It was just another standard all-American shooting — guy with an AR-15 kills people at a restaurant in Nashville, Tennessee — but it prompted me to think anew about the tragically misinterpreted Second Amendment.
The weekend episode at the Waffle House was just what you would’ve expected. Four innocents died, seven more were wounded; the suspect, currently at large, had his guns confiscated by police last year after he showed up near the White House, but his indulgent dad made sure that junior got the guns back. The white shooter is a reputed fan of the right-wing “sovereign citizen” movement; the dead are all people of color. The Nashville cops said last night, “He clearly came armed with a lot of firepower intending to devastate the south Nashville area.”
This kind of rote bloodletting was not what the Founders intended.
John Paul Stevens, the 98-year-old U.S. Supreme Court retiree, took heat recently when he rightly argued that the Second Amendment was not designed to lock and load every American citizen. For nearly two centuries, he pointed out, the courts hewed to the amendment’s literal meaning (“a well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the right people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”), which in no way blessed the deluded notion that virtually everyone (like the Waffle House active shooter) should be free to arm themselves to the teeth.
The NRA called his argument “a disgrace to America,” but he was actually preceded by conservative columnist Bret Stephens, who has twice argued — last fall and again in February — that the wrongfully expansive use of the Second Amendment has saddled us with “a legal regime that most of the developed world rightly considers nuts.” Kudos to Stephens, who at least hews to the traditional conservative belief that the Constitution should be strictly interpreted.
Stevens and Stephens contend that we need to repeal the Second Amendment (Stevens inexplicably says it would be “simple”), but we know that repeal will never happen; heck, we’re powerless to enact universal background checks or ban weapons of war (like the Waffle House weapon), even though landslide majorities want both. The repeal idea is DOA, but gun law reformers, currently buoyed by the survivors and allies of Parkland, can further buttress their movement by pointing out that the Second Amendment was designed solely to address 18th-century concerns.
For instance, we can contrast the Founders’ deliberations with the events that led to the Waffle House shootings.
There is no evidence, in the debates about the Constitution, or the press coverage of the debates, that the signers ever sought to bless the notion of a universally armed citizenry. The “right to bear arms” was used solely in a military context, to ensure that state militias could be organized and sustained. Rhode Island’s provision was typical; it required that men aged 16 to 50 “bear Arms in the respective Trained Bands whereto by Law they shall belong.” And when a Pennsylvania faction tried to broaden the Second Amendment’s proposed language by suggesting that “the people have the right to bear arms for the defense of themselves … or for the purpose of killing game,” the majority of delegates resoundingly said no.
Imagine what the delegates would’ve thought about this garden-variety 21st-century farce:
Travis Reinking, the Waffle House suspect, had long been on police radar. In 2016, a police officer in his Illinois home town reportedly wrote: “Travis is hostile toward police and does not recognize police authority. Travis also possesses several firearms.” Clearly there was a problem. Reinking was apparently convinced that Taylor Swift was stalking him, prompting his parents to call emergency services.
Last year, Reinking was arrested for trespassing near the White House. The FBI and Secret Service worked with local Illinois authorities to cancel Reinking’s state gun license, and they confiscated his four weapons. But the officers reportedly gave the weapons and ammo to Reinking’s father, who promised to safeguard them. Investigators now believe that dad gave them back to his son. One of those weapons was an AR-15. The son moved to Nashville, and, according to Nashville police, killed and wounded people at the Waffle House with the AR-15. He was also semi-nude at the time (a coat and nothing else), which was consistent with a pattern of disturbed behavior.
We can endlessly debate how this particular guy fell through the usual cracks, or how his dad fell short in the parenting department, but this time let’s stick with the big picture. Reinking is merely the umpteenth shooter to benefit from the gun lobby’s successful trashing of the literal Second Amendment. His innocent victims are merely the latest collateral casualties of the lobby’s successful war on factual history.
As the late Chief Justice Warren Burger, a Republican appointee, remarked as a retiree in 1991, the assault on the true meaning of the amendment has been “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.” And ours as well.