Sunday, June 29, 2008

Basic Grammar, Guns and the Supreme Court

In recent years colleges and employers have bemoaned the apparent decline in U.S. children’s ability to read and write. As a college professor who often teaches first year students and adults returning to college, I can attest to the often abysmal state of student writing these days. Experts attribute the decline in basic literacy to several causes: email/instant messaging, television, lower academic standards and the like. I would like to add another culprit to the list: The U.S. Supreme Court.

This past week the court ruled that the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees an individual’s right to own a gun. Now, while I admit to being a supporter of gun control laws and background checks, I have no problem with hunters, collectors and law enforcement personnel owning guns. While I don’t think it is particularly safe or wise to keep a gun in one’s home (since most murders are crimes of passion committed by people who know each other), I don’t even object to someone legally owning a gun.

But let’s be honest: the Supreme Court notwithstanding, a clear and simple reading of the 2nd amendment in no way gives a blanket right for anyone to own a gun. Here’s what the 2nd Amendment says:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

While the nature of the English language has changed somewhat in 232 years, there is a clear link between the phrase “the right of the People to keep and bear arms” and “a well regulated militia.” Grammatically speaking, the right to keep and bear arms is a dependent clause that relates to the presence of a well regulated militia. The plain sense of the sentence simply means that the right to own a gun only applies when the person is part of a local militia. If a student interpreted the sentence any other way, they would get it wrong on their English 101 test. I guess the five justices who voted for the majority need to take an English refresher course.

The 2nd Amendment has nothing to do with a blanket right to own a gun; rather it was established so that communities on the frontier could protect themselves from would-be invaders. Individuals kept guns around so as to be ready to answer the call, much like volunteers in the local volunteer fire department stand ready to respond when the fire alarm sounds. In other words, owning a gun had to do with civil defense not personal rights. An understanding of the basic rules of grammar and sentence structure makes that clear.

I would not be so concerned if this was not such a grave issue. First, the issue of guns and what to do with them is a major crisis in this country. Much like the gambling industry, the gun industry operates a shadow market beneath the legal market. The looser the laws are for legal gun owners, the easier it is for illegal gun sales to go on. The gun manufacturers and their political front, the National Rifle Association (NRA), know this, and so block any effort, however rational, to control or regulate the sales of firearms. The gun industry’s “growth market” are the straw buyers and illegal gun dealers whose products flood urban city streets. By enshrining the right to own a gun in the Constitution, the Court has now made it much more difficult to have a needed conversation on what to do about gun violence in this country. Laws alone will not stem the epidemic of gun violence in our cities, schools and elsewhere, but they can help.

Secondly, the Court made it that much more difficult for communities like Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, who are trying to address their violence problems with stricter gun control laws. Such communities are decried for not addressing their problems while not being given the tools to do so. Justice Scalia writing for the majority said “gun violence is a serious problem” but “the enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table;” in other words, we feel your pain (wink), but we are not going to help you.

We need to have a healthy dialogue about what to do about the violence in our cities and schools, but the court has just made dialogue that much more difficult by giving the NRA the cover of the Constitution. As long as the NRA is lining the pockets of politicians at local, state and federal levels, Democrat and Republican, we won’t be able to truly address this issue without becoming polarized. What we need is to have a sensible conversation that finds common ground between lawful gun owners and those who want to control the sales of guns. It can be done.

A couple years ago Hilary Clinton proposed common ground with pro-lifers by saying while we may disagree on abortion, let us agree on reducing the need for and instances of abortions. Some prolifers, including me, were willing to meet her at that point. We need that kind of dialogue on guns as well. The 2nd amendment no more guarantees one’s right to have a gun than the 1st amendment guarantees a woman’s right to abortion. Both are complex and deep moral issues where we need to have extensive dialogue in order to find some common ground.

The justices supporting this latest opinion need to review the basic rules of grammar. Otherwise, America’s children might get the idea that words even at the highest level mean nothing and you can make any sentence, even a sentence in the Constitution, say anything you damn well please. This week the justices not only made a mockery of the Constitution, they also perverted the English language, and in the process made it more difficult for the kind of rational conversation that needs to occur on the issue of guns and violence in our society.

2 comments:

psservices said...

Well done and you are certainly right on the english grammer lesson as it relates to the 2nd ammendment. I also agree that individuals should have the right to gun ownership for self defense, hunting, collecting, etc, regardless of what the constution tells us.

Anonymous said...

Frustratingly, the entire meaning of the 2nd Amendment has been distorted by the pressure of the NRA. It makes me very angry, since so many people have died and continue to die. How can we lessen the grip that the NRA has on leaders?
Sherri MIchalovic