By Tom Lahey, Class of 2016
It is a political myth that conservatives in America have a monopoly on interpreting the “intent” of the nation’s founders as it relates to the text of the Second Amendment. It is true that conservatives have an almost reverent affection for the Founding Fathers and believe their writing of the Constitution to be an infallible inspiration of natural law and the rights of man. It’s time for the left to challenge that notion.
As a law student, I am confronted with being put in the challenging position of having to argue a position in a wholly objective manner. Given the recent shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and countless other instances where a military-grade weapon of war has been used on the American people by their fellow citizen, and oftentimes, their neighbor, it’s been more difficult than usual to argue for stricter gun-control without letting my emotions get the better of me. Recently, in my constitutional law class, I’ve found the answer.
For those unfamiliar, District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008) is a case that made its way to the Supreme Court following a police officer’s challenge of D.C.’s law against the ownership and possession of handguns within its jurisdiction. The majority, led by Justice Antonin Scalia, cited the country’s Founding Fathers’ intent that there be a “citizen’s militia” that is necessary not just for the “security of a free State,” as expressed in the Second Amendment, but as necessary for self-defence. The self-defense argument took a strange turn when Justice Scalia suggested that not only was this for self-defense of the individual person, but also of the public, for if the newly founded government should turn on its standing army (of which many founders were fearful would lead to tyranny) then it is the duty of the citizen to resist with his arms. Such logic, as referenced by Scalia in Heller, was imported to the colonies by the English from a declaration from 1689 wherein William and Mary declared that Protestants in England would never be disarmed.
My question, then, is why can England, 329 years after the Declaration of Right, find in itself the strength and courage to change its gun laws so that it is virtually impossible for a civilian to own an AR-15 or even a handgun, but here in the United States, 230 years after the final ratification of our Constitution, we cannot? I believe this is because we are interpreting the Constitution incorrectly and pretending that its text cannot be changed.
The entire purpose of the Second Amendment was to maintain a “well-regulated militia.” The phrase “self-defense” does not appear anywhere in the text of the Amendment. State constitutions that predated the U.S. Constitution included a reference to self-defense, but did so explicitly, making its omission in the federal Constitution conspicuous. Congress was authorized to organize, arm, discipline, and provide for the calling forth of “the Militia” (U.S. Cons., Art. I, §8, cls. 12-16). Surely the word “militia” in Art. I, found again in the Second Amendment, cannot mean different things. The Second Amendment, therefore, was meant to describe the duty and right to have arms available and ready for military service, “being necessary to the security of a free State,” not unregulated private ownership.
To close, the right does not have a monopoly on quoting or referencing the Constitution or the Founding Fathers. As liberals and progressives, we should feel comfortable debating with our conservative friends on the true meaning of the Second Amendment, and never shy away from honest, intellectual debates on this topic. However, a little emotion won’t hurt from time to time.