The Second Amendment means whatever you want it to mean

If you want to control guns, look to the ‘well-regulated militia’ clause. If not, look to the second half of the sentence. There’s something for everyone.

click to enlarge We could — like every other developed nation on Earth — make atrocities like Uvalde vanishingly rare. We choose not to. - SHUTTERSTOCK
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We could — like every other developed nation on Earth — make atrocities like Uvalde vanishingly rare. We choose not to.

Before the bodies of 19 children in Uvalde, Texas, had turned cold, the Republican leaders of North Carolina’s General Assembly announced plans to tackle a crisis in education. Not the easy access to the kinds of assault rifles favored by mass shooters, of course. Nor the underfunding of public schools that state courts have declared unconstitutional (rulings the legislature has ignored).

But rather, the outrage that teachers and counselors aren’t required to out gay and queer kids to their parents — even if doing so might put them in physical or psychological danger — and disclose whatever students tell them about their mental or emotional health. Just as terrible, the lawmakers said, elementary students might be learning that LGBTQ people exist.

So they stuffed these provisions into a bill full of legal redundancies — North Carolina parents already have the right to “consent or withhold consent for participation in reproductive health and safety education programs” — and called it a “Parents’ Bill of Rights.” They knew the Democratic governor would veto their bill and they didn’t have the votes to override his veto.

Their bill had nothing to do with protecting kids and everything to do with gaining political advantage. They couldn’t muster enough respect for the dead to wait a day before getting started.

Nothing could better illustrate how inured we’ve become to mass-casualty violence, how unshocking it is. These events are as culturally embedded as celebrity scandals; within a day or two, the Uvalde massacre was competing for media oxygen with the Johnny Depp trial.

I’ve spent a week trying to figure out what I could say about Uvalde that wasn’t said after Sandy Hook or Pulse or Las Vegas or any of the other mass murders made possible by nihilistic gun fetishists and their quiescent politicians. I’ve mostly come up empty.

It’s all too familiar — the predictable rhythm of “thoughts and prayers” versus demands to finally “do something,” culminating in congressional negotiations over a bill to enact red-flag provisions or improve background checks that will be watered down before getting filibustered once this wave of attention subsides. Rinse and repeat.

This time is different in one way, however. It pierced the mythology of heroic policing built by a thousand CBS procedurals.

The Uvalde police have changed their version of events more times than I can count, as each of their narratives collapsed. A police department that sucked up 40% of its town budget and got its rocks off chasing down border crossers was more concerned about stopping parents from trying to rescue their kids than actually rescuing their kids. Now, the cops won’t cooperate with investigators who are trying to determine how things went wrong.

Unfortunately, with cops in Texas criticized for their passivity, cops elsewhere will respond with aggression — shoot first, ask questions later. Uvalde will be their justification.

And the Uvalde officers won’t pay a price for their inaction. Despite the “protect and serve” motto, the Supreme Court has ruled that cops have no obligation to do either. A week after the massacre, in fact, the chief of police of the Uvalde School District was sworn in as a city council member.

Nothing will change. Not after an 18-year-old bought an arsenal online and gunned down 10-year-olds. Not after a white supremacist murdered 10 people in Buffalo. Not after a man bought an assault rifle and gunned down four people in a Tulsa hospital.

If anything, the Supreme Court might soon expand the right to carry guns wherever and whenever you want.

Specifically, the court seems likely to overturn New York’s requirement that those who wish to obtain a permit to carry a concealed handgun demonstrate a special need to defend themselves. During arguments, a majority of justices believed that a system that decides who can carry a gun infringes upon the right to have one. (This same majority will almost certainly let states dictate the reproductive health care women can access. The irony is lost on them, I’m sure.)

The question is whether its ruling will focus on that law or strike down restrictions everywhere, as some right-wing justices appear inclined to do, under an interpretation of the Second Amendment expansive enough to make Antonin Scalia blush.

Then again, you can make the Second Amendment say just about whatever you want because — as history writer William Hogeland explains — it’s “legal gibberish.”

Madison lived in a world of muskets, not assault rifles that rip kids’ bodies to shreds.

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In the republic’s early days, some states were wary that the Constitution gave the federal government the ability to raise an army. James Madison wanted to retain federal authority while pacifying antifederalists. So we got: “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.”

“In the Second Amendment, Madison tried to defeat [antifederalists’] hopes by placating them without really addressing them,” Hogeland writes. “The amendment gestures vaguely at state sovereignty in a way intended to make little practical sense.”

If you want to control guns, look to the “well-regulated militia” clause. If not, look to the second half of the sentence. There’s something for everyone.

It goes without saying that Madison lived in a world of muskets, not assault rifles that rip kids’ bodies to shreds; not semi-automatic handguns that indiscriminately spray bullets; not untraceable weapons manufactured by 3-D printers; not a country in which more than 45,000 people die by firearms each year, and guns are the leading cause of death among children.

Another Uvalde is inevitable, and there will be a hundred other horror shows before it. We could — like every other developed nation on Earth — make these atrocities vanishingly rare. We choose not to.

Instead, we choose fidelity to an amendment that was meant to mean nothing. We choose to worry about whether school libraries have books about two mommies. We choose to blame abortion, or porn, or godlessness. We might choose to arm teachers against weapons of war that turned cops spineless.

We choose to do anything but address the problem. And then we wonder why it keeps happening.

Get more at billman.substack.com.

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About The Author

Jeffrey C. Billman

North Carolina-based journalist, focusing on politics and policy analysis.
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