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Ashcroft is right on guns
Why the Second Amendment is essential to our freedom.

by Crispin Sartwell
Reprinted with Author's Permission
Originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer

Obviously the second amendment to the Constitution - "A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the securing of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed" - is a highly ambiguous text.

While it does not seem completely to prohibit the federal government from regulation of weapons, John Ashcroft was on solid ground when he recently declared that the amendment protects the fundamental right of individuals to own guns.

The debate about gun control usually focuses on interpreting the words and intentions of the founders. But we have our own intentions and produce our own words; let's concentrate on them for a few minutes.

I start with this axiom: People possess exactly as much freedom as they can take or defend. If you give me freedom, that is itself an expression of your power over me, and your charity can be revoked until the moment it can't be: that is, until I can defend myself from your power.

The Emancipation Proclamation was a lovely moment in which the federal government tried to give freedom to black folks as a gift. But had you been black in the South, or for that matter the North, in the 1890s, you would have done well to wonder how much that piece of paper was worth. It was worth this: What you were experiencing was no longer called slavery. But day to day as you broke your back for white people, you probably didn't much care what it was called.

The history of the 20th-century movement for the freedom of African Americans is in the final analysis the story of what a people could take, not a history of what could be given to them; it is the story of what people demanded, not what they received as charity. It is a history of self-defense.

You make yourself free, if you can. I cannot make you free. And to make yourself free, you had better be able to defend what you have and take what you need. And to defend what you have and take what you need, you had better be armed.

We live in a world in which the power of institutions such as the government and large corporations is hidden in a cloud of bland gobbledygook. They'll make you wear a seatbelt, or tell you what you can put in to your body, or burn your compound, or seize your income in the interests of public health or public safety. They don't usually come to you as stormtroopers with a jackboot on your throat; they come to you as bureaucrats, with no expression on their faces, and they subject you continuously to the meaningless Al-Gorical jargon of their craft.

Oddly, though, somewhere in the background linger large men in Kevlar vests with automatic weapons; SWAT teams; DEA, ATF and IMF units; Ramparts divisions; men who rape you with a toilet plunger; men who stand in a gang around unarmed immigrants and riddle their bodies with bullets.

A student of mine who was from Compton once told me that there were three street gangs in Los Angeles: the Crips, the Bloods, and the LAPD. If the LAPD were the only one that was armed, you'd have a corrupt police state.

If you want to defend yourself against these people, then you had better have weapons. And people like this are in general going to be a lot less effective in dealing with a populace that they know has weapons.

I do not own any guns. I'm not a hunter and not a member of a right-wing militia. I am raising a small squad of adolescents, and I'm not comfortable having the kids in the same house with an arsenal. But if I felt my freedom to be in immediate and profound danger - from the government or from the Crips - I would arm myself as quickly as possible by any means necessary. The idea that we have an attorney general that at least under some circumstances would agree that I am within my rights to do so is, I think, a good thing.

Now, of course, we pay a terrible price for our right to bear arms. I know that: My brother Bob was shot to death in 1984. But the price we would pay for losing the right to bear arms would be, simply, to become a subject people.

Crispin Sartwell ( teaches philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art.