Category Archives: District of Columbia v. Heller

Corpora and the Second Amendment: “keep” (part 2)

An introduction and guide to my series of posts “Corpora and the Second Amendment” is available here. The corpus data that is discussed can be downloaded here. That link will take you to a shared folder in Dropbox. Important: Use the “Download” button at the top right of the screen.

In  my last post (longer ago than I care to admit), I offered a very brief introduction to corpus analysis and used corpus data on the word keep as the raw material for a demonstration of corpus analysis in action. One of my reasons for doing that was to talk about the approach to word meaning that I think is appropriate when using corpus linguistics in legal interpretation.

That approach, which is described in my article “A Lawyer’s Introduction to Meaning in the Framework of Corpus Linguistics” (pdf), is based on work in corpus-based lexicography, and it provides a way of dealing with puzzling fact about language. Many words have multiple possible meanings when they are considered in isolation, but when used in a sentence they are typically unambiguous. The basic insight that grew out of lexicographic corpus analysis is that when a word is used in a given context, what is generally thought of as the meaning of the word in that context is often more appropriately regarded as the meaning of a larger unit consisting of the word together with certain elements of the accompanying text. And it turns out that it is often possible to identify the kinds of contextual elements that are associated with particular meanings.

This has implications for the use of corpus linguistics in legal interpretation, because it can provide guidance in querying the corpus and then sifting and analyzing the data. The key is to look for concordance lines in which the relevant word is used in a context that is grammatically and semantically similar to the context in the legal provision at issue. (For an idea of the kind of similarity I’m talking about, see my analysis of Muscarello v. United States and my post “The semantics of sleeping in railway stations.”)

The approach that I’ve described also has implications for this reexamination of the District of Columbia v. Heller. Those implications arise from the fact that at a key point in the decision, the Supreme Court relied on the fact that when bear arms is used to denote activities such as serving as a soldier and fighting in a war, its use is idiomatic. And the approach I’m following provides a way of thinking about idiomaticity that differs from the traditional view of the phenomenon—which was the view underlying this aspect of Heller.

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Corpora and the Second Amendment: “keep” (part 1)

An introduction and guide to my series of posts “Corpora and the Second Amendment” is available here. The corpus data that is discussed can be downloaded here. That link will take you to a shared folder in Dropbox. Important: Use the “Download” button at the top right of the screen.

With this post, I begin my examination of the corpus data regarding the phrase keep and bear arms. My plan is to start at the level of the individual words, keep, bear, and arms, then proceed to the simple verb phrases keep arms and bear arms, and finally deal with the whole phrase keep and bear arms. I start in this post and the next one with keep.

As you may recall from my last post about the Second Amendment, Justice Scalia’s majority opinion in D.C. v. Heller had this to say about the meaning of keep: “[Samuel] Johnson defined ‘keep’ as, most relevantly, ‘[t]o retain; not to lose,’ and ‘[t]o have in custody.’ Webster defined it as ‘[t]o hold; to retain in one’s power or possession.'” While those definitions could be improved on, I think that for purposes of this discussion, they adequately explain what keep means when it’s used in the phrase keep arms. So I’m not going to discuss that data with an eye to criticizing this portion of the Heller opinion.

Instead, I’m going to use the data for keep as the raw material for an introduction to the nuts and bolts of corpus analysis. I suspect that many people reading this won’t have had any first-hand experience working with corpus data, or even any exposure to it. Hopefully this quick introduction will enable those people to better understand what I’m talking about when I start to deal with the data that does raise questions about the Supreme Court’s analysis.

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Corpora and the Second Amendment: Heller

[An introduction and guide to my series of posts “Corpora and the Second Amendment” is available here.]

Before I get into the corpus data (next post, I promise), I want to set the stage by talking a bit about the Heller decision. Since the purpose of this series of posts is to show the ways in which the corpus data casts doubt on the Supreme Court’s interpretation of keep and bear arms, I’m going to review the parts of the decision that are most relevant to that purpose. I’m also going to point out several ways in which I think the Court’s linguistic analysis is flawed even without considering the corpus data. Although that wasn’t part of my plans when I began these posts, this project has led me to read Heller more closely than I had done before and therefore to see flaws that had previously escaped my notice. And I think that being aware of those flaws will be important when the time comes to decide whether  and to what extent the data undermines Heller‘s analysis.

The Second Amendment’s structure

As is well known (and as has been discussed previously on Language Log here, here, and here), the Second Amendment is unusual in that it is divided into two distinct parts, which the Court in Heller called the “prefatory clause” and the “operative clause”:

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Corpora and the Second Amendment: Preliminaries and caveats

[An introduction and guide to my series of posts “Corpora and the Second Amendment” is available here.]

Before I get down to the business of discussing the corpus data and its implications for the Supreme Court’s analysis in Heller, I want to say a few things about what this series of posts will and won’t be about, I want to offer some caveats, and I want to outline the sequence that the posts will follow.

