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Ice cream, logic and the Second Amendment

On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Ice cream, logic and the Second Amendment

Stephen H. Provost

You’re hungry. You want to go out and buy a gallon of ice cream, despite the fact that you’re diabetic and doing so could kill you. But hey, we’ve all got to eat, right? Never mind the fact that you’re already at a healthy weight and in no danger of starving without that ice cream.

You’re thirsty. You decide to go to the bar and have a shot of tequila. Then a gin and tonic. And while you’re at it, you’d like a pitcher of beer to wash it all down. After a while, alcohol poisoning becomes a real possibility, but before you even get that far, the juice will begin to impair your judgment and lower your inhibitions. A one-night stand with the wrong person, a barroom brawl or, worse still, a fatal accident on the interstate could be just around the corner. But it’s all good because people have to drink, don’t they?

But do you have to drink alcohol? Sure, it’s liquid, but drinking too much of the stuff can actually leave you dehydrated.

Countless bad decisions have been justified by the phrase “I need that” —when the person doesn’t really need the thing at all. He or she may want it, to be sure, but as Mick said, “You can’t always get what you want.”

Unless, that is, you can convince other people you need it.

Ice cream and guns

Enter the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “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.”

To paraphrase: “We need a militia to keep us safe, therefore …”

I’ll put aside the difficulties of defining “the people” and “arms” for now, because I want to focus on the premise. The writers were clearly saying, “We need this, so we’re going to guarantee that.”

But here’s the rub: In an age of standing armies, we no longer need a militia.

When a premise is obsolete, any conclusion drawn from it must be questioned. You don’t need a gallon of ice cream if you’re in no imminent danger of starving —and even if you were, another food source would work just as well.

In the same way, you don’t need a militia in an age when you're protected by the world’s most sophisticated, heavily funded standing force. The premise no longer holds, so the conclusion collapses.

The demands of logic

The Supreme Court majority disagrees with me. Its argument, stated in District of Columbia, et. al. v. Dick Anthony Heller, is that “apart from that clarifying function, a prefatory clause does not limit or expand the scope of the operative clause.”

In other words, the premise doesn’t matter, because what follows could stand on its own.

To illustrate this, the court replaces the actual introduction with an unrelated premise — a non sequitur. The Second Amendment, it argues, would be nonsensical if it read, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to petition for redress of grievances shall not be infringed.”

The first part obviously has nothing to do with the second.

But this straw man argument utterly fails to address the question that remains: If the conclusion could stand alone, without the premise, why did the framers include that premise in the first place?

The court answers its own question in the Washington, D.C. opinion by stating that “logic demands that there be a link between the stated purpose and the command.”

Logic demands.

With these two words, the court has given the correct answer to the question of why the framers included the introductory clause: It is, in fact, the premise in a logical argument.

Having it both ways

As we’ve already seen, though, a conclusion is worthless if the premise invalid: Without the premise it becomes merely an assertion. As a conclusion, it collapses under its own weight.

We’ve also seen that, in an era of standing armies, the premise that a “well regulated Militia is necessary to the security of a free State” simply isn't accurate. It becomes just as nonsensical as the hypothetical non sequitur the court introduced concerning the petition of grievances.

The court simply cannot have it both ways. It cannot, on the one hand, assert that the conclusion stands on its own regardless of the premise while, at the same time, maintaining that both are components of a logical argument — thus making the premise necessary to support the conclusion.

The premise was valid when it was written. The disparate collection of rebels who formed our fledgling nation did, in fact, need militias to guarantee their security back in the 18th century. But that doesn’t mean we need them today. The premise is no longer valid and, therefore, neither is the conclusion.

To argue otherwise would be to state that the framers might as well have included that hypothetical premise about the redress of grievances. Or, for that matter, a belief in astrology. Or the quest to land on the moon. Or anything else you’d care to mention. The majority justices in this opinion are basically suggesting that the framers could have used anything to fill in the blank, as though they were playing a game of Mad Libs.

But they weren’t. They were making a logical argument — as the court itself affirms. The premise they included in the Second Amendmentwasn't some random statement without any bearing on the conclusion. It was, in fact something that the framers saw as a necessary component of a logical argument.

The fact that the reasoning is obsolete doesn't change that, no matter how much the court majority might wish it would.

Mental gymnastics

The majority is, in fact, is trying to perform an impossible task. On the one hand, it seeks to maintain the Constitution, and specifically the Second Amendment, as an essential component of the nation’s social contract — a necessary premise upon which our system of government rests. At the same time, however, it must deal with the fact that a premise within the amendment itself is no longer valid.

That’s quite a conundrum, and it helps explain why courts and the nation as a whole is so closely divided, philosophically speaking, on this issue. (They’re divided on a practical level as well, by competing agendas, but that’s another issue.)

We don’t like the idea of admitting that something in our founding documents is no longer relevant, because we’re afraid that in doing so, we might cast doubt on the rest of their contents. We therefore fall into the trap of defending the authority of the documents themselves, rather than affirming the principles upon which they rest: violating the spirit of the law in a vain attempt to preserve the sanctity of the letter; creating fallacious arguments to prop up outdated logic.

Where does that logic lead us?

Toward that tub of ice cream or that bottle of whiskey. To something we no longer need but still want. One could argue that we, as a nation, have the same attitude toward guns that the gluttonous man has toward his ice cream or the alcoholic has toward his Jack Daniels. In all three cases, we invoke a perceived need as an excuse to continue feeding an insatiable appetite that isn’t good for us.

We continue to defend outdated logic that we need guns for one purpose in order to preserve our right to wield them for other reasons entirely.

Burden of proof

I’ve been told that, in order to find a flaw in the Second Amendment, I’ll need to change the Constitution. But I disagree. The logical flaw is there, right in front of our noses, and our failure to acknowledge it won’t make it disappear.

There are other reasons to bear arms, but we can’t infer from the document as written that these are sufficient to secure a right to do so. And we can’t simply cast aside the premise of a logical argument that was an essential part of the document as written … unless, that is, we amend the amendment. The burden of doing so must be placed squarely on the shoulders of those who believe in the right they want to uphold: either by removing the archaic premise about militias entirely, or by replacing it with another premise altogether — such as a right to individual self-defense.

But it’s impossible, in my view, to deny that the amendment as written, is an invalid argument. And once we admit that, we must also acknowledge that such an argument is not fit to serve as a guiding principle for a great nation.

Guns are, most certainly dangerous. But it’s far more dangerous to engage in mental gymnastics to convince ourselves that something’s logical when it isn’t. Guns may kill the body, but logical fallacies destroy the mind.

This is what we’ve come to. The Supreme Court majority is flat wrong. Its reasoning simply backfired.