Guns and Words
This past weekend, my friend David Ehrlich, a world-class violinist and teacher, came through Philadelphia to rehearse for a string quartet performance outside Boston next week and he stayed with us, as he always does.
David is the Outreach Fellow in Fine Arts at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. When the massacre happened last week, my thoughts were very much with him and his wife, Teresa, a superb pianist. But I decided not to call or e-mail; I figured they had enough going on without one more intrusion.
While he was here, we talked some about the horrific event and the aftermath and then went on to other things.
But during the past two weeks and Ehrlich’s visit, I thought long and hard about my right to keep and bear arms—and about my right to send these words out over the Internet.
I despise guns and love words.
As a citizen—and writer—I am pleased and honored that I have the right to both guns and words.
An Afternoon with Justice Scalia
A number of years ago, I had as clients Richard Rossi and Barbara Harris, brilliant founders of an extraordinary company called Envision. Its mission: to plunge high-achieving high school students directly into the inner workings of their chosen profession—medicine, law, diplomacy.
For example, kids who want to be doctors can pay a fair pinch of change to spend 10 days in one of America’s leading hospitals. They change into scrubs and follow world-renowned physicians and surgeons on their rounds, witness operations, and attend seminars on all facets of modern medicine from health issues to the management of a medical practice.
The experience costs a lot of money, but those kids see the medical profession unvarnished from deep inside. Most find the experience truly inspiring and come away all fired up to spend a lifetime in medicine. Occasionally, a student will decide that this is the wrong career path; these kids will have saved themselves and their parents grief later on, as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars in wasted tuition and living expenses.
One day, I was consulting at Envision’s Washington, D.C. offices when Rossi announced that following our meeting, a car and driver would take us to the Supreme Court, where Justice Antonin Scalia would be fielding questions from several hundred of Envision’s high schoolers who wanted to be lawyers.
I was thrilled, having never seen the inside of the Supreme Court, let alone seen and heard one of the justices in action and in person.
We walked into the magnificent Court chamber with its raised bench where the nine justices sit and its 44-foot ceilings. In the middle of the room, Justice Scalia stood at a small portable lectern taking questions from a roomful of incredibly smart teenagers.
One student asked him about the possibility of gun control. In its long history, the Court has heard only five Second Amendment cases, the most recent being Lewis v. U.S. in 1980. Since that time, gun control has become a “red meat” issue for conservatives, liberals and everyone in between. I felt truly blessed to have the opportunity to see this hallowed place and to get a sense of how the current Court might rule if such a case came up.
“The Constitution is very clear on the subject,” Scalia told the group. “ ‘The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.’ These are words of one and two syllables with no shades of meaning or ambiguities.”
“But what about the first part,” the student countered, “about maintaining a militia?”
Scalia replied, “‘A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state,’ is how the Amendment starts. But that in no way negates or alters the second clause that ‘the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.’”
“But times are different now,” the young man persisted.
“The Constitution is not a wish list,” Scalia said. “ It does not change with the fashions of the times. The Constitution is the law of the land. The framers made it possible to change the law. If the people want restrictions on guns, you have to pass a constitutional amendment.”
Gun Control: A Non-issue
An amendment to the Constitution requires a vote by two-thirds of both houses of Congress and ratification by three-quarters of the state legislatures. That’s 38 states—an absolute impossibility. More than 12 states have hunting and gun cultures, and their state representatives would never ratify it.
In the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre, Democrats are getting heat for not talking up gun control. The Wall Street Journal editorial on April 21 said that the “Democrats’ abandonment of the issue flows more from political calculation than principle.”
It is not political calculation; it’s common sense. If politicians of every persuasion told voters that gun control requires a constitutional amendment and that the debate is a waste of everybody’s time—rather than pointing fingers and trying to make each other look bad—we would all be far better served.
Guns and Words
These days, Congress is in the business of taking away our rights. Two recent examples:
* Congress has outlawed Internet gaming, taking a high-moral stance that it was protecting the citizenry. My reading: Online casinos were cutting into gambling revenues in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, N.J., and Indian reservations all across the country and the lobbyists were pouring money into congressional campaign coffers.
* Congress has forbidden Medicare to negotiate drug prices with the big pharmaceutical companies. As a result, all of us who are over 65 pay 58% more for drugs than the Veterans Administration, which has been empowered to negotiate. The reason: Big pharma is throwing money into congressional campaign funds like confetti on New Year’s Eve.
In the cases of the First and Second Amendments, the founders empowered us, rather than stripped away rights.
The First Amendment guarantees our freedoms of religion, speech, the press and our right to peaceably assemble. The Second Amendment guarantees the right of the people to bear arms.
Both were passed on Dec. 15, 1791.
In simplest terms, we have the right to use words and the right to own guns. The government cannot pre-censor what I write or say, and it cannot forbid me from owning a gun.
At the same time, I am held personally responsible if I abuse either of these rights.
If I make public secret war plans, I could be convicted of treason. If I libel or slander someone, I can be sued. If I use words on the Internet to prey on underage children, I can go to jail.
If I use a gun to commit a crime, it can mean jail or the death penalty.
I find it exhilarating that the founders treated me as an adult and granted me the right to use these powerful weapons—guns and words.
I hate guns. The idea of killing people and animals is anathema to me.
Am I in favor of gun control?
It doesn’t matter what I favor. The Constitution is the law of the land.
What’s more, consider yesterday’s story in the Philadelphia Inquirer:
TEN ARE DEAD IN A WEEKEND OF VIOLENCE
The slayings followed three forums Friday on how to stem the city’s problem. The year’s homicide count is 127.
Philadelphia has become America’s Baghdad.
I own a shotgun. I am thinking about buying a pistol and learning how to use it.
I like having that option.