Justice Scalia’s words on Second Amendment absolutism are true and prophetic

Published 8:57 am Wednesday, June 1, 2022

On the brutal reality of the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting – and all the others in our country dating back to Columbine and Luke Woodham’s rampage at Pearl High School in Mississippi – the “thoughts and prayers” of do-nothing politicians ring particularly hollow and meaningless.

I come at this as a gun owner, a hunter, someone who absolutely will defend my home and family with force, and as one who supports the rule of law and respects the authority of those who wear the badge and stand their posts.

Likewise, I come at this as a father, grandfather, and educator responsible for other people’s children. Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, gun owners and gun opponents, it’s time to come to the table and find common ground that makes us all safer – particularly innocent children.

All of us in this country have let the National Rifle Association and similar groups make us afraid and we as voters have allowed them to hold our political processes hostage. When party primaries are made litmus tests on who can genuflect most to the gun lobby, responsible government and sensible public policy are not the results.

Having safer schools may hit us all in the wallet through higher taxes to pay for the security we say we want. More stringent background checks may slow gun transactions. The current distinctions between handguns, long guns, and assault weapons need to be reconsidered. But our current laws and the enforcement of them – or lack thereof – aren’t working.

No, background checks and other deterrent strategies will not categorically stop school shootings. Yes, those measures will annoy and inconvenience law-abiding citizens. But they almost certainly will decrease incidents like Uvalde, Sandy Hook, Pearl, and Columbine.

As a society, we have made it too easy for the evil, the angry, or the mentally ill among us to get and possess guns. They are using those easily acquired guns to kill our children.

Congress and our state legislatures face the challenge of making schools safer from gun violence and those lawmakers must somehow find the political courage to risk alienating the gun lobby.

The gun lobby makes a lot of noise about activist judges limiting freedom and grabbing guns. Most of it is fundraising nonsense that plays on fear, prejudice, and anger.

I had a chance conversation with a sitting Supreme Court justice at an art gallery opening in Jackson, Mississippi on March 31, 2001. Justice Antonin Scalia, the conservative lion of the high court, was appropriately dressed for the occasion – except for the knee-high snake boots into which his trousers were neatly tucked.

Scalia was in Mississippi that day for two reasons. First and foremost, the jurist was here to go turkey hunting in Jones County. Second, Scalia’s time in Mississippi coincided with the day King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sophia of Spain paid a royal visit to Jackson’s Mississippi Arts Pavilion for a private tour of the state’s “The Majesty of Spain” exhibit.

In talking with Scalia, it became obvious that he loved both the fine arts and rural Mississippi hunting pleasures with nearly equal passions. After his 2016 death (while he was on a hunting trip in Texas), I reflected on the dichotomy of this learned man’s worldview and his surprisingly forthright views on the Second Amendment.

In 2008’s District of Columbia v. Heller, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that gun rights did not inure only to those in a “well-regulated militia” as anti-gun forces argued but to individuals in their homes – which affirmed the pro-gun arguments in the case and overjoyed the NRA. Scalia wrote the majority opinion.

But Scalia also wrote something else in the Heller decision that the NRA didn’t applaud: “Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”

Scalia would also assert the belief that “like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited” and that it is “not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”

Justice Scalia’s assertion remains as true today as it was 20 years ago. The Second Amendment is not a blank check.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at sidsalter@sidsalter.com