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Jefferson's 'tree of liberty' and the blood of schoolchildren

Jerry Adler
Senior Editor
On the second day of the Republican National Convention, Ohio Minutemen gather in downtown Cleveland to express their feeling on the Second Amendment in Cleveland, July 18, 2016. (Photo: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Like all Americans, I have a Second Amendment right to own a firearm. I may not choose to exercise it, but the Supreme Court, in the 2008 case of District of Columbia v. Heller, is pretty clear on the subject. I don’t even need to be part of a militia, which is good, because I wouldn’t know how to join one. So I accept gun ownership, in principle, as part of my birthright, and acknowledge that the same rights accrue to people who might, for one reason or another, hate me. As journalist Mickey Kaus once wrote, if liberals interpreted the Second Amendment the way they interpret the rest of the Bill of Rights, there would be law professors arguing that gun ownership is mandatory.

Why would I need one, though, except to commit a crime? Why does anyone?

For hunting, obviously. Although I do not hunt, I recognize it as essentially harmless, except to the animals who are killed, and to people who get shot by mistake, including occasionally the hunters themselves. But shotguns and single-shot rifles are rarely used in crimes and I know of no serious proposals to ban them.

For target shooting, as a sport. I have done this, and I enjoyed it. Encouraging better marksmanship is a worthy national goal, and if we keep it up, the U.S. Olympic team might hope to someday win a medal in biathlon.

For personal defense.  I consider myself an expert in this field, having lived in New York City my whole life, including some years in the 1970s when I would go home on the subway after leaving work at 1 a.m. There were occasions when I wished I had a handgun, but with the benefit of reflection, it’s obviously a million times better that I didn’t, for me as well as for all the obnoxious drunks who nearly threw up on my shoes. Having survived to this point, I am content to entrust my safety to the very excellent protection of the NYPD, but I also recognize that other Americans, in different circumstances, might come to a different conclusion. If — hopefully, after weighing the dangers of a handgun being found by a child, or fired by accident, or used to commit suicide or murder a family member during an argument — a  competent adult decides he or she needs one, then by a 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court, they have that right.

But the subject on everyone’s mind now is not handguns but rifles, in particular assault-style rifles such as the AR-15, which are the weapon of choice in random mass shootings such as the recent ones in Parkland, Fla., Sutherland Springs, Texas, and Las Vegas. Why would a law-abiding American citizen want to own one of those?

To wage war against the government. There are many contenders for the worst ideas to emerge in the wake of the Parkland massacre, but I’d like to nominate this column by National Review writer David French — the same guy whose name was briefly floated as a sane conservative third-party alternative to Donald Trump in 2016. French argued against banning semiautomatic assault-style rifles on the grounds that we might need them to fight a reprise of the American Revolution. After all, you can’t take on the United States military with guns meant to shoot ducks and paper targets. French acknowledges that ordinary citizens wouldn’t stand much of a chance against the 101st Airborne, but, he writes: “For the Second Amendment to remain a meaningful check on state power, citizens must be able to possess the kinds and categories of weapons that can at least deter state overreach, that would make true authoritarianism too costly to attempt.”


And: “To properly defend life and liberty, access to assault weapons and high-capacity magazines isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity.”

The idea that Americans should arm themselves to fight “state overreach” is a staple of gun-rights groups and politicians occupying the political terrain that runs rightward roughly from the NRA to the edge of the earth. It goes back at least to Thomas Jefferson, who wrote that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with blood of patriots and tyrants.” In 2010, Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle notoriously floated the idea of “Second Amendment remedies” against Congress. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz invoked it in a 2015 fundraising email, which prompted Sen. Lindsey Graham to respond tartly that “we tried that once in South Carolina.” In view of how the Civil War turned out for the Confederacy, “I wouldn’t go down that road again.”

