Two weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal of a circuit court decision overturning Washington, D.C.’s restrictive gun ban. Three days ago, Washington Redskins Pro Bowl safety Sean Taylor was shot in his Florida home. He died in a hospital on Tuesday.
The two events are not directly related. But each offers a way to understand that the sheer availability of guns in America affects the lives of citizens every day. When the Supreme Court hears arguments in the case Washington, D.C. v. Heller, it will debate the meaning of the convoluted words of the Second Amendment: “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.” They will analyze that dry, distant clause written more than 200 years ago and determine whether or not it protects an individual’s right to own and carry a gun. But in their legal analysis, we should hope that they keep Taylor’s tragic death on their minds — a reminder that the decision of the Supreme Court could, in this case, be a matter of life and death for hundreds of Americans whose stories won’t make the front page.
There are a number of textual and historical reasons that the Second Amendment should be read as protecting the rights of militias — rather than those of individuals — to own and carry weapons. The very concept of a well-regulated militia is central to the text of the amendment. The man who shot Sean Taylor is almost certainly not a member of any militia. Nor, for that matter, is Dick Heller, the appellant in D.C. v. Heller. The militia, as the framers of the Second Amendment understood it, has virtually disappeared today. Yet those words remain in the Constitution, a reminder to John Roberts, Antoin Scalia and Clarence Thomas that the Second Amendment does not simply read, “The right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Such a reading would be convenient for everyone who wants to keep a loaded gun in his or her house despite evidence that the gun is more likely to be used against a family member than an intruder. But such a reading would allow a majority of our tiny, un-elected Supreme Court to ignore the words and intent of the Framers.
If the Supreme Court decides next year to read the words “well-regulated Militia” out of the Constitution, it would join an undistinguished line of previous courts that chose to ignore the original words of the Founding Fathers in pursuit of narrow political goals or despicable prejudices. Previous courts willfully misread the Constitution and ruled that blacks can’t be citizens (Dred Scott) and authorized half a century of Jim Crow (Plessy v. Ferguson). The stakes next year are lower. If the Court tears the first clause from the Second Amendment, it will severely restrict local legislatures’ ability to pass laws protecting their citizens from gun violence. It will make it much more difficult for states to keep guns off the streets. In the long term, a decision limiting the ability of states to regulate firearms will pave the way for more Sean Taylors.
The Court has not addressed the Second Amendment for almost 70 years. Instead, the Supreme Court has allowed state and local jurisdictions to make their own decisions about guns. And even without an overly broad reading of the Second Amendment from the nation’s highest court, restrictions on individual gun ownership have faced steep uphill battles against the wealth and power of the National Rifle Association.
If next year the Court were to put even more restrictions on the ability of local governments to protect their citizens, gun ownership would almost certainly spike not only in Washington, D.C. but all over the country. And, quite simply, more guns means more unnecessary deaths from gun violence.
Of course, the Court could make virtually any ruling next year. It could decide the case on a standing issue, saying that Dick Heller (a recruited plaintiff) had no right to sue. It could bless the D.C. gun control law — though given the makeup of the current court, this outcome seems unlikely. It could make some convoluted ruling that makes almost everyone unhappy. But the fact that the court agreed to hear the case signals that some change in our reading of the Second Amendment is coming.
When the Court’s ruling comes down next year, it’s unlikely to affect the personal safety of any of the Court’s members, or Charlton Heston, or most of us at Yale. But we need only to look at a highly publicized story about gun violence to remember that the words of the Constitution — and the way they are interpreted — can change whether or not a deadly shot is fired. The way the Court interprets the Constitution could prevent the next Sean Taylor tragedy.
The human cost of the ruling in D.C. v. Heller will likely be far from on the mind of the justice writing the majority opinion. But it shouldn’t be.
Xan White is a junior in Pierson College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays.