September 15, 2011

Our Civil Rights

Here’s a great idea.  Let’s agree that only people who’ve actually read the Constitution be allowed to use the phrase, “my Constitutional rights.”  And while we’re at it, let’s subject the expression “the intent of the founding fathers,” to the same restriction.  The Constitution is, in fact, a lot like the Bible—treasured and often referenced, but universally misunderstood and almost never read.  (Both Bachmann and Boehner have quoted from the Declaration of Independence saying it came from the Constitution).  It’s also similar to the Bible in that many people believe it’s an inspired document that God had a role in developing.  That’s fine, but what distresses me is that nearly everyone thinks the Constitution’s intent is clear, when in fact, just like the Bible, it’s subject to a range of interpretations. 

For example, the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution—part of what we refer to as the Bill of Rights—reads as follows:

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.

Short isn’t it?  That’s the whole enchilada and it’s not particularly well written, either.  In combination, these 27 words are often referred to as the right to bear arms, but it’s, at once, both more and less than that.  As is evident from the text, it’s meant to allow local agencies to hire and maintain police forces.  In this way, the amendment was instituted to allow groups of people to use weapons to protect themselves against enemies.  What enemies?  Recall that the founding fathers had just experienced a revolution and were as concerned with the tyranny of a federal government gone astray than with the acts of common criminals and thugs.  And they wanted citizens to have a way to counteract all possible dangers.

That’s a notion that the NRA and fringe survivalists remind us of continually, however, one aspect of the gun rights conversation that never gets mentioned is the question of what constitutes a protective counterbalance to a tyrannical regime?  In a world where the federal government controls an arsenal of nuclear arms, is it constitutional to allow a state—Texas, for example—to develop a hydrogen bomb to counter an effort to prevent it from seceding?  (Now, that’s something for Rick Perry to ponder).

On the other hand, since the Amendment has been defined as a right of individuals—and not just local governments—to bear arms, we don’t have to be talking about the right of a state.  Can a group of polygamists, therefore, buy a black market A-bomb in order to protect its way of life?  I’m sure very few of us would agree to either of these scenarios, however, they both could be seen as consistent with the handful of words that make up the amendment.

It sounds awfully patriotic to talk of God-given rights under the Constitution, but any single definition of what the Constitution means is open to debate.   In the end, an interpretation that might protect one group of people could be devastating to another. 

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