Last Updated on August 20, 2022 by Constitutional Militia
Contemporary dictionaries are not necessarily definitive as to the meaning of any word or technical phrase in the Constitution.
A procedure popular among defenders of the Second Amendment who are attempting to define “[a] well regulated Militia” is to cite definitions from then contemporary dictionaries. Relying on such methodology alone results in shoddy constitutional analysis. For the “technical” meaning of a word or phrase is the particular meaning the law attaches to it, which almost always will be narrower and more precise than the meaning attributed to it in common parlance or in some general definition from a popular dictionary. And when the issue is the interpretation of a specifically legal document—and no document could be more specifically legal than “the supreme Law of the Land” itself.
The legal term “well regulated Militia” is not definitive from any dictionary from 1791 or today.
To Americans during the pre-constitutional period, the verb “regulate” meant “[t]o adjust by rule or method” and “[t]o direct”. And the adverb “well” meant “[s]kilfully; properly”—“[i]t is used much in composition, to express any thing right, laudable, or not defective”. By themselves, though, these general dictionary definitions are not conclusive of the constitutional question, because they do not specify by what “rule or method” the Militia are to be “adjust[ed]” and “direct[ed]”, and in comparison to what standard any particular “adjust[ment]” and “direct[ion]” should be deemed “right, laudable, or not defective”.
Another example of the insufficiency of contemporary dictionaries with respect to understanding the constitutional meaning of “[a] well regulated Militia” would be both the first and fourth editions of Samuel Johnson’s famous A Dictionary of the English Language which defined “militia” as “[t]he trainbands; the standing force of a nation”; defined “trainbands” as “[t]he militia; the part of the community trained to martial exercise”; and defined “regulate” as “[t]o adjust by rule or method”. From this alone, however, it would have been impossible for anyone in 1791, and remains impossible for anyone today, to describe with specificity or surety what the Second Amendment meant or still means by “[a] well regulated Militia”. To qualify as such a “Militia”, what “part of the community” must be “trained”, to what “martial exercise”, and by what “rule or method” that will enable it to constitute a “standing force”? No dictionary by itself can answer any of these questions.