Scalia is wrong on guns

April 30, 1999|By DeWayne Wickham

FIVE days before two teen-agers went on a murderous shooting rampage in a Colorado high school, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia told a group of students at the Park School in Baltimore County that if he had his way, people would have more -- not less -- access to deadly weapons.

At a small luncheon following his speech to 300 students there, Justice Scalia said that citizens have a right to own machine guns, said Jessica Munitz, a 17-year-old Park senior.

Pressing the outer limits of his thinking on this matter, Jessica -- who has earned early admission to Princeton University -- said she asked Justice Scalia if he thought people should also "be allowed to have hand-held rockets that can bring down airplanes."

After a moment of contemplation, Justice Scalia told Jessica he didn't like that idea. Justice Scalia fancies himself an "originalist" -- someone who thinks the Constitution means today exactly what it meant when it was adopted two centuries ago.

So not surprisingly, Justice Scalia says the language of the Second Amendment, which gives citizens the right to bear arms, is a license for people to amass a nearly limitless arsenal of weapons.

That's outrageous. The Founding Fathers lived during a time when the single-shot musket was the dominant weapon. Allowing people to stock a couple of them in their home, or to walk about with one slung over a shoulder, was not a great threat to the "domestic tranquility" the Constitution also guarantees us.

The drafters of the Constitution could hardly have envisioned the high-powered rifle, two sawed-off shotguns and semi-automatic pistol Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, used last week to kill 12 Littleton, Colo., students and a teacher before committing suicide inside Columbine High School. Nor could they have imagined the far greater killing power of the machine guns Justice Scalia says the Constitution gives citizens the right to possess.

Like Chicken Little, Justice Scalia and other adherents to the originalist doctrine complain that the sky is falling on us every time a law is passed, or a court ruling gets handed down that interprets the Constitution broadly. They cling to the idea of "original intent" as if it were the Holy Grail of our democratic system.

It's not.

The Constitution is a framework for governing, not an absolute dictate. To think otherwise is to believe, as Justice Scalia does, that since the Constitution makes no mention of abortion rights, the Supreme Court can't strike down a state law that seeks to restrict a woman's access to this medical procedure.

To embrace the originalist doctrine is to question the correctness of the Supreme Court's 1954 decision outlawing racially segregated public schools. While the Constitution guarantees every citizen equal protection of the law, it does not explicitly give African-Americans the right to attend school with whites.

When the Supreme Court decided that the policy of "separate but equal, is inherently unequal," it used the language of the Constitution as the framework, not the literal boundary of that historic ruling.

Like his ideological soul mate Justice Clarence Thomas, Justice Scalia picks his audiences carefully. He does not venture far beyond the parapets of the conservative ranks to address a group. When he does, he usually goes to a school to mine fresh recruits for his right-wing conservative beliefs.

Justice Scalia's originalism is a resistance to change. Not the unfettered change in our governing document that he publicly warns against, but the structural change in this society that he privately fears.

By refusing to interpret broadly the meaning of a Constitution whose original intent was to safeguard the rights of white men, Justice Scalia slows this nation's movement toward becoming "a more perfect union."

America is changing for the better. Proof of this shift is not always readily apparent, given the racial strife and senseless violence that has dominated the news recently.

But evidence of this glacial-like movement can be heard in the voices of some of the Park School students who listened closely to what Justice Scalia had to say.

DeWayne Wickham, a former Sun reporter, is a columnist for USA Today and the Gannett News Service.

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