This is from a 1995 NYReview of Books piece by Garry Wills. In American law, the right to bear arms, originally about the military, has been extended and expanded to the right of every citizen to own, use and even publicly display a gun.
There are other possible (though less plausible) reasons for the omissions—e.g., to prevent tautology. What is neither warranted nor plausible is Halbrook’s certitude that these words were omitted deliberately to preclude militia-language. The whole context of the amendment was always military. Halbrook cannot effect an alchemical change of substance by bringing two words, “common defense,” near to, but not into, the amendment.
1. Bear Arms. To bear arms is, in itself, a military term. One does not bear arms against a rabbit. The phrase simply translates the Latin arma ferre. The infinitiveferre, to bear, comes from the verb fero. The plural noun arma explains the plural usage in English (“arms”). One does not “bear arm.” Latin arma is, etymologically, war “equipment,” and it has no singular forms.16 By legal and other channels, arma ferre entered deeply into the European language of war. To bear arms is such a synonym for waging war that Shakespeare can call a just war “just-borne arms” and a civil war “self-borne arms.”17 Even outside the phrase “bear arms,” much of the noun’s use alone echoes Latin phrases: to be under arms (sub armis), the call to arms (ad arma), to follow arms (arma sequi), to take arms (arma capere), to lay down arms (arma ponere). “Arms” is a profession that one brother chooses as another chooses law or the church. An issue undergoes the arbitrament of arms. In the singular, English “arm” often means a component of military force (the artillery arm, the cavalry arm).
Thus “arms” in English, as in Latin, is not restricted to the meaning “guns.” The Romans had no guns; and they did not limit arma to projectile weapons (spears, arrows). It meant weaponry in general, everything from swords to siege instruments—but especially shields. That is why the heraldic use of “arms” in English (the very case Stephen Halbrook invokes) refers to shields “coated” (covered) with blazonry.
Of course, even the Latin arma ferre can be used figuratively, metaphorically, poetically (bear arms in Cupid’s wars, animals bear arms in their fighting talons or tusks). But these are extensions of the basic meaning, and the Second Amendment is not a poetic text. It is a legal document, the kind in which arma ferre was most at home in its original sense; a text, moreover, with a preamble establishing a well-regulated militia as the context.
Standard Modelers try to get around this difficulty by seeking out every odd, loose, or idiosyncratic use of “bear arms” they can come up with—as if the legal tradition in which the Second Amendment stands must yield to marginal exceptions, in defiance of the solid body of central reference. Or they bring in any phrase that comes near “bear arms” without being that phrase. Stephen Halbrook cites a law concerning deer hunting that refers to “bearing of a gun” in the hunt.18 Not only is the context different from the amendment’s, but “bearing of a gun” is not the canonical formulation with a plural noun. In Latin a hunter could be seen to carry a bow (arcum ferre) without that altering the military sense ofarma ferre.