Opinion by John E. Jones III, opinion contributor
I am a college president. And I am afraid.
The mass killing last week in the college town of Lewiston, Maine, is the 36th this year in the United States, according to an AP/USA Today/Northeastern University mass killings database. The 18 who were murdered bring us to a total of nearly 200 victims of these ghastly events.
Sadly, it is easy to predict that there will be more of them before the year is out. Which community — college town or not — will bear the weight of the next tragedy?
I am also a former federal judge. And I am incredulous.
The House of Representatives has a new Speaker, Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.). During a 2016 sermon at the Christian Center in Shreveport, La., Johnson blamed mass school shootings on a “series of cultural shifts” in the United States that included teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution and erasing creationism from society. Last week, Johnson opined that it was inappropriate to discuss gun control “in the middle of a crisis” and that “it’s not the weapon, it’s the underlying problem.”
The suspected Maine shooter reportedly used a “Ruger SFAR” rifle “chambered for high-powered .308 ammunition.” The weapon is “larger and more powerful than the regular ammunition carried in the rifles of soldiers and SWAT teams.”
Johnson is a staunch defender of what he believes the Second Amendment to the Constitution represents. Its wording, which includes “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed” has for generations been the subject of various interpretations and countless lawsuits.
Interestingly, the same Bill of Rights that contains the Second Amendment also features the First Amendment. Within it is the establishment clause, which prohibits the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.”
In 2005, I presided over the landmark case of Kitzmiller v. Dover in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. At its conclusion, I ruled that a school district’s policy introducing a concept known as intelligent design into the ninth-grade biology curriculum was, in fact, tantamount to teaching creationism, and thus violated the establishment clause. In rendering this opinion, I carefully followed the First Amendment’s dictates as well as Supreme Court precedent. The decision was not appealed and still stands.
It is my educated guess that Speaker Johnson, a trained lawyer, sees himself as a textualist. That is, he believes in the ordinary meaning of a legal text. I have always thought that to be an interesting interpretive theory so far as it goes, but far too unrealistic in practice. The Second Amendment was largely drafted by James Madison, who of course later served as president of the United States.
Textualist or not, does Johnson, or anyone, really, believe that if we could question Madison today, he would say that it was his intent to allow this country to be awash in guns, including automatic weapons that serve no good purpose other than as instruments of war or mass killings? It is absurd to think that Madison, a brilliant scholar and statesman, would endorse that view. In fact, I think he’d be as incredulous as I am that anyone could so torture the amendment he carefully drafted in this fashion.
I find myself endeavoring mightily to explain to my students how we arrived at this point, and why we lack the political will to pass reasonable gun legislation that would make us all safer. I have no good answers to their inquiries. They are afraid, and I share their apprehensions.
And so, I ask new Speaker Johnson and his colleagues these questions: Where is your courage, and when is the right time to pass legislation designed to end these slaughters? I will not hold my breath waiting for answers.
John E. Jones III is the president of Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. He previously served as the chief judge of the U.S. Middle District Court of Pennsylvania, where he was appointed to the bench by President George W. Bush in 2002.