Arguing about American rights: The U.S. Constitution and its first two amendments

April 29, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
April 29, 2016

Perhaps the worst day in American history since Sept. 11, 2001, was Dec. 14, 2012. That Friday morning, a 20-year-old fatally shot his mother in their Newtown, Conn., home before driving to nearby Sandy Hook Elementary School, where he killed six adults and 20 children before turning a weapon on himself. The gunman used weapons that had been legally purchased by his mother.

Over the course of more than a year following that massacre, I spent a great deal of time on Twitter attempting to persuade people who held what I thought to be excessive enthusiasm for gun rights that their ideas were somewhat misguided.

“I no longer want to live in a country that shrugs and says the Second Amendment justifies every gun death,” I told one such fanatic several hours after the killings had taken place.

After right-wing conspiracy peddler Alex Jones told Piers Morgan in a January 2013 interview, “My point is that the Second Amendment is sacrosanct,” I quoted Jones and added a sarcastic parenthetical (“Kids’ lives? Whatever”) in attempt to highlight his skewed priorities.

When a conservative mixed-martial-arts fan told me on Twitter that “guns as written in the constitution are to protect countrymen from a tyrannical government,” I dryly observed that “[t]hat worked perfectly in Waco and at Ruby Ridge, right?” Shortly afterward, I asked the same individual, “So 31,000 gun deaths annually is the price of the Second Amendment?”

Reader, I’m 99 percent sure that I persuaded approximately zero percent of the people I engaged to alter or adjust their views in any way.

But there are a couple of points from this long, ignominious string that are worth standing by. One came in January 2013 after journalist Jill Lawrence tweeted a link to a National Journal story* that she’d written about President Obama’s assertion that “[g]un rights are not the only rights the founders had in mind.”

I shared Lawrence’s tweet along with this response from a self-described “#Catholic investigative reporter” named Peter Jesserer Smith, who argued that gun rights were clearly foremost in the minds of American founders because “how else did they win freedom from Brits?” he asked.

Smith’s contention seemed to me to be prima facie ludicrous. If the right to own guns was foremost on the minds of the founders of the United States, why wasn’t it contained in the main body of the Constitution? And if gun rights were so important to the founders, why were they enshrined in the second amendment, rather than the first? I fired off a reply:

Smith, to my knowledge, never responded; perhaps he realized he had no ground on which to stand.

His tweet, incidentally, received one other response that I saw. It came from a self-described New York State “political consultant and Americana book dealer,” who asserted that “freedom of the press was first” because American publications had inspired the colonies’ revolt against the crown. (Smith never replied to that, either.)

I’ll return to the subject of the First Amendment, and of the principle of freedom of speech that it embodies, over the days to come.


* The story was paywalled at the time of the writing of this blog post. If memory serves, it was available for the public to read at no charge when Lawrence tweeted the link.

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