It is Parents’ Day at the Anytown Middle School. We are allowed to visit two classes. Let’s try 7th grade English and 8th grade U.S, History.

English Class

Ms. Kerwin: First, I’d like to welcome parents. I am Ms. Kerwin and this is my 7th grade English class. Today we are studying sentence structure. Our focus is on dependent clauses and how they color the meaning of the larger sentence in which they appear. A dependent clause has a noun and a verb but alone may not constitute a meaningful sentence or any sentence at all. Thus, it requires a supportive string of words also with a noun and verb to give it meaning. Class, here is an example:

Because germs can spread disease, it is a good idea to wash your hands before eating.

What does that mean? Billy?

Billy: It sounds like it is a good idea to wash my hands before I eat.
Ms. Kerwin: Why?
Billy: Because germs can make you sick. That’s what the sentence says.
Ms. Kerwin: That’s right. Because germs can make you sick. It gives full meaning to why it is a good idea to wash your hands. Let’s try another. Since driving too fast is often the cause of serious traffic accidents, we have speed limit laws. Sarah?
Sarah: That’s easy. Traffic laws and signs about speed limits should be created so that people slow down.
Ms. Kerwin: Why?
Sarah: Because speed can cause accidents.
Ms. Kerwin: Who said?
Sarah: It is right there in the sentence. It’s that clause you talked about.
Ms. Kerwin: The dependent clause?
Sarah: Yes, that one.
Ms. Kerwin: Correct.

The rest of the class has the kids and even a few parents join in as they craft new sentences with dependent clauses. By the end of the period it is obvious that the students (and their parents) understand this piece of essential English grammar.

Ms. Kerwin: Oh, there’s the bell but here’s a sentence I want you to think about tonight. Write this down.  (She slowly intones),  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.   Thanks for coming, parents. I hope you enjoyed the class.

U.S. History

The next class was 8th grade U.S. History taught by a very popular and good looking teacher named Mr. Clegg. The class had just finished a unit on the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War and the early and largely unsuccessful attempt at forming a nation under the Articles of Confederation. They were now beginning to deal with the writing and ratification process for the new Constitution.

By sheer coincidence, Andy had brought in an old story from the local paper that talked about the government’s action when a child’s crib equipped with a moving slatted side bar had injured three children in separate incidents across the country. In each case, the bar had unexpectedly collapsed as the toddler leaned on it. The crib was pulled off the market in every state until a fix could be verified.

Andy: Mr. Clegg, my dad found this story about a defective crib that had injured some kids and I asked him why the crib was removed from the market. He told me that it is the government’s job, to protect citizens from injury. He said, “That is why we have a government in the first place, just like it says in the Preamble to the Constitution and that is probably why Mr. Clegg asked you to memorize the Preamble.” But I am confused. Why is it OK for the government to take a product off the market because it might injure a few kids when it does nothing to control guns that kill more people every day than any cribs anywhere?
Mary: Andy’s right. We learned from the Declaration of Independence that the purpose of government is to protect everyone’s life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Doesn’t getting shot count?
Emma: I remember that the Declaration told us that if our government doesn’t do its job, we are supposed to break the contract with that government and create a new one that will protect us. Why does our government just stand by while so many innocent people are being injured and killed by people with guns? It doesn’t make sense. Mr. Clegg, why don’t we fix that?  I mean, what’s so great about a Constitution if the people we elect to enforce it fail to do their job. The President doesn’t enforce it; Congress doesn’t protect and defend it and our Supreme Court doesn’t interpret it in ways that reflects the real world? They are not doing their jobs. Why? Isn’t it our parents’ duty and responsibility to elect people who will protect citizens from bad stuff? Isn’t it their responsibility to elect people who will ensure that the things mentioned in the Preamble that we recite every day is upheld? Aren’t they in a way responsible for every gun injury and death when they do nothing to end that sort of violence? The Declaration of Independence says it is their duty to keep us from harm. Why don’t they do it? Do they love something or someone more than us?
Mr. Clegg: I understand your concern, Emma, but gun control is a long story.
The Class (in unison): Tell us!
Mr. Clegg: You have to realize that when the Constitution was written, it called for a strong central government. As we discussed, the old Articles of Confederation was too weak to create and preserve a true sense of union for the United States. The Constitution was drafted to correct those weaknesses and it included a strong central government with lots of power that many Americans feared. After all, the young nation had just gotten rid of British rule and for some Americans, the new Constitution with its strong central government and its many powers, seemed to be replacing one tyranny from afar with a new one created at home.

