Font Size: A A A

Advertisement

The Court Kills

Garry Wills
Why do we slaughter our own children? Because the Supreme Court condones it.

Kenny Cole

Kenny Cole: Barrage, 2022

We are the disgrace of nations because we can’t stop killing our children—along, of course, with their teachers, relatives, and innocent bystanders. We don’t even seem to want to stop doing it, not effectively, at any rate. We say we should, but we don’t. We just can’t. We are worse than the drunk who says he should stop drinking but doesn’t. At least drinking is (or was) pleasant in its early stages. But how can killing be pleasant at first?

Our children can’t fight back as they watch their classmates and teachers being mowed down. Why do we let it go on, case after case? Are we just more evil than all the other countries that do not have our murder rate—not only in schools but in churches, synagogues, and mosques? Are we just killers by breeding or tradition?

Some say we kill innocent people in large numbers because we have so many guns. Well, we do have them, more than any other country. But guns do not force themselves into our hands and fire themselves. We have to use them for them to work. Why do we want to keep doing that?

There is one thing that sets us apart. No other nation has a Supreme Court that claims its Founding Fathers wanted to make it possible for any individual to get military-grade weapons and kill like a combat soldier, spewing bullets from high-capacity magazines at split-second rapidity, racking up the tiny corpses before the police can possibly arrive. These murder machines cannot be controlled as we control other dangerous things, from cars to planes to drugs, because these are guns, and guns are sacrosanct. What makes them so? The Second Amendment. Because of it, guns and their use are beyond criticism or control. That makes it possible for a presidential candidate to suggest with impunity that a rival should be murdered if he just calls her killers “Second Amendment people.”

The Second Amendment is invoked like a blessing over each of our recurrent Columbines. But there is nothing about that constitutional text that absolves these classroom slaughters. Their perpetrators are not “well regulated.” They are not “bearing arms,” a military term (one does not bear arms against a rabbit), nor are they “keeping arms” if they have a gun at home (they are called armories, not gunneries). It was only our modern Court that thought you could decide “original intent” by reading the wrong dictionaries. Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth century defined “arms” as “war,” citing Dryden—“Arms and the man I sing”—and he defined “armed men” as “army.”

A painting of a red hand holding a tiny handgun in its palm, while two fingers in the corner hold a tiny bullet

Kenny Cole

Kenny Cole: Arsenal, 2021

Previous Courts read history, not simply the dictionary, and knew that Madison added the Bill of Rights not because there was any threat to individual ownership of guns, which had always existed unchallenged and would continue to do so before, under, and after the draft Constitution. If personal weapons of self-defense or attack were the issue Madison was dealing with, the Second Amendment could have been written about a right to “bear knives” or “bear swords” or “bear clubs.”

No, Madison added the Second Amendment to placate “states’ rights” advocates like Patrick Henry, who argued state militias had to be guaranteed for three reasons:

  1. Short of war, states could not be shielded by a Federal standing army, which the Founders opposed. (How has that gone, Joint Chiefs?)
  2. Residents of the states wanted to be able to respond to clashes on their borders with Native Americans or local opposition before a Federal authority could respond.
  3. Slaveholders like Henry (and this was the main reason) feared slave uprisings in the South, anticipating rebellions like Nat Turner’s in 1831. They wanted to “keep arms” in guarded armories where the “well regulated” militias could get them out quickly and irregular slave mobs could not.       

Why do we slaughter our own children? Because, through a supposed “Second Amendment,” the Court condones it. And it is allowed to do so because, unlike the executive and legislative, it is our unaccountable branch. It does not have to report how it is wined and dined at spas or hotels, or require any justice to recuse himself or herself if wooed by a commercial lobby like the gun industry, an ideological lobby like the National Rifle Association, a legal lobby like the Federalist Society, or a moneybags lobby like that of Ginni Thomas. Guns keep killing us because the Court, and the Court alone, has made them sacred.

New York Review + Paris Review covers

Save $168 on an inspired pairing!

Get both The New York Review and The Paris Review at one low price.

Already a subscriber? Sign in

© 1963-2024 NYREV, Inc. All rights reserved.