Gun Rights and Hermeneutical Confusion

In today’s Washington Post, Eugene Robinson posts his reflections on The Supreme Court’s recent declaration that gun ownership is an individual right. In essence, Robinson says that The Supreme Court interpreted the second amendment correctly but that he would nevertheless favor restrictions on the right to bear arms. The meaning of the Constitution is clear on this point, he says. Robinson just disagrees with the Constitution.

What caught my eye about Robinson’s column, however, was the last two paragraphs. He writes:

‘I believe the Constitution is a living document that has to be seen in light of the times. I believe the Supreme Court, in Roe v. Wade, was right to infer an implicit right to privacy, even though no such thing is spelled out. I think the idea that the Founders’ “original intent” should govern every interpretation of the Constitution is loony — as if men who wrote with quill pens could somehow devise a blueprint for regulating the Internet.

‘But I also believe that if the Constitution says yes, you can’t just blithely pretend it says no. Yesterday’s decision appears to leave room for laws that place some restrictions on gun ownership but still observe the Second Amendment’s guarantee. If not, then the way to fix the Constitution is to amend it — not ignore it.’

Robinson calls the Constitution a “living document,” which means that the interpretation of its meaning needs to change with the times. He calls it “loony” to rely on the framers’ “original intent” as the proper guide for interpreting the Constitution. Yet he still concludes that “if the Constitution says yes, you can’t just blithely pretend it says no.”

Does he realize that by removing “original intent” as the ground and guide of proper interpretation he cannot object to anyone who would make the Constitution say “no” where it clearly says “yes”? After all, how does one know what the Constitution says apart from what its framers’ intended?

I am becoming more and more of the opinion that all readers need to take a basic course in hermeneutics. The fallacies of this editorial are so apparent, and such illogic is surprisingly common in the public discourse about Constitutional interpretation.


  • mike

    My goodness! What would Bultmann say? This rings so well with modern ideas on the interpretation of Scripture. The Constitution is living document, in that it may be ammended and changed, but the idea that the meanings of the very words and phrases are subject the willful interpretation of moderns without consideration to the authroial intent, or natural extensions of former laws upon the new is indeed “loony,” for then who may say correctly what is true of the document or false if there is nothing by which to measure the validity of an interprettation?

  • Paul

    The funny part about this is that Robinson is the same kind of guy that would say – correctly, I might add – that this nation is a nation of laws, not a nation of men. That no matter how unpopular civil rights legislation (to use a very obvious example) might have been, the laws needed to trump public opinion to properly interpret the constitution.

    But here, he’s now saying that we need to be a nation of men — that what the constitution says doesn’t matter, we need to govern by opinion, and not by objective standards.

    You can’t have it both ways, Mr. Robinson.

  • Big Daddy Weave

    Long time reader, first time commenter (I think):

    You write:

    “After all, how does one know what the Constitution says apart from what its framers’ intended?”

    Many conservatives (and my guess is that this applies to you) consider Antonin Scalia to be a model Supreme Court Justice. But Scalia is a textualist. And legal theorists of all stripes have argued that original intent and textualism can not be reconciled. Scalia concurs. In 1996 at Catholic University in DC, Scalia said: “You will never hear me refer to original intent, because as I say, I am first of all a textualist and secondly an originalist. If you are a textualist, you don’t care about the intent and I don’t care if the framers of the Constitution had some secret meaning in mind when they adopted its words.”

    Liberals like Robinson are not alone in “removing ‘original intent’ as the ground and guide of proper interpretation.” Conservatives like Scalia are guilty of doing this as well.

Comment here. Please use FIRST and LAST name.