It was during the ratification process when the new Constitution was submitted to the states for their approval that a new packet of freedom guarantees was crafted to address the fears of those who were wary of a strong government. It was called the Bill of Rights and it was created to help calm the fears of naysayers during the ratification period. The Bill of Rights were 10 Amendments that enumerated those freedoms that were most cherished by Americans and it turned out to be the tipping point in favor of ratification. The freedoms listed in the Bill of Rights, at one time or another, have been modified to fit the times as needed with the changes in society brought on by new technologies and an enlightened citizenry. We instituted limits of freedom of religion, speech, the press, the rights of states and many others. But for some reason only one remained largely untouched by the passage of time. It was the Second Amendment or the right to bear arms.

When that Amendment was drafted more than two an a quarter centuries ago, the right to bear arms was very important. There were frontiers that needed protection from foreign interference and justifiable resentment by native-American tribes whose land was being taken away as the nation expanded. And the Amendment helped to ensure that the new government would not take away basic freedoms from the citizens it was put in place to protect. It was also at a time when firearms were not very accurate and very slow to reload with most guns being front-end, barrel-loaded with flintlock firing mechanisms. Even in the hands of a blood-thirsty lunatic damage was limited as simple fact of firearms technology. When our founders created the Second Amendment they could not have predicted the rapid change in firearms technology. So for reasons we still fail to understand, while the other Bill of Rights amendments were able to change and adapt to changing times and technology, the Second Amendment became frozen in time and is still treated by many as though it is 1789 and not 2017.

The Constitution as you will learn while we go through it in the next couple of weeks is a brilliant document largely because it has always had enough flexibility to change with the times. It may be the most enduring written Constitution in the world. It is our national treasure. If nothing else, the Second Amendment written more than two centuries ago, stands as a stark reminder of what happens when we fail to interpret its words to keep up with the changing times. In the case of the Second Amendment its original purpose was to keep Americans safe from attack by others and from an overbearing national government. But now, because it has failed to change with the realities of passing time and technology, it simply runs counter to and undermines almost everything we recite in the Preamble to the Constitution. Why that happens, I can’t answer or understand. Maybe your generation will have to deal with it because my generation has shamefully failed.

My opinion is that the Bill of Rights was crafted as a safeguard against an excessively strong central government by granting assurances to the states and the people various freedoms and powers to protect them against that overbearing government. The Bill of Rights asserts those things that the central government may not do but, in my view, it doesn’t prevent state and local governments from deciding on their own how they want to handle issues like gun control. The federal government is restricted from abridging the right to bear arms or preventing states from raising a well-trained militia but it says nothing about states’ rights to control firearms in any way they choose including eliminating them altogether. If that is what a state, or city, town or individual wishes to do in the absence of raising a well-trained militia as the amendment suggests, they should be free to do anything they deem necessary and proper. I have always felt this way and I cannot understand why other reasonable citizens don’t feel the same.

Parents, I am quite certain that some of you do not agree with me but I am not advocating anything. I am explaining to curious students my take as a sovereign citizen on an issue of concern to them. I hope you will respect that. As a citizen and as a veteran of the armed forces I believe I have earned that right to considered and responsible freedom of expression.

The rest of the class period went without incident and when it was over more than a few parents went to Mr. Clegg and thanked him for his thoughtful words and his service to his country and to their kids.

The parents and students returned to their homes and watched the six o’clock news that headlined a massacre in a small rural church in Texas. The President when asked noted, “it was too early to discuss gun control” and he went on to blame the entire episode on a deranged man and the failure of the background checks in this incident that would have prevented the shooter from owning a gun.

None of Mr. Clegg’s students slept particularly well that night. Confusion, disbelief and an edge of fear have a way of interfering with sleep.

The following day in Ms. Kerwin’s class every one of the students agreed that the right to bear arms took on a special meaning because of the dependent clause about freedom and the importance of a well-regulated militia and that there was no other dependent clause that added or detracted from that clearly-stated purpose. The two clauses were related and dependent upon each other for a precise meaning.

When Ms. Kerwin mentioned that in court opinions about the amendment, many judges seemed to simply ignore the dependent clause entirely, her students became agitated and one (it was our Billy) actually said, “But don’t the courts decide on the meaning and legality of the law? Is there something in the Constitution that gives judges the right to ignore or change the rules of basic grammar? I’m glad this class isn’t taught by a judge!” Ms. Kerwin sighed and with bent arms, upright palms, a faint smile and a modest eye roll, she just shrugged.

While Americans remain safe from defective cribs, by the close of the day, 74,000 guns had been sold across the nation and another 44,000 had been manufactured or imported, figures that included some 20,000 AR 15 and Bushmaster XM15 type assault rifles. And, sadly, another 36 human beings had been killed by guns along with 73 wounded while Americans and their elected representatives, emulating Dickens’ Madame Defarge, just sat by, casually knitting and watching the slaughter like it was just another ordinary day at the office.


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