As the discussion of gun control continues to heat up, U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais witnessed first hand Friday how the issue has thrust opposing viewpoints of constitutional interpretation into the forefront of political discourse.
Amid a tense debate that erupted between two women after an event he hosted at City Café in Murfreesboro last week, the political divide became clear: Much of their argument premised on drastically different beliefs about how the U.S. Constitution, as well as the Bill of Rights, should be interpreted.
“If it were not for the Constitution, we would not be free,” said Murfreesboro resident Florence Tolbert, who said she opposes many of the gun control measures proposed by President Barack Obama and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California who is pushing for the ban of more than 150 types of weapons.
“We should not make laws based on emotion,” Tolbert said. “What does the Constitution say?”
In response, Bell Buckle resident Rebekah Majors-Manley contended Congress should not take a literal approach to interpreting the Constitution because the Founding Fathers wrote it more than 200 years ago, long before mass shootings became a public policy issue.
“So, the Constitution that was written a long time ago, did they know we were going to have magazines and our kids going to school were going to be killed and shot,” said Majors-Manley, a volunteer with the Tennessee chapter of Organize for America, which helped campaign for Obama during the last election.
“Do you want to open the paper and read that kids in Rutherford County were shot by a mentally ill person in school,” Majors-Manley said to Tolbert. “Do you want me to invite you to the funeral of the next kid killed at school? No, you do not.”
Tolbert defended her position by saying she did not imply any such thing.
“We have to follow the Constitution,” she said, adding the Second Amendment specifically states that those rights shall not be infringed by the federal government.
When pressed further about the issue, Majors-Manley said she believes public safety overrides many of the concerns expressed by voters like Tolbert.
“I do not care about the Constitution,” Majors-Manley said. “I care about protecting our children. … This is about making sure our right not to get shot is protected. Why must we live in fear because everyone wants to be armed with weapons (that are designed) for war?”
The views expressed by Tolbert and Majors-Manley, who said she supports the idea that the Constitution is a living document, highlight a fundamental divide that many scholars believe has shaped American politics for centuries.
“A literal interpretation might focus on the meaning of the words at the time they were written, or they might focus on the perceived intent of those who proposed and ratified them,” said John Vile, dean of the University Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University, who is a historian and political science scholar.
Even so, it depends on the context of the situation and person. Usually, however, liberal-leaning voters are more likely to support an expansive interpretation of the Constitution, he said.
“It is important to realize that the Constitution does not specify whether it should be interpreted strictly or liberally,” Vile said, adding Chief Justice John Marshall, who served on the U.S. Supreme Court during the early 1800s, once observed that it is more important for Americans to try to understand the Constitution in its plain sense.
And the Republican and Democratic parties have used both interpretations throughout the years for political reasons, he added.
Moreover, Vile said, those who helped write and ratify the Constitution quickly split into rival parties with very different views of how it should be interpreted.
“Motivations vary,” Vile said. “I suspect that many people simply assume the Constitution must say what they hope it says or what they think it says without doing a lot of scholarly research. For what it is worth, even scholars are divided on the subject.”
Although much of the time was spent corralling other attendees who were also just as divided on the matter, DesJarlais was able to discuss his position on the gun control issue during the event, dubbed “Coffee with the Congressman.”
“I am committed to protecting Second Amendment rights,” said DesJarlais, a Republican who was recently re-elected to his second term in the House of Representatives. “Emotions do bring bad laws, and this is a unique right that Americans have cherished for a very long time.”
Murfreesboro resident Sara Mitchell, however, said DesJarlais should be willing to consider some regulations on military style weapons because “civilians do not need those” for everyday purposes.
“If the government can establish some limits, then that is something that should be looked at,” said Mitchell, who served in the U.S. Army.
“As I have traveled across the 4th Congressional District,” DesJarlais said to Mitchell, “I have heard the opposite from other constituents … you are in the minority right now. The majority wants their Second Amendment rights protected, and I intend to respect their wishes.”