Opinion » John Rember

Puppies and Guns

Parsing the Second Amendment


The big news around our house is the new puppy. Her name is Juno. She's a mix of Australian shepherd and blue heeler. She's part of a rescued litter, which means she wouldn't be here but for the kindness and salvation of a young woman who bottle-fed her and her litter-mates for the first six weeks of their lives.

Juno already knows two words: "Juno" and "Come," although she only knows the latter when you've got a bit of fried chicken skin in your hand. We're hoping in time she'll understand full sentences. "Don't bite," and "Please poop outside," are two we're working on.

Of course, we want her to follow the examples of her new parents and learn to read, write and act in dramatic productions. Thus far, she's chewed the covers off the books and plays we've given her. "It's only a phase," I say. "All English majors go through it."

What? Of course she's going to be an English major. I want her to use words correctly. I don't want her to be wordy, or vague, or to get in stupid arguments with cocker spaniels or pit bulls about the meaning of the Second Amendment.

Which brings me to an overwhelming question: Why is it that presidents persist in appointing lawyers to the Supreme Court instead of writing professors? Lately we've been subjected to Justice Scalia's tantrums about the court's decisions on Obamacare and same-sex marriages. Scalia has attacked his colleagues' use of language, although they were clever enough to use previous Scalia opinions to buttress their own. In unkind moments, I think that Scalia has spent most of his life thinking he's the smartest guy in the room, and when confronted with evidence to the contrary, he starts snarling and foaming at the mouth.

Anyway, he's claiming that language has lost its ability to define reality through what he calls "jiggery-pokery," which is his phrase for good old sophistry, the ability to make words mean anything you want them to mean. Whenever a lawyer goes out on that particular limb, border collies and other connoisseurs of irony prick up their ears and start howling.

As a lover of language, I like the sound of "jiggery-pokery," but if a student used it in a story or essay, I'd make him stop. It's an archaic Scottish phrase for prevarication. When Richard Nixon said, "I am not a crook," or when Bill Clinton said, "It depends on what the meaning of is is," or when Idaho Sen. Larry Craig said, "I have a wide stance," you could call it jiggery-pokery. But even a golden retriever would recognize all these as flat-out lies, a term which is more precise and one that lacks the perverse shepherding connotations to which archaic Scottish is prone.

I'll get around to the Second Amendment, but first let's look at Scalia's description of his colleagues' language as "applesauce." He doesn't mean pureed apples. He means something a lot like puppy poop, especially if the puppy has been eating too many fried chicken-skin treats. He's being rude, and is sullying the dignity of his office. He avoids the phrase "puppy poop," however, because his is a dissembling rudeness, one he can deny if confronted about it.

As a writing professor and new puppy parent, I can say that many of the objections to Obamacare—including Scalia's—really are the verbal equivalent of puppy poop, and that the organizations generating them need to clean up after their dogs and maybe avoid walking on other people's clean carpets. Of course, much of Obamacare is puppy poop also, seeing as it's the desperate resuscitation of a dying and corrupt health care system that will bankrupt this country unless it is mercifully euthanized.

So: The Second Amendment states, "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." It's a sentence with an independent clause, which is "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." The militia clause is subordinate, and only one of many that could support the independent clause. "Arms being necessary for self defense," or "In order to prevent the formation of a police state," or "Equality before the law being an iffy proposition," are all subordinate clauses that could have begun the Second Amendment without altering the meaning of "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."

The Supreme Court in 1939 was wrong to interpret the militia clause as having any bearing on the types of arms people could have. If you want to change America's relationship with firearms you have to change the independent clause in the Second Amendment.

That's my opinion as a writing professor and grammarian, and I'm sticking to it. It doesn't matter that the public stands in relation to guns as it stood in relation to tuberculosis before antibiotics. It doesn't matter that opposition to insuring poor people in this country stems in part from their disproportionate number of catastrophic gun injuries. It doesn't matter that gun narratives are not narratives of kindness and salvation. It doesn't matter that there's a lot of puppy poop around these issues, some of it quite literal, and I'm spending time, these beautiful summer mornings, trying to clean it up.