Indeed. If Cruz is seriously concerned about having to fight “governmental tyranny,” he might want to reconsider his support of President Trump’s military buildup, which could only make it harder. As long ago as the 1950s, when there were mutterings in the South about renewing the hostilities that were suspended at Appomattox, Louisiana Gov. Earl K. Long taunted the arch-segregationist political boss Leander Perez: “What are you going to do now, Leander? The Feds have got the atom bomb.”

Well, one solution would be to get your own atom bomb. As far as I can tell, no one is seriously asserting that the Second Amendment conveys a private right to own nuclear weapons — not even the National Rifle Association, probably not even Gun Owners of America, a group composed of people who consider the NRA insufficiently zealous and which claims 1.5 million members. The group does, however, seek to legalize machine guns, which would at least slightly improve the odds of going up against the Marine Corps.

A lot of this is just posturing, of course: The NRA’s key stakeholders are gun companies, and it serves their interests to hype the threat that “jack-booted government thugs” are coming to arrest grandma and confiscate her derringer. The NRA’s Dana Loesch made news last week with a claim that the mass media “loves” mass shootings because of the ratings they bring. Leaving the despicable nature of the charge aside, it is a fact that publicized incidents of gun violence have benefited the firearms industry by spurring sales to patriots scared that this time Nancy Pelosi really is coming to take away their guns. Remington filed for bankruptcy this month amid a general slump in gun sales that set in right after the 2016 election, when gun owners could relax in the knowledge that Hillary Clinton’s evil designs on the Second Amendment had been thwarted.

But quite a few Americans apparently agree with French on the danger that Washington might someday decide to pick up where George III left off and reimpose the Stamp Act or force Americans to quarter troops in their homes. Banding together in militias like the so-called Three Percenter movement, they are preparing to meet that threat with AR-15s.

Members of self-described patriot groups and militias run through close-quarter combat shooting drills during a Three Percenter United Patriots’ field training exercise, which they describe as the largest patriot event in the country, outside Fountain, Colo., July 29, 2017. (Photo: Jim Urquhart/Reuters)

Of course, the same qualities that make assault-style rifles so precious to self-appointed defenders of American freedom also make them the weapon of choice for those who want to kill as many schoolchildren as possible. A ban on the sale of these weapons took effect in 1994, with a 10-year sunset provision. After it expired in 2004, it was not renewed. There is little evidence that the ban did much to reduce gun violence, or even reduce sales of the weapons it was meant to control. With minor modifications in design, functionally equivalent variants of the AR-15 slipped through the cracks. The chances of the same ban being reinstated now are probably nil, in a political climate in which Donald Trump’s first instinct after the Parkland shooting was to call for arming schoolteachers so they could shoot back. In a Saturday interview, Trump went further and suggested raising the minimum age to buy a rifle from 18 to 21. Trump confidently predicted that the NRA would go along with the new age requirement, which the group has long opposed.

The NRA has informed Trump that he’s mistaken.

One way to achieve at least some of the benefits of banning assault weapons would be to limit the number of bullets they can hold. The gun-control organization Sandy Hook Promise is circulating a petition for a law to ban rifle magazines holding more than 10 rounds, forcing shooters to stop to reload more often. The young man who shot up Sandy Hook elementary school carried 30-round magazines, but even so, according to Nicole Hockley, whose son Dylan died in the attack, 11 children managed to escape in the seconds it took him to swap in a new one. If Trump seriously believes in arming teachers, limiting magazine size should be a change he supports, because even if they managed to draw their handguns, their only hope of standing up to a gunman firing off an AR-15 is to wait for him to reload.

I predict that assault-style rifles will be around for the foreseeable future, and I suspect one will be used again, sooner or later, to slaughter Americans in a church or office or school. And — call me naïve — but I would much sooner entrust my freedom to America’s justice system, which is also part of the Constitution, than to a bunch of middle-aged guys running around the woods in camo pants, no matter what kinds of guns they have.

I hope I am never forced to put my life on the line to defend liberty, and if it should happen, I hope I have the courage to do so. But that’s not a risk I would take with the life of someone else’s child.


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