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Debating the Constitution in Newtown

Street artist Mark Panzarino, 41, prepares a memorial as he writes the names of the Sandy Hook Elementary School victims during the six-mont
Street artist Mark Panzarino, 41, prepares a memorial as he writes the names of the Sandy Hook Elementary School victims during the six-mont

By Rob Cox

The first sign of their presence was the smell of cigarette smoke. There were about a dozen of them, dressed in black T-shirts with yellow lettering reading "Save Our Constitution." They were holding flags — mostly Stars and Stripes, but also some Gadsden standards with coiled rattlesnakes, "Don't Tread on Me" emblazoned in black.

Mixed between the high school marching band, the children and the ponies, these were the Oath Keepers. They had come to Newtown, Connecticut to march in the first Labor Day parade held since 20 children and six educators were massacred with a tactical assault weapon in their classrooms. Like the armed attention-seekers who descended on the local Starbucks a few weeks back, the Oath Keepers wanted to make their presence known.

It's hard to judge whether they were successful in their quest. After they'd extinguished their smokes and got marching, I lost sight of them. They were well ahead of the Avielle Foundation, the non-profit founded by the scientist parents of Avielle Richman, who was murdered at Sandy Hook, that I was supporting.

But I suspect they did little to further their cause, whatever it might be. I walked down Main Street, as I had done many times as a child, with my hockey or Pop Warner teams. This was my first parade as an adult. I marched alongside parents whose children perished last December. Lining the curb I saw faces wracked with empathetic grief, tears streaming down cheeks.

Past the Honan Funeral Home, which processed many of our neighbors eight months ago; the Edmond Town Hall and to the flagpole. There, an announcement was made for Avielle and her brave parents, who have decided to honor their daughter's life by deepening society's understanding of the human brain, and how its failings could compel a young man — in our town last year, but maybe yours tomorrow — to commit acts of unspeakable violence.

Avielle's father, Jeremy, supported by so many friends, held aloft a banner reading "You Can Imagine" — an exhortation to go to that dark place, to consider the possibility that what happened in this idyllic New England town could just as easily happen in any village in this country. Every few hundred yards, Jeremy and the other standard-bearers would complete a full circle, ensuring that parade viewers from every angle would receive the message loud and clear.

On past the police station, from which first responders took just three minutes on the morning of December 14 to travel to Sandy Hook School — not enough time to stop a shooter with a military style weapon and high-capacity magazines. Underneath an expansive American flag held aloft by a cherry picker, the group proceeded up Glover Avenue, in front of the middle school and finally to the judging booth. There the route ended.

And that's when we caught up with the Oath Keepers. They had encircled Senator John McKinney, the state Republican minority leader whose constituency includes Newtown. They were accusing him of selling out their freedoms when he supported a bipartisan bill to tighten up firearms regulation in Connecticut.

"All of the amendments of the Constitution are sacred," one Oath Keeper berated McKinney, "not just the first, but the second and third." The Senator, who on multiple occasions allowed the Sandy Hook families to occupy his office — giving them a safe sanctuary during fraught legislative debates over gun safety, the release of horrifying photos of their loved ones and mental health bills — kept his cool.

"We will just have to disagree," said McKinney, who by now was flanked by Mark Barden. He is the father of Daniel, the little boy killed at Sandy Hook, whose picture you've probably seen dozens of times: Freckles, a wide gap between his teeth, maybe hugging his bus driver, or his big brother or sister, on day one of first grade a year ago. Barden had come to thank the senator for all he'd done to support Newtown.

Trying to defuse the intensity of the exchange, McKinney, who had just marched alongside Dan Malloy, the Democratic governor whose job he hopes to snatch in 2014, asked the Oath Keepers to remember that they were in Newtown. The implication being they should show respect.

"I thought this was America," the woman retorted. With that, McKinney slipped away.

Once McKinney left, I turned to the woman and asked her what it was she liked about the third amendment. She said she did not have a copy of the Constitution in her head. Doesn't matter, anyway, they are all sacred. I still wanted to know, why did she feel that the leader of our state's Republican party, a man who could be governor, was failing in his duties to uphold this particular amendment?

She threw it back at me: "Do you know what the third amendment says?" I'm no constitutional historian, but it just so happens that two weeks before, a friend — trying to make a point about the historical context in which the second amendment, too, had been drafted — told me to look it up. I paraphrased: it's the one that says the army can't quarter soldiers in your home without your consent. Well, she said, that's why we need to defend the Constitution.

It's hard to disagree that the Constitution needs defendants. That's why we have the Supreme Court, after all. What's shameful is how many of the document's most public and vocal — not to mention self-selected — guardians can be so ill-informed. It's also surprising: the Oath Keeper website, with its vow to "never disarm," also sells pocket Constitutions — a five-pack for just $8.

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