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A Yankee Notebook

February 18, 2013


MONTPELIER, VT – The tone of the e-mail was clearly angry, even irate. I had recently written something suggesting that not every household in America needs a weapon that can spray the neighborhood with bullets. “What are you going to do, Mr. Lang [I hate it when they do that!] when somebody sets off a dirty bomb in Boston and a couple of days later there are 200 desperate refugees coming up your driveway?” Not a bad question:What was I going to do? I’m sure we don’t have enough spare camping mattresses for 200 people, let alone food. But these reflections were obviously leading me astray from the correct answer. So I replied politely, with only a slight, lemony twist of irony, that.lacking his fertile and fervid imagination, I couldn’t picture that mob as clearly as he could; and that even if I could, I couldn’t further conceive of slaughtering any desperate fellow Americans with semiautomatic rifle fire. He ended our exchange with a few choice epithets that, as I recall, included the printable words “liberal” and “fool.”

I’m having difficulty understanding why so many Americans live in such fear of their lives that they feel compelled to carry lethal weapons with them in public and, according to their blog entries, “keep them ready to hand” in their homes to protect themselves and their families. This in the face of statistics indicating that a majority of gunshot wounds are accidental or the result of domestic disputes. When I ask, the answer is almost invariably that lethal self-protection is a right guaranteed by the Second Amendment – which, if you notice, isn’t exactly an answer, but a slogan.

The standard interpretation of the Second Amendment’s origin is that it was intended to provide citizens the means to defend themselves against any moves by their government toward tyranny. In those days our government maintained a tiny army, and both it and the citizen militias had access to similar primitive weapons. That situation no longer pertains, no matter how many dark helicopter gunships you may have seen Mel Gibson and Matt Damon shoot down with small arms in action movies. The notion of armed resistance in this century is pure fantasy.

Who are the militias, anyway? Originally they were bodies of men maintained by individual colonies and, later, states or private individuals. They drilled more or less regularly and elected their own officers. (I suspect much of their activity was social; think American Legion.) But they did support regular army units when called upon. We lived for years in Willsboro, New York, where mills had existed since 1765. In 1814 the British, raiding up Lake Champlain, were thwarted in their attempt to destroy the American fleet then building at Otter Creek Falls in Vergennes. They turned their attention to Willsboro, about a mile up the Boquet River at the first falls, intending to capture supplies and ammunition stored there. But while the mill owner regaled the English officers with hard cider and other refreshment, a courier took off running to fetch the militia from Essex. The history of the day records that the militia first “ran to the armory to get their weapons,” then took up position on the banks of the river mouth, where they did great damage to the retreating British bateaux. So they apparently didn’t keep their weapons at home.

During the 18th-century debates over the Bill of Rights, “militia” was a euphemism for the armed slave patrols that southern plantationers relied upon to sniff out and punish slave rebellions. Fearful that if those patrols were placed under federal control, they might at a future date be jeopardized by antislavery sentiment in the government, a group of powerful slave owners and sympathizers insisted that the federal government be prohibited from regulating them. But nowhere in any of that is there any particular mention of an individual right to bear arms. That has evolved.

The National Rifle Association was founded in 1871 to promote the interests of sportsmen, teach firearm safety, and promote shooting competitions. The nation was still largely rural, and regular hunting was a part of life. Shooting fellow Americans, however, also remained a popular pastime, notably between the notorious Hatfields and McCoys and on the Western frontier.

I was a city boy, born in Albany, New York, during the gangster days, when the gun-packers were ex-bootleggers and the local political boss’s police. We lived at 57 Dove Street; the gangster Legs Diamond was shot to death one morning at 67 Dove. The National Firearms Act of 1934 regulated ownership of machine guns and sawed-off shotguns. And NRA President Karl Frederick stated, “I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.” Years later, when the Black Panthers began acquiring firearms to promote their struggle for civil rights, the NRA eagerly helped write gun-control legislation.

How times have changed! We now have almost uninhibited access to weapons undreamed of in gangster days, let alone during the creation of the Bill of Rights – weapons designed for killing as many human beings as possible, as fast as possible. The NRA, for all its efforts to promote safe, responsible gun ownership, is now essentially in thrall to the manufacturers of those weapons. Instead of joining the efforts to keep them out of the hands of credulous and disturbed young men who imbibe the daily ration poured out by the hatemongers of talk radio, it militates for unfettered access to what amount to weapons of mass destruction. This is not a smart long-term strategy. The “sheep” described in many gun owners’ blogs are beginning to get organized.

A current Facebook video shows a man with a rifle attempting to join the gun-control rally at the Montpelier State House last Saturday. He is intercepted by police and dissuaded from his mission: to demonstrate, no doubt, his right to be there, with no thought that the folks at the rally have some rights, as well. Like freedom from fear of deranged men with guns, for starters.

Photo by Willem lange