The untouchables

Are non-elected officials deciding our fate? At the local government level the answer is no, they serve at the pleasure of our elected officials who can remove them at any time and who must approve any actions decided by them. These non-elected officials are citizen volunteers who man (or woman) the many committees in our town, like the Comprehensive Planning Committee (CPC), Zoning Board, Planning Board, Tourism, Economic Development, TV23, Library Board, etc. Most serve for free (a few are paid a nominal amount) and by serving accomplish many things for the town that would otherwise require paid employees to do. They serve a very valuable purpose.

These volunteers understand the joy of giving back to our community. Many in our town who complain could learn from them and volunteer.

There is, however, one unelected body at the national level deciding our fate: the United States Supreme Court. The justices are appointed for life and their actions do not need to be approved by an elected body. The only way to remove them is by impeachment. In the entire history of the United States, only one Supreme Court judge was ever impeached (Samuel Chase in 1805) and he was acquitted by the Senate.


The only way to override a U.S. Supreme Court decision is through a constitutional amendment, which is difficult.

One concern about the U.S. Supreme Court is the appointment of activist judges — judges who appear to be making law vs. interpreting it. Both sides of the political aisle have complained of this and both have benefited from it. An example of this legal activism is the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2008 interpretation of the Second Amendment.

The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is only 27 words: “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.” Historically, the Courts have focused on “well regulated militia” and “security of a free State” to rule that the Second Amendment rights are reserved to states and their militias, today called the National Guard. The National Rifle Association (NRA) has focused on the last 14 words.

For over 200 years federal judges uniformly understood that the amendment applied to keeping and bearing arms for military purposes and it did not impose any limit on the power of the states to regulate the ownership of firearms. In other words, federal firearm legislation was limited; states and some municipalities regulate gun use with their own laws.

In 1939, with the Supreme Court’s unanimous Miller decision, all federal appeals courts have agreed that the Second Amendment does not confer gun rights on individuals. It held that Congress could prohibit the possession of sawed-off shotguns, because the weapon had no reasonable use in a “well regulated Militia.”

The NRA mounted a vigorous campaign to expand gun rights, claiming federal regulation of the use of firearms severely curtailed Second Amendment rights. Retired Chief Justice Warren Burger remarked in 1991 that the Second Amendment “has been the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word fraud, on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.” He was referring to the NRA.

In 2008 the U.S. Supreme Court considered the Second Amendment again, when in District of Columbia v. Heller it overturned more than 60 years of precedent and gave individuals the right to possess firearms for traditionally lawful purposes such as self-defense. It also ruled that the District of Columbia’s ban on handguns and requiring firearms in the home to be disassembled or trigger-locked were also violations. Big business won. (Note: while the NRA says it represents gun owners, the majority of its money comes from gun retailers and manufacturers through programs like its “Million Gun Challenge.”)

There were over 31,000 deaths by firearms in 2010; over 19,000 of these were suicides, and over 11,000 were homicides of which 617 were determined to be “justifiable.” So much for owning guns for “self-defense.”

This wasn’t a law passed by Congress and signed by the President; this was a legal precedent created by a non-elected body, the U.S. Supreme Court. Whether you agree with the interpretation of the law or not, it was not decided by the people. And when polls show that the majority of Americans want at a bare minimum background checks on people buying guns, the Supreme Court doesn’t have to listen. They are in for life.

So, what can we do?

We can demand a change to the Second Amendment. Chief Justice John Paul Stevens has called for five extra words to be added to the Second Amendment that would fix it: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed.”

We can demand that Congress provide funding for firearms-related research to study the impact of gun ownership, especially in studying gun-related injuries and deaths as a public health phenomenon. The NRA lobbied to cut all funding for this and won.

All of this requires writing to our congressman and being vocal about what we want. Our U.S. senators are: Chuck Schumer ( ) and Kirstin Gillibrand ( ). Our House representative is:

Chris Gibson ( ).

If we don’t speak, we can’t be heard.