Submitted by Aaron Arkin.
In the 1963 movie of the same name, Billy Liar (played by Tom Courtenay) is an aggrieved young man, described as ambitious but lazy, living at home in a middle-class English family. Unable to free himself from his dependency and lacking the strength of character to move himself into the world of adult choices, he resorts to constant lying (thus the name) and frequent fantasizing. Of the latter, the most striking is when in response to a harangue from his parents, we see him armed with a machine gun angrily mowing down his entire family. For the movie audience, the contrast between Billy’s fantasy and what is actually and mundanely taking place at the family dinner table is shocking, and maybe for some, even vindicatory.
Of course, Billy wouldn’t really murder his family, and in England he wouldn’t have ready access to a machine gun. But experiencing grievance is not rare, and in our country awash in assault weaponry, the aggrieved don’t always settle for just fantasy.
When establishing responsibility for a criminal act, three elements are sought: means, motive, and opportunity. In the case of mass murder, ‘means’ is easy access to guns. Here in the US, their ubiquity was turbocharged by the Supreme Court’s most recent interpretation of the Second Amendment which reads: “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.”
Historian consensus for most of American history however, was that the Second Amendment limited the un-infringed possession of Arms to a citizen militia. They concluded the Founding Fathers were focused on keeping state militias from being disarmed in the absence of a national armed service. The revised interpretation of the Amendment, giving individuals that constitutional right, was provided by the opinion of Justice Antonin Scalia. Writing for the 5 to 4 majority in District of Columbia v. Heller (June 20, 2008), he ignored both the Amendment’s historical context, and its grammatical construction.
The Second Amendment’s grammatical construction, it is built on two clauses, the building blocks of sentences. Clauses are groups of related words (phrases) that contain both a subject and a verb. When a clause can stand alone as a complete sentence with a clear meaning, it’s considered independent. If it only makes sense when you join it with another clause, it’s dependent (or subordinate). “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State” is a dependent clause because it makes sense, that is, it is only a complete thought when combined with its following clause “the right to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed”.
Another way we know that the Second Amendment’s grammatical construction is a complete and logical thought only when the two clauses are combined is because, according to the grammar text, Writing and Thinking, Foerster and Steadman, revised by McMillan, the meaning of the independent and dependent clauses holds if the full statement can be preceded by the terms “if, in case that, provided that, unless, since, as, because, inasmuch as, in that”, or “and now that”, without changing the thought of the sentence. For example: “’Inasmuch as“ 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” has the same meaning as the Second Amendment.
Summing up, the complete thought and logic of the two Second Amendment clauses is that, if militias are necessary for the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms won’t be infringed. The converse of that statement is that, if militias are not necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms does not automatically follow. Since we no longer have or utilize self-armed citizen militias to secure the State, the Second Amendment’s rationale became irrelevant or inapplicable when the United States created its own armed services. One could reasonably argue that, in effect, the Second Amendment repealed itself.
As an avowed constitutional textualist (by the way, a questionable and controversial mode of legal interpretation of historic documents), who supposedly focused on the plain meaning of the text of legal documents to understand and emphasize how the terms in the Constitution would be understood by people at the time they were ratified, as well as the context in which those terms appeared, it is striking and ironic that Judge Scalia chose to ignore both the grammatical construction of the Amendment, and its historical context. In his dissenting opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens (joined by Ruth Bader Ginsberg, David Souter, and Steven Breyer) argued that the court’s judgment was “a strained and unpersuasive reading” which overturned longstanding precedent, and that the court had “bestowed a dramatic upheaval in the law”. One may fairly conclude that in his desire to provide individual citizens the right to have Arms for self-protection, Judge Scalia’s commitment as a constitutional textualist was conditional.
Many supporters of Scalia’s interpretation do seem to sense that his reading of the Second Amendment’s intent rests on shaky legal ground; seeing any restriction on “gun rights” as a hole in the dike or a slippery slope, if you will, that could cause Scalia’s legal edifice to fail. Pointedly, we don’t see similarly strenuous advocacy in service to the other nine Bill of Rights Amendments which, presumably, sit on firmer legal grounds. Shaky grounds or not, with the Court’s ruling, we are now left to deal with its unintended consequences.
When it comes to ‘grievance’ as a common human experience for ‘motive’ (the second element of a criminal act) at the heart of mass shootings, I am brought in mind of an ironic saying, “Lucky the man who knows who his enemy is”. I take this to mean that if one’s focus is on an enemy for one’s difficulties or failures, it is not necessary to look within. And unfortunately as it turns out for us, for many people with that need there is no lack of enemies: different races, religions, political views, sexual identity and preferences, immigrants, economic classes, event attendees, people in power, people without power, high achievers, old people, young people, people who criticized, bullied, bested, insulted, or made fun of you; who cut you off on the highway, drove too slowly, wore the ‘wrong’ color clothing, said something you didn’t like, looked at you funnily, had something you were lacking. In other words, “the other.”
‘Opportunity’ (the third element of a criminal act) for mass murder is provided by so-called ‘soft targets’: night clubs, houses of worship, places of employment, grocery stores, schools, restaurants, malls, public gatherings, festivals, highways, homes, neighborhood streets. There is really no limit. Considering all of the above, we have a ‘perfect storm’ for increasing the number of mass killings using semi-automatic and what are effectively automatic weapons.
Even in the face of this horrific violence however, there has been little appetite for meaningful political solutions. There is even refusal by many politicians to accept that the proliferation of lethal weaponry contributes to the slaughter. Instead we get the mantra: “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people”, followed by arguments for increasing funding for mental health care (which ironically many politicians on the right have voted to defund in the past), hardening all soft targets (as if that were really possible), and getting tougher on criminals (although we incarcerate more people than any other nation on earth): anything but meaningful restrictions on access to guns and banning the most dangerous weapons.
Supporters of least restrictive gun laws also make the argument that we would be safer with more arming of the citizenry, including teachers, more open carry laws, and fewer restrictions on concealed weapons. As it is estimated there are already more guns in private hands in America then there are people, by that measure we should already be the safest country in the world. In fact, we have the second highest number of gun deaths in the world.
A more rational approach would be the one that has been adopted by other advanced democracies. They ignore any “right to bear Arms” type of construct, and balancing the interest in of public safety against providing self-protection for responsible citizens, just regulate the sale of weapons and the kinds of weapons permitted.
But back to Billy Liar: at the end of the movie, he finds himself in a position to make an actual grownup choice. He’s met a free-spirited young woman (Julie Christie, in her break-out role) who is ready to meet the challenges of the adult world and who offers him the opportunity to join her and start life on their own. And part of him wants this: to overcome his need for dependency; to have an adult relationship, and to make his own way. Sitting on a train about to leave the station, poised for an entry into an adult future, Billy chooses to leave the train to get some milk to drink (what could be more emblematic of dependency and lack of real agency?), promising Julie there is plenty of time for him to get back before the train leaves.
The audience instantly realizes Billy will not be coming back. True to form, he delays his return, described by one critic as the train leaves the station without him as, “ . . . shrugging on the platform and settling for the mediocrity he despises and probably deserves”. Turns out Billy reserved the worst lies for himself. Seems he is not alone.