A trigger warning for the Second Amendment

The Constitution’s hierarchy is clear. First comes the right to peaceably assemble to seek redress grievances; second comes the right to bear arms.

April 3, 2023 1:00 am

Gun safety advocates rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court before during oral arguments in the Second Amendment case NY State Rifle & Pistol v. City of New York, NY on December 2, 2019, in Washington, D.C. The first major gun-related case the Supreme Court reviewed in nearly 10 years was declared moot after New York City and New York state amended gun laws to address a challenge by gun owners and the NRA’s New York affiliate over restrictions on the transport of a licensed firearm out of one’s home. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Can we now speak about the Second Amendment after the latest school shooting in Tennessee?  I am not going to talk so much about guns here, but rather about our rights as Americans. 

As a country not founded on blood ties, or an ancient, shared culture and history, we have defined ourselves as a nation of laws and individual rights; the structure of both threads are outlined in our Constitution. We feel very strongly about these rights. Here in Rhode Island, individual rights, beginning especially with religious freedom, have always been primal. We were the last colony to ratify the Constitution because until the Bill of Rights was developed, it did not provide as much protection for individual rights as our 1663 Charter allowed.  

But all of these rights have always been constrained by a commitment to the public good, and this care for each other has apparently not survived as well as our rugged individualism. The Bill of Rights contains 10 amendments which enumerate multiple rights, but current debates most regularly revolve around the first and second of these. In the first clause, the Constitution provides for the rights to free exercise of religion, free speech, the press, and protest. The second offers “the right of the people to keep and bear arms.” 

None of these rights are absolute, and never have been. Let me repeat – none are absolute. We cannot practice human sacrifice to any deity – that is murder. If we stand up on a street corner and urge people to take up arms against the government, that is the crime of sedition. If a newspaper publishes child pornography it will be shut down. In these and myriad other ways, our laws have constrained our individual rights to protect the common good and the stability of our society. 

The overwhelming harm to our society that mass shootings inflict has been judged less important than unfettered access to weapons.

We have chosen, through a combination of our own history and the manipulation of our politics, to fetishize the Second Amendment in a way that we would not tolerate in any other discussion. This in spite of the fact that state and federal legislators have been comfortable creating and upholding limits on the right to own weapons. In a 2008 Supreme Court ruling overturning a ban on handguns in Washington D.C., Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, even as he ended the ban, “Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.” 

Polling tells us most Americans do understand this, and are comfortable with accepting some limits on their rights in order to prevent harm to others. We do regularly struggle with this, and where to draw the line. But in this instance, and only relatively recently, the overwhelming harm to our society that mass shootings inflict has been judged less important than unfettered access to weapons. 

But judged by whom, and to what end? Not the majority of us, and not to our benefit. 

Another of our founding documents suggests that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” While this phrase was not enshrined into law in the Constitution, it has animated our sense of ourselves for almost 250 years. I think that most of us would argue that sending our kids and grandkids to school, or the movies, or the mall without worrying about them being shot to death is an essential component of life, liberty and happiness. It is time, perhaps, for us to exercise that other important American privilege – the First Amendment “right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  


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Ruth S. Taylor
Ruth S. Taylor

Ruth S. Taylor retired at the end of 2022 after 16 years as executive director of the Newport Historical Society. She now serves as a consultant working to improve the governance of nonprofit organizations. She also serves as chair of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission.