AUDIENCE MEMBER: “I was wondering what either of you would do to keep dangerous assault weapons such as AK-47s off the street.”What else can you say? What happened today in Connecticut is a tragedy. And it is a tragedy that was committed with weapons like this, a .223 Bushmaster.
SUDEKIS (playing Mitt Romney): “Ah, nothing.”
PHAROAH (playing Barack Obama): “I will also do nothing.”
From Saturday Night Live Cold Opening on October 22, 2012
It’s been awhile since I’ve brushed up on the American Constitution, so I thought I’d give it a glance, especially the Second Amendment. Doesn’t it go something like, “Since Barack Obama wants to take away your guns, your right to own a military-grade assault weapon, shall not be infringed”? At least, I’m pretty sure that’s what the NRA claims it says.
Hmm. Seems like my memory’s gone a bit foggy. Seems like it actually 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.”
And this is why our American Constitution is both an amazing social contract, and a terrible legal document.
* * *
Whenever you’ve seen a legal document, you’ve obviously noticed how wordy and verbose they are. This is because words like “militia” and “arms” change in meaning over time, and words like “necessary,” “security,” and “infringed” are subjective. Legal documents are wordy and verbose because they try and qualify everything as much as possible, as to leave as little room to interpretation as possible. Because when you leave room for interpretation, you can wind up with a group of people who think one poorly-worded sentence in a document penned over 200 years ago means they can own a .223 Bushmaster, and the gub’mint can’t stop them, even if they’re being used to mow down six year old children in an elementary school.
I will never be convinced there any fucking practical reason to own a gun like a .223 Bushmaster. I understand the practical uses for handguns and hunting rifles. I know you can still kill people with either weapon, and I know the .223 Bushmaster doesn’t kill anyone by itself, but requires a human being to actually do the killing. If you are against laws that ban assault weapons, I don’t agree with the logic of those arguments at all. And yet I still feel they are more valid arguments than the poorly-worded sentence that is our Second Amendment.
As a social contract, the American Constitution is amazing. It is quite possibly the greatest achievement of civilized society. And I’ll argue that it’s amazing despite, not because, of its language. For the most part, its language is terrible and outdated. This is, after all, a document that needed to codify that black people counted as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of counting Congressional representatives. There is reason why over 10,000 cases have been filed with the Supreme Court since its inception, and why it’s completely acceptable for 9 people to interpret the Constitution in one way, and then interpret it a completely different way twenty years later.
The American Constitution is amazing because we made it amazing. The text was a framework for a social democracy, but it was the American people, from the founding fathers all the way to us, that enforced and improved that social contract. Consider at the time of its inception, only white male landowners could vote in elections. Now we all vote, and can execute the core concept behind democracy: regardless of race or social class, we all get one vote, and thus we all have an equal chance to influence the laws that govern our society.
Or consider our First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Yes, it’s the First Amendment that grants us freedom of speech. But we are the ones that ensure we have freedom after speech, and that is what is most important.
The power of our American Constitution is not in the literal interpretation of its sentences, but in its representation that we are all equal, and we all have the same rights and voice over the laws that govern our society. It is the representation, not the literal text, that our social democracy will operate according to the will of the American people. And if our will is has finally decided that this is enough – after enough tragedies like Jonesboro, or Columbine, or Virginia Tech, or Gabby Giffords, or now Newtown Connecticut – if we finally decide it makes no fucking sense for civilians to own military-grade weapons like the .223 Bushmaster, then it will be enough.
That is why our Constitution is amazing. And to those that cling to its literal text to deflect the will of the people: those are the unfaithful actors for whom the label “unconstitutional” rings true.