestowed an individual, as well as collective, right of gun ownership.

"The second comma divides the amendment into two clauses: one 'prefatory' and the other 'operative,'" Freedman wrote. "On this reading, the bit about a well-regulated militia is just preliminary throat clearing; the framers don't really get down to business until they start talking about 'the right of the people ... shall not be infringed.'"

Others have convincingly argued that the "unusual" commas of the amendment reveal that the original authors' intent was that "a well-regulated militia ... shall not be infringed," which of course would be an entirely different thing.

Now, in the wake of Sandy Hook and Sen. Dianne Feinstein's newly introduced legislation that would ban certain assault weapons and high-capacity gun magazines, the debate has returned, and with vigor. Expect more lawyers.

Maybe this version of the debate will turn on actual words rather than the punctuation that attempts, poorly, to corral them into meaningful herds. Maybe, for example, if "the whole people" are in fact the "militia," as George Mason declared in 1788, a judge will decide that "a well-regulated militia" is therefore "a well-regulated people" whose guns should therefore be regulated. Either way, such a development might finally get that modest speck of ink, the comma, off the hot seat.

Email Editorial Page Editor Robert Price at rprice@bakersfield.com.

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