Ashcroft is right on guns
Why the Second Amendment is essential to our freedom.
Reprinted with Author's Permission
Originally published in the Philadelphia
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org)
teaches philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art.