The Supreme Court this week agreed to hear an appeal in a case from the District of Columbia which could decide nothing less than the rights of individuals to own guns.
The District has banned the ownership of handguns for 31 years, saying that the ban is a tool to lower gun violence.
Dick Heller disagrees. Heller wanted to keep a gun in his home for protection and sued to have the ban overturned, saying the ban violates his Second Amendment rights. A lower court concurred. Now, the Supreme Court is set to hear the case and could answer once and for all the question of the intent of the Second Amendment.
I served on a jury once where the question before us was to determine the intent of a man's will that was being contested. The man, obviously, was not there to ask, and so the lawyers for each side were tasked with bringing in enough witnesses and evidence to convince us of this fellow's state of mind and true intentions at the time he signed the will. It felt like an impossible task.
It seems the Supreme Court may be in a similar quandary.
James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and the rest are not here to tell us what they think. Learned men that they were, I suspect that if we could somehow bring them here in a time machine they could quickly tell us what they intended. And then, I'm sure they could survey the present situation and tell us how they would react now. That being a science-fiction dream, however, the justices will have to try to decide the meaning of the Second Amendment on their own.
The amendment 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.'
A little research on the topic reveals the magnitude of the task at hand. Debates have raged for decades over everything from the part about a militia - the cornerstone of the anti-gun folks' argument - to exactly what the phrase "the people" means. In fact, finding information about the Second Amendment that is presented in an unbiased way is difficult to say the least. And the sides that present arguments to the court will be the most biased of all.
So how to decide the fundamental question of what the Founding Fathers meant? How to decide men's thoughts when they are not there to answer the question?
According to the judge in the will case, you go by the law and precedent. In charging the jury, the judge told us that the state of Georgia rarely stepped in to overturn the intent of a legal will, that the law was very clear and he cited as an example the case of a man who lived in a hollow log in a swamp. That man's will was upheld, he said. To me, that made the task I previously thought impossible easy. The man signed the will, and the lawyer for his heir presented two witnesses who testified to the man's sanity at the time. Case closed, I thought.
But it wasn't to be. Our first vote in the jury room was split right down the middle. Six people heard the judge's order to decide based on the law. Six people felt sorry for the folks who were cut out of the will. Long story short: It took a while to convince the other six that they couldn't go by heart but had to go by the book.
I'm sure both sides in the gun case will pick and choose their favorite quotes from the founders and will cite previous rulings that back their points of view. In the end, the justices will have to decide for themselves.
But unlike the will case, this isn't just one man's intent with ramifications for only a handful of people. It's the intent of the men who created a nation and all the citizens will face the consequences.
With that in mind, I offer up my own carefully chosen quote from a Founding Father:
"Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote." - Benjamin Franklin
E-mail Nate McCullough at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears on Fridays.