Last Saturday, I exercised my constitutional rights and joined hundreds of others in Portsmouth to call for greater gun safety laws. I stood riveted, listening to a first grade teacher from Rockingham County describe the fear and tears from her little 7-year-old students when they hid during “active shooter” drills. As a mom, a military spouse and a former teacher, I want these children to be safe.
While I peacefully expressed my concerns in New Hampshire, I remembered that wholesome feeling I used to have in Washington, D.C., when I worked on Capitol Hill — a pride and respect for our most complicated and difficult form of government.
Exercising my rights and responsibilities keeps the Constitution alive and healthy.
Most Americans take our democracy, our representative government, for granted. We complain about it, dismiss it. Some see it as a swamp.
In our last election here in Salem, fewer than 10 percent even voted. We assume our government is a sturdy structure, but do we understand how our Constitution protects us and why we need to participate?
What did the founders of our country fear when they set up this very unusual experiment in self rule? Tyranny.
At heart, the founders wanted to protect against the “strongman” model of oppressive government that might provide order but could deny rights. So they created a mishmash design that made government hard because it dispersed power, encouraged compromise and promoted civic virtue. It grounded action in “the people”.
In this regard, our system is unique in the world.
I have lived in two countries with the strong-man model, and it went against everything in my fiber. But it also made me appreciate just how fragile liberty is.
As school children, we memorized “checks and balances,” but do we understand its rare significance?
We “check” power and “balance” power so that it cannot be concentrated.
Our founders designed a system that divided authority between towns, states and the national government. At both the national and state level, we have complicated legislative bodies, independent judicial institutions, balanced with executive leadership.
My reverence for this mishmash of a government was reinforced years ago by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Each year he would address my students from the National War College. He would challenge these senior military and diplomatic officers about the law and especially the Bill of Rights.
With his booming voice and passionate conviction, Scalia asked the students what protected these rights? Many nations have elaborate declarations of rights, how are they enforced?
“What protects our rights?” he would thunder.
Each year his response was the same — the Constitution.
That mishmash of checks and balances, of federalism and local control, staggered elections, all create a system where the national interest and the protection of rights are ensured within the mechanisms of our democracy, the architecture of our government.
The next time you hear someone assert they must have guns to defend themselves against government, that the Second Amendment “protects” all our other rights, hand out the Constitution, talk about civics, read our history.
By wrapping ourselves in the the Constitution, we can address these alarms, work together on gun safety, and eventually calm the fears of those little 7-year-olds in Rockingham County.
Janet Breslin Smith was chairwoman of the Department of National Security Strategy at the National War College in Washington, D.C. She also worked in the U.S. Senate for 17 years. She lives in Salem, N.H.