Reply to -- Letters to the Spectacle

By Bruce A. Clark (Written 6/29/96)

When the founders wrote the Second Amendment into the Bill of Rights, they had very specific experiences which made them do it, and a long tradition of the right of individuals to bear arms to look back on when they did it. Having had to make a revolution against a colonial government, and having seen autocratic governments in the world, they thought it was a good idea. How many times since then have people had to use arms to overthrow tyrannical governments? How many revolutions have there been? Lots. And in how many other cases might some dictatorship been avoided had there been an armed citizenry, willing to use its arms? Nazi Germany comes to mind.

But it could even happen here, and, indeed, it has, although not on a large, national, revolutionary scale. From the late 1930s into the middle of the 1940s, the residents of McMinn County, Tennessee, had been in the grip of a corrupt government, and ruled by an authoritarian sheriff. When the county's 3000 GIs returned from WWII and saw the situation, they weren't inclined to lie back and continue to take it, so they ran an all-GI, non-partisan slate to unseat the local government.

At the end of July, 1946, they petitioned the FBI to send election monitors. Their request was ignored, just as had been complaints of election fraud in 1940, '42 and '44. On election day, August 1, Sheriff Mansfield brought in 200 armed deputies, to intimidate the voters, and GI poll watchers were beaten. Tom Gillespie, a Black man was told that afternoon by a deputy that he could not vote, but he persisted, even after being beaten. Finally, he was shot (not fatally). Other deputies detained GI-ticket poll watchers, and a crowd gathered, after hearing about the shooting. The Sheriff took the ballot box to the jail in Athens for counting, while the deputies held back the crowd with threats that they would shoot people.

The GIs wanted to arm themselves to defend their election, but there was a shortage of guns in the county, so some of them "borrowed" the keys to the National Guard armory and got out about 27 rifles and 3 pistols. (At the end of the War, the armories were nearly empty.) They took up a commanding position overlooking the jail, because they wanted to get back the ballot boxes. Some GIs who were warning bystanders were fired upon by the deputies, two of them being wounded. Fire was returned by the GIs for about one half hour. A few people were injured in front of the jail, and one person inside was seriously injured, but not fatally.

The deputies waited inside the jail to be rescued. The Governor called up the State Guard, but troops were never sent to Athens, perhaps because the Governor felt that the troops would not fire on the GIs.

At about 2 a.m., the GIs escalated the situation by throwing dynamite near the jail, damaging the porch. After that, the deputies surrendered, and the GIs secured the jail. The guns were cleaned and returned to the armory before sunup, and the deputies were released after calm returned, and it was safe for them to leave.

After a fraud-free election, the GI candidates won by a substantial margin. The government process was changed and a new police force was established, the previous one having fled, and the aftermath, in the longer term, was quite good. Lawful government was restored.

You can read more about this in:

How many more times have things like this happened that we do not know about? Is this inconsequential, because it wasn't a full-blown revolution? Not to the people of McMinn County.

There are also kinds of self defense that are not just individuals protecting themselves from criminals and people defending themselves from government, and these other kinds of things need to be considered, too. Illustrative of this is the way Afro-Americans in Monroe, North Carolina, in 1957, defended themselves with arms from the night-time attacks of the KKK. The local chapter of the NAACP affiliated itself with the NRA and received firearms training from the NRA. Then they proceeded to stop these attacks from occurring. And Monroe is not the only place where such things took place.

These examples show, on a small scale, exactly why the Second Amendment was written, so that people can protect themselves, both from criminals and other predators, as well as from their own government. Should these people not have the right to take such actions against their governments, after repeated attempts to solve the problem through normal channels have failed? Should people be sentenced to live under corrupt, undemocratic regimes forever, the way people are effectively barred from protecting themselves from criminals in many areas of this country? And if they have this right, mustn't they also have the means to act on this right, to have the arms required?

Those who doubt the tradition of these fundamental rights would do well to read Joyce Lee Malcolm's book "To Keep and Bear Arms, The Origins of An Anglo-American Right", Harvard University Press, 1994.

If government is like this, it sounds like plenty reason enough for people to want to be well-armed to protect themselves from it. We've all seen the way various government agencies have treated people so monstrously, and in my response to Mr. Wallace's article "Defending NRA Rhetoric", I indicated other abuses of the BATF that show, in my opinion, anyway, that the murderous Weaver and Branch Davidian affairs were more the rule than the exception. All of those incidents indicate even more strongly that the Second Amendment truly belongs in the Bill of Rights. Such a dark view!! Someone should take this person target shooting to get his mind off things. Tell me, please, what did the Oklahoma City bombing have to do with gun control? Many, especially in the media, have tried to make connections with the purpose of dragging down the NRA, but, in fact, there is no connection whatever. Some even carried it to the extent of accusing the NRA of insensitivity for holding its convention around the time of the bombing, paying no mind to the obvious fact that such large gatherings must be planned years in advance. Please allow me to refresh your memory with these words from the Declaration of Independence:

