Why the Supreme Court Majority, in Misinterpreting the Second Amendment, has Violated the Canons of Statutory Construction

June 19, 2015

A well regulated Militia, being essential to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  U.S. Constitution, Amendment II [1791]

That’s the Second Amendment, one of ten included in James Madison’s proposed first thirteen amendments to the Constitution. Ten of those thirteen were fairly promptly ratified and became the “Bill of Rights”. They are rightfully thought of as a bulwark against the over-expansion of the strong central government that Hamilton had pushed for, and specifically protections for the individual against the power of the federal government (and, since the ratification of the 14th Amendment, against the power of state and local governments).

The U.S. Supreme Court’s current conservative majority has taken the Second Amendment in this context, and has focused on its second half, “…the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” In doing so, however, that majority has violated a central canon of statutory construction – that a statute (or constitutional provision) be interpreted to give meaning to every word of the statute.

The first half of the Second Amendment, “A well regulated Militia, being essential to the security of a free State,” can be seen as a preamble, or perhaps more precisely as a context for the second half. Another rule of statutory construction is that the words of a statute should not be read in isolation, but in context. Here, the context of the second half of the amendment is protecting “a well regulated militia” and its function of protecting “the security of a free State.”

In other words, the right to keep and bear arms is protected so that the people of the United States can continue to have “a well regulated militia”. Again, keeping the context in mind, in 1789 (or 1791) there was no standing federal army. An army was raised as the need arose. In the meantime, there were local and state militias – what we would now call paramilitary organizations, or perhaps militias as the term is used in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

So, in that context, the right of “the people” to keep and bear arms is not an individual right, but a right of the people as organized into militias. Further, those militias were intended to be, “well organized”. Indeed, that was supposed to be the central purpose of having the right to keep and bear arms. A militia needs training and discipline if it was going to function well to protect the security of a free State. (And again, this should be taken in the context of a document written ten years after a prolonged war against what was then the central government, and fought largely by local and state militias organized under General George Washington.)

Bringing those concepts into the 21st Century, the right to keep and bear arms does not protect an individual’s right to own and carry guns (or sabers, or hand grenades).  Rather, it protect the right of the people, organized into well regulated groups intended to protect the security of a free State.

What do such organized militias include? Well, obviously they include the National Guard, as state militias have come to be known, and their members. They also include state and local police forces, which are intended to “protect the security of a free State.” They could also include well regulated local, state or national groups organized to protect the security of a free State. Could that include so-called “self defense” groups? Maybe. Right-wing paramilitary groups? Questionable. Groups of gun-toting skinheads or neonazis? Probably not. The Ku Klux Klan? I don’t think so.  They certainly don’t include individual citizens who aren’t part of a “well organized militia”, and certainly not the millions of deranged individuals and criminals who now, thanks to the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court, claim the right to keep and bear [and use?] arms.

Those on the Supreme Court (and I am thinking specifically of Justice Scalia) who strongly espouse strict constructionism and original intent in interpreting the Constitution, appear to have been lured by ideological predilections into straying from their self-chosen narrow path by broadening the meaning of the Second Amendment. Perhaps, in the context of the Charleston Massacre, it’s finally time they reconsider.


Strict Construction, Gun Violence, and the Second Amendment

January 10, 2011

The assassination of a federal judge and attempted assassination of a congresswoman, along with the killing of several “civilians”, once again brings to the fore the issue of gun violence and the Second Amendment.  This is especially true now that the Supreme Court majority has applied so-called “strict constructionism” to find that the Second Amendment protects private gun ownership from almost all federal and state regulation.

Justice Scalia, one of the court’s more vocal advocates for strict constructionism, argues that the Constitution’s interpretation can’t change with the times.  According to him, if circumstances change, the answer  is to amend the Constitution accordingly.  By that standard, it appears the time is overdue to amend the Second Amendment.

Back when the Constitution, and specifically the Second Amendment, was written, the primary firearm was the flintlock musket, an inaccurate, short-range, and slow-to-load single-shot gun.  There were also handguns, but they were dueling pistols and the like — again inaccurate, single-shot, and clumsy to use.  Contrast that with the ten bullet clip-carrying semiautomatic pistol used by last Saturday’s assassin, or the Uzi or M-16 type assault weapons favored for gang violence, or, for that matter, the extremely accurate multi-shot high-powered rifle used to assassinate John F. Kennedy.  There’s no comparison.  Indeed, once could argue that they shouldn’t even be described by the same word, and that “arms” as used in the Second Amendment had an entirely different meaning than the guns, IEDs, and other weaponry available to conduct modern-day violence.  Nevertheless, Scalia, the NRA, Teapartiers and their ilk insist that the Second Amendment allows free rein to gun-toters. 

Given the results of last Saturday, and looking abroad to places like Pakistan and Afghanistan, where assassinations are becoming an almost daily occurrence, the question is, isn’t it time we amended the Second Amendment?  Sure, maybe a single-shot hunting rifle or a BB gun doesn’t need regulation, but an AK-47 or semiautomatic handgun is an entirely different story.

If people like Scalia are sincere in their assertion that the proper course of action when the Constitution no longer works well is to amend it, it’s time for him, and those like him, to get behind a movement to amend the Second Amendment to assure that the kinds of weapons that can cause mass-mayhem aren’t easily available to would-be assassins.

While we’re at it, it’s also long past due to take into account the changed nature of the media and of election campaigns.  The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision of last year practically turned the U.S. political system over to corporate control.  We really do need an amendment to recognize that the nature of political campaigning has fundamentally changed.  Unregulated campaign spending might have been perfectly OK in the confines of the thirteen original states, where almost anyone could afford to run off a broadside and have it hand-distributed by volunteers.  In this era of TV and radio ads, mass-mailings, focus groups, and psychologically attuned campaign consultants, however, it is increasingly true that we have been trapped by the “golden rule” — Those who have the gold make the rules.  That certainly wasn’t what the writers of the First Amendment envisioned.  If it takes a Constitutional amendment to bring power back to the people, then we need to get started on that process.

One last thought on Scalia and his strict constructionism friends:  The writers of the Constitution were not gods.  They were men coming from divergent situations attempting to cobble together a working structure for a national  government.  The Constitution includes numerous compromises reached to accommodate the differing view of the powers-that-be in different colonies.  Those compromises, and the reasons behind them, have now been well-documented.  While some of the divergences continue to exist — e.g., between large population and small population states, between urban and rural states, others, such as those associated with slavery, have long-since vanished.  Further, we have, over time, come to realize that some of the Constitution’s structures and procedures were neither functional nor fair.  Some of the worst of these, such as having Senators chosen by state legislatures, have been corrected.  That doesn’t mean, however, that we need to accept the current Constitutional structures and procedures as God-given mandates carved in stone.  Indeed, after almost two and a quarter centuries, maybe it’s time to consider a new Constitutional Convention. … Just a thought.


%d bloggers like this: