Debating the Constitution in Newtown

September 6, 2013

The first sign of their presence was the smell of cigarette smoke. There were about a dozen of them, dressed in black T-shirts with yellow lettering reading “Save Our Constitution.” They were holding flags — mostly Stars and Stripes, but also some Gadsden standards with coiled rattlesnakes, “Don’t Tread on Me” emblazoned in black.

Mixed between the high school marching band, the children and the ponies, these were the Oath Keepers. They had come to Newtown, Connecticut to march in the first Labor Day parade held since 20 children and six educators were massacred with a tactical assault weapon in their classrooms. Like the armed attention-seekers who descended on the local Starbucks a few weeks back, the Oath Keepers wanted to make their presence known.

It’s hard to judge whether they were successful in their quest. After they’d extinguished their smokes and got marching, I lost sight of them. They were well ahead of the Avielle Foundation, the non-profit founded by the scientist parents of Avielle Richman, who was murdered at Sandy Hook, that I was supporting.

But I suspect they did little to further their cause, whatever it might be. I walked down Main Street, as I had done many times as a child, with my hockey or Pop Warner teams. This was my first parade as an adult. I marched alongside parents whose children perished last December. Lining the curb I saw faces wracked with empathetic grief, tears streaming down cheeks.

Past the Honan Funeral Home, which processed many of our neighbors eight months ago; the Edmond Town Hall and to the flagpole. There, an announcement was made for Avielle and her brave parents, who have decided to honor their daughter’s life by deepening society’s understanding of the human brain, and how its failings could compel a young man — in our town last year, but maybe yours tomorrow — to commit acts of unspeakable violence.

Avielle’s father, Jeremy, supported by so many friends, held aloft a banner reading “You Can Imagine” — an exhortation to go to that dark place, to consider the possibility that what happened in this idyllic New England town could just as easily happen in any village in this country. Every few hundred yards, Jeremy and the other standard-bearers would complete a full circle, ensuring that parade viewers from every angle would receive the message loud and clear.

On past the police station, from which first responders took just three minutes on the morning of December 14 to travel to Sandy Hook School — not enough time to stop a shooter with a military style weapon and high-capacity magazines. Underneath an expansive American flag held aloft by a cherry picker, the group proceeded up Glover Avenue, in front of the middle school and finally to the judging booth. There the route ended.

And that’s when we caught up with the Oath Keepers. They had encircled Senator John McKinney, the state Republican minority leader whose constituency includes Newtown. They were accusing him of selling out their freedoms when he supported a bipartisan bill to tighten up firearms regulation in Connecticut.

“All of the amendments of the Constitution are sacred,” one Oath Keeper berated McKinney, “not just the first, but the second and third.” The Senator, who on multiple occasions allowed the Sandy Hook families to occupy his office — giving them a safe sanctuary during fraught legislative debates over gun safety, the release of horrifying photos of their loved ones and mental health bills — kept his cool.

“We will just have to disagree,” said McKinney, who by now was flanked by Mark Barden. He is the father of Daniel, the little boy killed at Sandy Hook, whose picture you’ve probably seen dozens of times: Freckles, a wide gap between his teeth, maybe hugging his bus driver, or his big brother or sister, on day one of first grade a year ago. Barden had come to thank the senator for all he’d done to support Newtown.

Trying to defuse the intensity of the exchange, McKinney, who had just marched alongside Dan Malloy, the Democratic governor whose job he hopes to snatch in 2014, asked the Oath Keepers to remember that they were in Newtown. The implication being they should show respect.

“I thought this was America,” the woman retorted. With that, McKinney slipped away.

Once McKinney left, I turned to the woman and asked her what it was she liked about the third amendment. She said she did not have a copy of the Constitution in her head. Doesn’t matter, anyway, they are all sacred. I still wanted to know, why did she feel that the leader of our state’s Republican party, a man who could be governor, was failing in his duties to uphold this particular amendment?

She threw it back at me: “Do you know what the third amendment says?” I’m no constitutional historian, but it just so happens that two weeks before, a friend — trying to make a point about the historical context in which the second amendment, too, had been drafted — told me to look it up. I paraphrased: it’s the one that says the army can’t quarter soldiers in your home without your consent. Well, she said, that’s why we need to defend the Constitution.

It’s hard to disagree that the Constitution needs defenders. That’s why we have the Supreme Court, after all. What’s shameful is how many of the document’s most public and vocal — not to mention self-selected — guardians can be so ill-informed. It’s also surprising: the Oath Keeper website, with its vow to “never disarm,” also sells pocket Constitutions — a five-pack for just $8.

PHOTO: Street artist Mark Panzarino, 41, prepares a memorial as he writes the names of the Sandy Hook Elementary School victims during the six-month anniversary of the massacre, at Union Square in New York, June 14, 2013. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

17 comments

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The right to live – as stated in the US Declaration 1776, July 4 – preempts the liberties that are given by The Constitution. Without life, you have no concern for any further rights

Posted by auger | Report as abusive

Remarkably little substance to this piece. When you actually look at what is being said, it is no more than ad hominem attacks and emotional obfuscation. It is one thing to use emotional to push an ideology. But for it to be worthy of adoption, the pragmatic questions of legal basis and implementation must be addressed.

Posted by jjfortenberry | Report as abusive

Keep in mind that a PotUS candidate, claimed Member of the Bar and Member of Congress (at the time), Michele Bachwomann, didn’t know that the Amendments and Bill of Rights are a part of the Constitution. She is not alone. Obviously, most of the people who go out of the way to claim they support the Constitution haven’t read it, or have no clue what it means. It’s sad that so many of them are in Congress.

Americans love to point out the ignorance of foreigners, yet we have millions of highly uneducated folks here in the United States.

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

“It’s hard to disagree that the Constitution needs defendants”: that explains a lot, but who will volunteer?

Posted by MBmb | Report as abusive

The Declaration of Independence can’t preempt anything. It’s not legally binding, the Constitution is.

Posted by JRTerrance | Report as abusive

“Defendants” and “defenders” are two different words.

Posted by amateurediteur | Report as abusive

I find amusing Rob Cox’s use of subjective, inflammatory language about the firearms the gun amused to subconsciously enrage the reader. I in no way whatsoever support the shooter obviously and think him and his actions were evil and deplorable, yet terms like’tactical assault weapon’ and ‘high capacity magazine’ are irrelevant to the point he is trying to make and are a thinly veiled attempt to inject his own feelings about weapons in general. My own point is simply that the violence could have been carried out with a deer hunting rifle, a semi-automatic .270 calibre rifle, which operates exactly the same way as the assault weapon he refers to, and in their nearly century long existence have not been mentioned in the same context and have not nearly been attacked with the same amount of prejudice, which is akin to the ignorance level he attributes the Oath Takers of having.

Posted by dmattdevlin | Report as abusive

History shows that the Second Amendment has only recently been misconstrued as ensuring the right of an individual to amass a private armory. The following summary of the history of the Second Amendment and gun control in the United States was presented by Reuters after the Sandy Hook school massacre:

Debunking the myths of gun rights in America – Decoder (6:42)

In the wake of the Sandy Hook school massacre, legislators have returned to the debate over gun rights. Adam Winkler, a professor of constitutional law at UCLA and author of “Gun Fight,” breaks down the myths surrounding the Second Amendment and the history of gun control in the U.S. (December 19, 2012)

Prior to the Sandy Hook school massacre, Jill Lepore wrote an article, “Battleground America – One nation, under the gun” (The New Yorker, April 23, 2012), on the same subject. Here is an excerpt from that article:

In 1986, the N.R.A.’s interpretation of the Second Amendment achieved new legal authority with the passage of the Firearms Owners Protection Act, which repealed parts of the 1968 Gun Control Act by invoking “the rights of citizens … to keep and bear arms under the Second Amendment.” … In an interview, former Chief Justice Warren Burger said that the new interpretation of the Second Amendment was “one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word ‘fraud,’ on the American public by special-interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”

Here is the first paragraph regarding former Chief Justice Burger at Wikipedia:

Warren Earl Burger (September 17, 1907 – June 25, 1995) was the 15th Chief Justice of the United States from 1969 to 1986. Although Burger had conservative leanings and was considered a strict constructionist, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered a variety of transformative decisions on abortion, capital punishment, religious establishment, and school desegregation during his tenure.

Posted by MoBioph | Report as abusive

Thanks, Rob, for these insights. I think it is important to also remember that while the rights delineated in the Amendments are considered sacred, they are not and never have been absolute. Legislative bodies have always outlined their limits with the consent of the majority of the citizens. Limitations on the protocols surrounding gun ownership and use are no different than limits on free speech or free exercise. Sometimes the limits may go too far as in Adams’ era and WWI era sedition acts or, for some people, not far enough when tolerating the hate speech of groups like Westboro Baptist Church. Nonetheless, the legislation – whether it is speech regulation or background checks and magazine capacity limits – is an attempt to keep the rights relevant, not undermine them.