Your "fact" about the typical victim is quite ridiculous. It is not the typical case at all, although it might be the typical case that gets big headlines in the press, because of its political agenda. Amid all of the crimes of violence in NYC, and elsewhere, such incidents, as terrible as they are, make up only a tiny part of reported crimes. Further, the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics writes, in the summary of the National Crime Victimization Survey, "Criminal Victimization 1994", that "Overall, 42% of the violent crimes committed in 1994 were reported to police". In other words, 58% of violent crimes aren't reported to the police, but you can bet all of the ones like you mentioned are reported. Americans age 12 and over experienced some 10.9 million violent crimes during 1994. If the "typical" victim is "a child shot in the back by young men firing wildly at each other half a block away in a public housing project," I think we would have noticed a much more substantial decline in the population of children than we have heard about, don't you think? Have you ever heard the expression "closing the barn door after the horse has gone?" Thinking of arming the population to address just such an incident is missing the point. The fact that such incidents are taking place is a sign that people should have taken some action for their protection much earlier. Consider the Boy Scout motto "Be Prepared"; consider the expression "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." If the community were taking action in its own defense (not just getting guns, but the whole gamut of community organization and other crime control procedures) instead of cowering in their apartments, the situation would not likely have gotten to its present state. Unfortunately, too many governments have done their best to make it impossible for tenants in public housing projects, those most vulnerable people, to defend themselves. Fortunately, the Supreme Court ruled last year that such a law (in Maine) was unconstitutional. Although I can't prove with any authority that there is a direct connection, it is a fact that the states that permit people to carry concealed weapons have lower violent crime rates than the states that do not. One couldn't ask for a better representation of what is wrong with the public debate over gun control: no facts, trying to link the NRA to the terrorists who bombed the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, calling the organization 'treasonous', accusing it of supporting 'guns for tots', and taking pleasure in saying all of this. It shows that, for many, it has gone way beyond mere opinion

and has become something else

While tempers have flared from time to time on both sides, the use of speech like the above, the misuse of political office to propagandize, and the abandonment of any sense of objectivity by most of the mainstream media on the issue has been the overriding characteristic of those favoring gun control. By association, it taints those honest folk who just have a point of view and don't want to participate in all of the dishonesty. Would that they would speak out for an open, honest, factual debate. I will begin my answer with a question, or rather, several. Is there no compromise between the desire of some to have full freedom of speech and those who want it limited to what they do not find offensive? Is there no compromise between those who want every woman to have the ability to decide whether or not to have an abortion and those who find abortion offensive at all times and places and want it banned? Is there no compromise between those who want to protect the rights of the innocent against illegal search and seizure and those who want to expedite the tasks of the police to find and convict criminals?

No!! There is no compromise on such matters. One does not fight for compromise. One fights for what one believes in, especially when it involves fundamental liberties that can be lost forever if neglected. Sometimes one must suffer compromise, and accept, for the time being, less than is desirable, but compromise on such matters is never the goal.

Oh, you favor the death penalty. I don't. We should talk about this sometime. But this is already against the law. Calling for more laws, when the ones we have that are appropriate are not being enforced, is pointless, and avoids the question of responsibility. If the person is responsible for the crime, and possession of guns by criminals or for criminal purposes is illegal, then calling for gun control laws is implicitly placing the responsibility on the weapon, not on the person.

Your statements on the issue of blaming the weapon are highly mixed. In "The Voices of Semiautomatics" you say "the Constitution clearly allows us to draw the line, somewhere between a handgun and a SAM, and there is no other use for a semiautomatic weapon than mass murder." In "A letter to Mr. Gingrich" you say "Assault weapons are semiautomatic weapons which can fire a lot of bullets in a short period of time through repetitive squeezing of the trigger. They are not accurate weapons for hunting or target shooting. They have one reason for existence: to take down as many people as possible in a short period of time." In "You Know Nothing About Guns" you say "So some guns are more dangerous than others." And the theme continues elsewhere: The guns are what are dangerous and cause injury and death, and that is what justifies more laws to control them.

But in "A Poor Workman Blames His Tools" you say "Technological determinism is the reification of technology. Because we love our tools, we assign them magical properties, which simultaneously let us off the hook for our own actions. The tool has been well analyzed as an extension of the human mind or body, but poorly analyzed as an excuse. Blaming our technology for what we are is the moral equivalent of the Twinkie defense. ... The fact that technology permits us to kill people at a distance, however, makes no moral difference; it does not detract one jot from the fact that it is we who have killed. ... What is inadmissible is the spectacle of hackers lying in the wreckage of a software project, moaning amidst the shards, 'Our powerful tools did this to us.' ... People who take this way out deserve to be slapped. Each of us conducts a dialog with a tool before picking it up: Am I ready for you? When we get into trouble, it is not usually because we did not ask, but because we lied to ourselves."

Those were wise words, words that call for responsibility in using tools, not blaming the tools when things turn out badly. Why is it that you do not apply this wisdom when the tools are called guns? You do not call for 'saw control' or 'drill control' or 'nail control' when carpenters build a structure that collapses and injures or kills someone. Why do you call for 'gun control' when some criminal or lunatic injures or kills someone? What's the matter with 'criminal control?'

It is statistically not true that " the people at most risk are the friends and family of gun owners". As for the danger of being murdered by friends and relatives, although this might once have been true, it is no longer. As recently as 1965, about one third of murders were family-related. Now, according to National Center for Health Statistics data, slightly more than 1 in 10 murders are family-related. Eric H. Holder, U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, said "You have people committing crimes here now who are fundamentally different than criminals, say, 10 years ago,".