“The Law’s Intent.”

Thomas Sowell, in his various writings, is big on looking at things in terms of the Incentives and Constraints they create rather than their stated hoped for consequences.  This gives you a far better insight into what the actual results are likely to be.

Now, even before I’d ever heard of Thomas Sowell (or Milton Friedman, to name another of my favorite economists) I was wont to say, when someone was talking about what a new law would do, “Don’t tell me the intent.  Tell me what it actually says.  It’s what it says that will be enforced, not whatever its intent might be.”

Case in point, a law in Indiana provided certain exceptions to the gun-free school zone law (state level law which paralleled the Federal law, which itself has certain exceptions).  One of those exceptions was when operating a motor vehicle while delivering children to school or picking them up.  The intent of this law was clearly to allow parents taking their children to school or picking them up afterward to be able to do so even when armed.  However, that wording “operating a motor vehicle” produced an unintended consequence.  If the parent stepped out of the car to help a child with a car seat, or to get supplies out of the trunk, or for any reason whatsoever, they would no longer be “operating” the motor vehicle and would be in violation.  Similarly, if a parent who is normally armed is called to the school to pick up a sick child said parent would either have to park off school property (leaving their weapon in the car) or disarm before coming on school property causing a delay in being able to get their child.  Failure to do any of that was a Class D Felony. (And “Felony” means no more guns ever.)  In at least one case the court noted that the law was clearly intended to cover such circumstances but they had to rule not on what lawmakers intended but on what the law actually said.

And, to be honest, as much as I dislike the results, I have to agree with the court.  The court’s job is to follow the law and the Constitution (ruling the restriction unconstitutional in the first place would, perhaps, have been better but that wasn’t going to happen), and dealing with the actual law on the books is better in general–even if I don’t like the specific application–than usurping lawmaking power to the judicial.

Fortunately, in 2014 the issue was at least partially resolved by a law that allowed individuals to keep their guns in parked cars provided the car is locked and they are out of sight. (Signed by then Governor Mike Pence to the bleating of the anti-gun folk who predicted school shootings as a result–which, of course, have never materialized.  Their dire prediction never do.)

So it’s what the law says, not the supposed intent, that one has to look at.  But there’s a caveat:  words have meanings, and the relevant meaning is that understood by the people who wrote the law.  You do not get to come along and say that “The meaning has changed” and apply new meaning to old law,” particularly the most fundamental of laws in the US:  The United States Constitution.

And to this end, helping to understand what the words of the Constitution and other laws long on the books actually mean, looking into the intent is helpful.  Intent, in this case doesn’t supersede or replace the wording of the law.  The law says what the law says.  But looking at what people have written about the intent can help one to understand what the words meant to the people who wrote it, particularly when language has changed.

The law, and the Constitution, says what it says.  No, it is not a “living document” (“I am altering the deal…”) except in that it allows for alteration through the amendment process (want to change it?  Get 2/3 of the House and 2/3 of the Senate, or a Convention called by 2/3 of the State Legislatures to propose an Amendment and then get 3/4 of the State Legislatures to ratify said Amendment).

What do the words say?  What do the words mean?  What did they mean to the people who wrote them?

These are what determine what the law is, no more, and no less.

2 thoughts on ““The Law’s Intent.””

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