What the posts will and won’t be about

These posts are going to focus on the meaning of the phrase keep and bear arms and on the Court’s analysis of that phrase. I won’t be talking about the other parts of the Second Amendment (a well-regulated militia, the security of a free state, the right of the people, and infringed).

The discussion will concentrate on linguistic issues rather legal issues. I won’t be talking about whether the Court’s holding in Heller is correct. I will, however, talk about what my linguistic analysis means for Heller‘s conclusion that the Second Amendment’s text is unambiguous and therefore that the prefatory clause plays no role in the amendment’s interpretation.

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Corpora and the Second Amendment: Weisberg responds to me; plus update re OED

[An introduction and guide to my series of posts “Corpora and the Second Amendment” is available here.]

Two quick updates.

First, David Weisberg has replied to my response to his post on the Originalism Blog, but he doesn’t address the point that I made, which was that I disagreed with his framing of the issue.

Weisberg also notes that I didn’t respond to the second point in his original post (which dealt with a purely legal issue), and he goes on to say this:

Many people (and I think Goldfarb is one) believe the correct sense of the 2nd Amend is this: “The right of the people to keep and bear Arms, for use in a State’s well regulated Militia, shall not be infringed.” But, if that is what the framers meant, why isn’t that what they wrote? I think that is a very fair question to ask, and it merits an answer. After all, 5 words would have been saved. Will corpus linguistics provide an answer?

I’m not going to offer any views in this series of posts about how I think the Second Amendment as a whole should be interpreted; I’m focusing only on Heller‘s interpretation of the phrase keep and bear arms. So I’m not going to say whether Weisberg is correct in his speculation about what I think on that score. Weisberg then asks why, if the framers had intended to convey the meaning he posits, they didn’t write the amendment in those terms. Although Weisberg thinks that is “a very fair question to ask,” I don’t think it’s a question that’s relevant to the issue as the Court framed it in Heller, which had to do with how the Second Amendment’s text was likely to have been understood by members of the public, not with what the framers intended. Nevertheless, I’ll say that the question to which Weisberg wants an answer is not one that can be answered by corpus linguistics.

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Corpora and the Second Amendment: Responding to Weisberg on the meaning of “bear arms”

[An introduction and guide to my series of posts “Corpora and the Second Amendment” is available here.]

The Originalism Blog has a guest post, by David Weisberg, taking issue with the conclusion in Dennis Baron’s Washington Post op-ed that newly available evidence of historical usage shows that in District of Columbia v. Heller, Justice Scalia misinterpreted the phrase keep and bear arms. That’s an issue that I wrote about yesterday (“The coming corpus-based reexamination of the Second Amendment“) and that I’m going to be dealing with in a series of posts over the next several weeks.

One of Weisberg’s arguments concerns a linguistic issue that I’m planning to address, and I think that Weisberg is mistaken. At the risk of getting out ahead of myself, I want to respond to Weisberg briefly now, with a more detailed explanation to come.

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The coming corpus-based reexamination of the Second Amendment

[An introduction and guide to my series of posts “Corpora and the Second Amendment” is available here.]

It was only three weeks ago that BYU Law School made available two corpora that are intended to provide corpus-linguistic resources for researching the original meaning of the U.S. Constitution. And already the corpora are yielding results that could be very important.

The two corpora are COFEA (the Corpus of Founding Era American English) and COEME (the Corpus of Early Modern English). As I’ve previously explained, COFEA consists of almost 139 million words, drawn from more than 95,000 texts from the period 1760–1799, and COEME consists of 1.28 billion words, from 40,000 texts dating to the period 1475–1800. (The two corpora can be accessed here.)

Within a day after COFEA and COEME became available, Dennis Baron looked at data from the two corpora, to see what they revealed about the meaning of the key phrase in the Second Amendment: keep and bear arms. (Baron was one of the signatories to the linguists’ amicus brief in District of Columbia v. Heller.) He announced his findings here on Language Log, in a comment on my post about the corpora’s unveiling:

Sorry, J. Scalia, you got it wrong in Heller. I just ran “bear arms” through BYU’s EMne [=Early Modern English] and Founding Era American English corpora, and of about 1500 matches (not counting the duplicates), all but a handful are clearly military.

Two weeks later, Baron published an opinion piece in the Washington Post, titled “Antonin Scalia was wrong about the meaning of ‘bear arms’,” in which he repeated the point he had made in his comment, and elaborated on it a little. Out of “about 1,500 separate occurrences of ‘bear arms’ in the 17th and 18th centuries,” he said, “only a handful don’t refer to war, soldiering or organized, armed action.” Based on that fact, Baron said that the two corpora “confirm that the natural meaning of ‘bear arms’ in the framers’ day was military.”

My interest having been piqued, I decided to check out the corpus data myself.

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