Posted by JWhiting | Report as abusive

Apologies to the author, but you cant have it both ways. Sandy Hook was used to further restrictions on weapons that have a pitiful amount of improper use (please look up the definition of an irrational fear, and your chances of being killed by a so-called assault rifle). The response to those proposed restrictions is what you find distasteful? If firearms were not made to be the defining issue of this tragedy, there would be no pro-gun rights folks feeling a need to defend their rights. Since it was, there is, and you can deal with the fallout. This may surprise you, but “gun-nuts” actually mourn murdered children too, and I resent you not allowing them the time to grieve for these children before threatening their beliefs. Fact is these tragedies are used for political benefit, with no real chance of saving lives. Shame on you.

Posted by Pwrtothesheeple | Report as abusive

To outsiders like me the USA seems to have more than its share of exhibitionist and doggedly self-righteous folk, like those introduced by the author. Clearly those characteristics are a patch in the tapestry of the human psyche. Thing is, while most English-speaking cultures celebrate toleration as the glue that makes them strong, Americans prefer liberty. If there was effort to promote consideration of the cause and effect relationship between toleration and liberty America might find a new balance.

Posted by Colmery | Report as abusive

The Oath Keepers have Newtown to thank for providing the framework of their “sacred third amendment rights,” so why would they even think that the more recent events in this town would lead to an infringement of any other constitutional right?

Anyone who has ever walked up our historic Main Street surely knows Hillbrow House, the beautiful blue colonial that sits at the “Head of Main Street.” During the Revolutionary War, the owner of the home, a British sympathizer, refused to provide French troops with food and shelter. In retaliation, the soldiers forced the man to run up and down snowy Main Street wearing his long johns and little dignity. The elderly loyalist died that night and is said to haunt the place of his torment ever since.

This practice of billeting troops, like what happened in Newtown in 1781, clearly was what the First Congress had in mind when they submitted the third amendment to the states eight years later.

But when they submitted the second amendment as part of that package, they certainly could not have envisioned what happened in the same town 223 years later. While the third amendment assures that our troops cannot force anyone to run up and down Main Street in their long johns, the second amendment, as interpreted by “guardians” such as the Oath Keepers, only assures that more innocent children and other citizens will be killed by machines designed for murder.

Connecticut is the Constitution State. We know how this works. Oath Keepers, you’re doing it wrong.

Posted by finetoons | Report as abusive

Pretty embarrassing piece to me, a native of Connecticut. A simple smear against those who wish to preserve what they perceive as their right. Meanwhile Governor Malloy uses a horrific tragedy to push legislation limiting my ability to protect myself against the hordes of criminals now infecting this state.

Connecticut has a historic manufacturing base in firearms. This legislation could seriously damage what little of it remains in a state that already has some of the worst income inequality in the entire United States (Hartford, the capital, has a GDP per capita of about $26,000~~ while the GDP per capita of the state as a whole is near $60,000).

Regardless of whether an autistic man stole his mother’s legally obtained firearm and shot some children with it, the fact remains that this place will only grow poorer and more violent with more anti-gun legislation in place. My once great state is in a truly saddening state of affairs.

Posted by ohgodwhocares | Report as abusive

so the OP rags on people trying to defend our country, while supporting a politician who backed a law that would have had no effect on the newtown shooting, but has acted to make restriction on americans just so he can be seen as doing something.

Posted by VultureTX | Report as abusive

I am certain the author and many liberals think that all they have to do is get rid of this right or that right of the citizenry and the world would be a better place. Whenever rights are taken, it is usually by blood that they are recovered. It is sad to have to even mention this fact that so many, including this author, fail to see or understand about liberty and freedom. Freedom from oppression by an over reaching government should be guaranteed. This is the primary purpose of the Bill of Rights. But sadly, it is the liberals who assault the constitution and use straw men arguments or illogically place blame on a right for a tragedy that occurred from some illegal action. It is like saying we should not allow the 1st amendment because someone yelled fire in the theater. No, it is not the right to freedom of speech that should be removed but the one abusing the right should be held accountable. It is not that someone can’t abuse their right of self protection to go on the offensive and kill with a gun, it is that they should be the one held responsible not the right to own firearms or the firearms themselves. This simple and basic understanding of how logic works appears to be remiss in understanding by liberals.

Posted by NeverSurrender | Report as abusive

Love the name those fanatics chose for themselves, “Oath Keepers”; kinda hard to argue with that, and that’s why they chose it, regardless of how accurate it is.

Posted by borisjimbo | Report as abusive

Dear “Never Surrender” (another well-chosen fighting-words name),
Do you think Madison put the preamble into the Second Amendment with the intent that it be simply ignored?

Posted by borisjimbo | Report as abusive