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Terry Newell Headshot

The Forgotten Preamble

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Both individuals and institutions have become sophisticated in using the U.S. Constitution to support policies they favor - and fight against those they do not. Whether arguing about the meaning of the Second Amendment as it relates to bearing arms or the First Amendment as it relates to free speech or the press, for example, ordinary citizens as well as Constitutional scholars play the "Constitution game." They cite Article and Section, giving these references the meaning that best buttresses their argument.

Mostly missing from such dialogue and debate, however, is attention to the Constitution's Preamble. Dashed off by the "Committee on Stile and Arrangement" in the final days of the Federal Convention in September 1787, the Preamble was meant and is today seen as an introduction which summarizes the hopes of the Framers. If the rest of the Constitution sets forth the operational rules for the national government, the Preamble sets out the vision- the purpose of the game.

The Preamble grants no specific rights to citizens nor powers to the government (Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 1905). That may explain why it has receded from the front lines of Constitutional argument. But that does not render it meaningless. The promise that it will "secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity" was claimed by no less than Alexander Hamilton (Federalist #84) to be "a better recognition of popular rights than volumes of those aphorisms which make the principal figure in several of our state bills of rights."

One of the Preamble's promises, to "insure domestic tranquility," was crafted as a warning and protection against armed popular unrest which threatens individual liberty. In the year proceeding the Federal Convention, Shays Rebellion of farmers in western Massachusetts directly challenged the authority of the then-national government under the Articles of Confederation. The Framers were intent on averting such uprisings. Within the borders of the United States, violence against legitimate authority, was seen as a danger worthy of considerable concern.

In his pardon of Richard Nixon in 1974, President Gerald Ford justified his action in part because of his responsibility "not merely to proclaim domestic tranquility but to use every means that I have to insure it." Ford was worried about the national mood in the wake of Watergate, Vietnam protests, and rampant inflation due to the first Arab oil embargo. His concern was probably justified, at least in part because within a year there were two attempts on his own life.

It seems worth revisiting this phrase of the Preamble now. While there have been no popular armed uprisings against the government, "domestic tranquility" seems under threat, given statistics such as the following:

• Since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012, there have been 74 school shootings across 31 states.
• In 2010, 15,576 children were injured by firearms, more than three times as many as the number of soldiers injured in Afghanistan.
• In 2003, of all firearm deaths in 23 developed nations (including Canada, Germany, the UK, Japan, France and Italy), 80 percent took place in the United States (though our population accounted for only about a third of the combined population of these 23 nations). Eighty-seven percent of all children 14 and under who were killed by firearms were in these countries lived in the U.S.
• In 2008-2009, more preschool-age children (173) were killed by guns than law enforcement personnel (89).
• African-American children - living mostly in inner cities where "domestic tranquility" has not existed for decades - accounted for 45 percent of all gun deaths in their age group in 2008-2009 yet were only 15 percent of the U.S. population in that age group.

Such a situation calls for restoring domestic tranquility in the minds and hearts of children and their parents. Sending children to school or outside to play should not mean sending them into a danger zone. At the same time, such a situation for balance and restraint. On the side of balance, we must recognize that gun violence has many causes, and a solution will involve measures as far ranging as better law enforcement and school safety, improved mental health services, firearms education, building more safety into the design of guns, and better gun background checks. Balance also means avoiding the twin extremes of overly restricting the Constitutional right to bear arms and claiming that every proposal to do so puts us on the slippery slope to government confiscation of all guns. The Second Amendment must no longer be used as a tripwire that sacrifices domestic tranquility for the unfettered liberty of owning guns.

Restraint means that, as a society, we need to examine and find ways to diminish the allure of violence (and not only gun violence) in everything from broadcast/cable programming to video games to movies and music. Restraint also means that we need to tone down the social and political rhetoric that currently infuses too many people with the feeling of righteous indignation that is but one step removed from taking matters into their own hands through violence.

The situation also calls for passionate intensity. We need to accept that schools and inner city neighborhoods are indeed "government" and that attacks on them are indeed attacks on "domestic tranquility." Failing to address this problem is a failure of political and moral courage. Until we get as outraged at the loss of childhood innocence and children's lives as we get at the prospect of having reasonable safeguards in our society against the danger of attacks on them, we are sending a message to the next generation that we will not protect them.

We can stand behind any provision of the Constitution and use it to argue against change, but in doing so we become a nation that adheres to the letter of that document while violating its spirit. The Constitution was meant as more than a mechanism for governing. If we fail to ensure domestic tranquility, we will have a government that has laws but, in the eyes of many, lacks legitimacy.