How Much More Can We Take?

How Much More Can We Take? May 24, 2023

One year ago, a gunman killed 19 children and 2 educators while 25 law enforcement officers stood on the margins of classrooms at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. In total, 2022 saw 646 mass shooting events in the US. Yesterday’s mass shootings in Texas and Indiana brought the number up to 241 already in the 141 days of this year (source: 

Meanwhile, the debates among politicians and gun rights advocates have contributed little to ensuring peace of mind when citizens walk into public spaces: shopping malls, grocery stores, concert venues, universities, and elementary schools. It is well (or is it) that rights of gun owners are protected, but how much more can we take? 

The epidemic of gun violence has made me wonder about the difference between our times and the times of the authors of the second amendment. Three things strike me when comparing the historical context of early America and that of ours today:
  1. The population of the US approached 4 million in 1788 at the time of the constitution’s ratification. Today, it is around 332 million.
  2. Today about 99.6 million US citizens (30% of the population) own guns. That is 25x more gun owners than the entire population of the US when the constitution was ratified.
  3. There are reportedly more than 400 million guns in the US today for an average of four guns per owner. Even if there were four guns per owner in 1788, we still have 25x more guns today than there might have been at the time of the second amendment ratification in 1791.

A Missiologist’s Interpretation of the Second Amendment

I am not a constitutional expert and I don’t have any legal training. However, I do live in America and have lived under the US Constitution for nearly 60 years. By education, I’m a missiologist with very little political interest. As a missiologist, I interpret: culture, trends, philosophy, Scripture. A key component of any interpretive action is what scholars call exegesis. Simply stated, exegesis analyzes and extracts the meaning of a text by understanding its contextual setting. It is an aspect of hermeneutics, the science of interpreting literature of any sort.

Hermeneutics, including exegesis, is applied to interpreting historical documents like the Bible or US Constitution. In essence, just as a missiologist or theologian interprets the Scripture so a constitutional attorney or federal court interprets the constitution. Similarly, just as there are many interpretations of the Bible often based on a particular tradition or bias, there are also many interpretations of the constitution also based on tradition and bias. Ultimately, it is the role of the Supreme Court to render an authoritative interpretation of the Constitution. Even then, such interpretations can eventually be overturned. In parallel to the history of Christianity, it was the Ecumenical Councils which rendered an authoritative interpretation of Scripture.

What has the Supreme Court to do with the Ecumenical Councils?

Even with the Supreme Court and the Ecumenical Councils, individuals with various degrees of expertise whether in Constitutional Law or Biblical Exegesis have offered their opinions of these respective documents. However, in the case of the Constitution, the authoritative interpretation, indifferent of whether all agree, remains with the Supreme Court, whether or not it renders a unanimous decision. In regards to Biblical Exegesis, the outcome of sundry interpretations has resulted in several thousand different denominations and these denominations act as the authority to their particular understanding of the Bible.

Such varied interpretations of historical documents whether by denominations or constitutional attorneys, results in the fracturing of an institution. The fracturing of an institution directly corresponds to the differences of understandings of the institution’s primary documents. Perhaps like no other time in US history except during the Civil War, this nation’s fracturing runs along idealogical lines that interpret the Constitution differently.

So, I wondered, what would it look like for me to apply my exegetical expertise to interpreting the second amendment? All the mass shootings makes me feel like we might be where we are today because we have strayed from the original intent of the second amendment.

Interpretative Method

As an axiom, a document cannot mean to me what it did not first mean to the original audience. That stated, it does not mean that I cannot apply certain principles from the document for today. Indeed, interpretation strives to achieve this goal. Yet, interpretation presents challenges. Determining the cultural conditioning of a principle presents one such challenge for interpretation.

Further challenges arise due to a particular view of the document. Is the document considered a living document or is it inherently authoritative? Just the ideas of “living document” and “inherently authoritative” themselves present complex hermeneutical issues. Even so, as I approach a document I apply the an interpretative process something like the following:

  1. Examine the historical context of the document.
  2. Define the meaning of words and phrases, as well as grammatical constructions, in their historical context.
  3. Ascertain the intent of the author(s). Why did the authors write the document?
  4. Determine the audience and its Sitz Im Leben.
  5. Tentatively suggest the historical interpretation of the document. Here, you arrive at the intended meaning for the original audience.
  6. Examine early interpretations of the document. How did those closest to the time period understand what was written?
  7. Examine current interpretations of the document. How do experts interpret the document today?
  8. Arrive at a plausible interpretation of the document. What does the document mean today?
  9. Recommend an application of the interpretation to the contemporary context. How can the document be applied to our current time period?

Stay tuned as I work out this method of interpretation for the second amendment …


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