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John Sherman, Published February 02 2013

Letter: So much nonsense on guns

As the country discusses increasing gun safety, many groups – hunters, collectors, mental health professionals, police, etc. – will have to be consulted, but one group should be ignored at least until they come up with something that’s not based on B-movie fantasies.

Members of the right-wing media, and some writers of letters to The Forum, believe in the words of Kevin D. Williamson in the National Review Online (Dec. 28, 2012), “... military-style weapons are precisely what the Second Amendment guarantees our right to keep and bear. The purpose of the Second Amendment is to secure our ability to oppose enemies foreign and domestic, a guarantee against disorder and tyranny.”

The basic argument is that the founders, through the Second Amendment, granted Americans the right to amass any number and kind of firearms to enable them to overthrow a tyrannical government. As history and law, this is nonsense.

The point of the Second Amendment is to create a “well-regulated militia”; the Articles of Confederation describe what the founders meant by militia: “... every state shall always keep up a well regulated and disciplined militia, sufficiently armed and accoutered, and shall provide and constantly have ready for use, in public stores, a due number of field pieces and tents, and a proper quantity of arms, ammunition and camp equipage” (Article VI). This clearly is something ancestral to the Guard or Reserve, and not some guy with a bunch of guns in his closet.

Beginning in 1791, a group of farmers centered in western Pennsylvania concluded, with some justification, that they were being arbitrarily and unfairly taxed, giving rise to the “Whiskey Rebellion”; in 1794, 500 armed men attacked the home of a tax inspector. President George Washington called on the states to raise militias, and the governors of Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania mustered 13,000 troops, which, led by Washington, put down the rebellion. The point of the militia is to defend the government, not overthrow it.

The Constitution defines one crime: “Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them ...” (III.3.1). It’s not likely the founders would enable in the Second Amendment what they expressly forbade in the Constitution itself.

Then there’s the practical problem of who gets to decide when the government has become so tyrannical that it must be overthrown. For example, when Tim McVeigh blew up the Murrah building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people including 19 children in day care, was he, as Americans generally believe, a bloodthirsty lunatic or, as he thought, a patriot striking a blow against a tyrannical government? It’s not a good idea to leave such judgments to heavily armed individuals.

In America we amend the Constitution, we don’t torch it. The colonists rebelled against “taxation without representation”; we have representation, and while polls indicate that most of us don’t think much of that representation, we can change it, not by picking up the gun but by, among other things, changing campaign funding.

For example, I don’t think much of the surveillance policies begun under President George W. Bush and continued under President Barack Obama, but I didn’t go down to the gun store; instead I mailed a check to the ACLU, which is litigating the matter. It’s not as melodramatic as waving a musket, but it’s more likely to work, and it won’t get anyone killed.


Sherman lives in Moorhead.