Twelve years ago, the Oscar-winning actor Charlton Heston lumbered onto a stage in Charlotte, North Carolina and delivered one of the most memorable lines of his acting career. Only a week before, hundreds of thousands of mothers had gathered in the nation’s capitol, protesting for increased gun control, and Heston, as President of the National Rifle Association, realized that his organization needed to respond. At the time, we were in the thick of a Presidential election, and Al Gore, the presumptive Democratic nominee, was an outspoken advocate for sensible gun control laws.

The NRA, already reeling from the 1994 assault weapons ban and the public backlash in the aftermath of a series of deadly school shootings, was in full damage control mode; the possibility of Al Gore becoming the next President sent them into a full-scale panic. At best, the NRA’s outrage was contrived, and at worst, it was nothing short of total hysteria. They launched a media campaign that heralded the Second Amendment as the country’s “most important amendment.” They gleefully endorsed and embraced a whole roster of paranoid conspiracies, including, most destructively, the notion that the Second Amendment was actually intended to provide citizens with unfettered access to weapons that could be used for an armed rebellion against the government. It’s an incomprehensibly stupid position that requires us to believe that our Founding Fathers thought that our democracy could be legally overthrown by any random, ragtag group calling themselves a “well-regulated militia.” Even Antonin Scalia knows better.

With all due respect to the late, great Charlton Heston, he didn’t become the President of the National Rifle Association because he was a great policy mind with an extensive background in Constitutional law. He was a gimmick, an aging American icon who could put a familiar and beloved face on an imperiled organization, and even though he may have not been able to debate the nuances, he could always pretend.

And that day in Charlotte, Heston stood in front of 2,000 faithful NRA members and, after denouncing Al Gore’s candidacy, hoisted up a replica of an antebellum-era rifle and said, famously, “I’ll give up my gun when you take it from my cold, dead hands.” It wasn’t an original line; it was an old slogan the NRA had used decades before. Heston, after all, was an actor playing a role and reading from a script.

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And before the age of viral videos or hashtags, Heston’s performance became instantly memorable. Ironically, although Heston’s speech was delivered in front of an audience of only 2,000 people, it somehow became much more iconic and culturally significant than the Million Mom March, the pro-gun control demonstration that had been held only a week before and had attracted upwards of 750,000 people in Washington, D.C. and nearly 200,000 more in coordinated events across the country.

There’s another irony here: The gun that Charlton Heston hoisted up was a replica of a Sharps rifle, a 150-year-old weapon that no one has ever tried to “take away” from anyone here in America. Heston’s gun fires, at most, ten bullets a minute.

This speaks to the greatest lie promoted by the National Rifle Association: That gun control advocates want to take away your guns, even your antique rifles. Nearly a million people show up to personally demonstrate against assault weapons and the availability of illegal guns in our inner-cities, and a week later, an aging actor reading from a script can lift a replica of an antique rifle over his head and recast the entire debate.

To be sure, there are people who aspire to eliminate all guns, but for anyone who seriously recognizes the issues and understands the fundamental protections provided by the Constitution and over two hundred years of case law, these folks, however well-intentioned, are just as credible as a beauty pageant contestent who declares that, if crowned, she would help usher in an era of world peace. It’s silly and naive, but if you believe the NRA, then you may have the impression that “gun control” is just coded language for a wholesale repeal of the Second Amendment. It’s a toxic lie, and for decades now, this lie has prevented us from having an honest conversation about what we should do, as a country, to stop gun massacres, gang violence, and the proliferation of illegal weapon sales.

Like the overwhelming and vast majority of people who believe in sensible gun control, I also respect and believe that the Second Amendment provides responsible, law-abiding citizens with the right to own and possess “arms.” I grew up in an area of the country where almost every family owned at least one gun, most typically a hunting rifle. I learned how to shoot a gun before I learned how to drive a car. And no, shooting has never something I particularly enjoyed or was even remotely interested in pursuing as a hobby, but I get it. It can be a sport, and for many, it’s exhilarating.

As I said in a previous post, all rights come with responsibilities, and if you’re law-abiding and well-intentioned, then those responsibilities impose no additional burdens. In fact, you never even encounter them.

We are wise, as a country, to seriously discuss the epidemic of gun massacres, and just as importantly, we must also, once and for all, decide what the Second Amendment really means. A week after a mentally-disturbed 20-year-old man used the weapons his mother had been stockpiling in their home, first murdering her in cold blood and then slaughtering twenty small children and six adults, the National Rifle Association decided to finally state its position: It could have all been prevented if there’d only been more guns. Never mind that there were two armed police officers stationed at Columbine who actually returned fire when Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, armed to the teeth, massacred 12 students and a teacher and wounded 24 others. Never mind that Virginia Tech had its own SWAT Team in place when Seung-Hui Cho murdered 32 of his peers and wounded another 17.

Wayne LaPierre and the National Rifle Association promised to provide “meaningful contributions” to help curb the insanity of gun massacres in America. Instead, Mr. LaPierre proved himself to be dangerously out-of-touch, a man who presents his sickening and perverted love for guns as a type of patriotism, a man who would rather the government compile a list of Americans diagnosed with psychological disorders than have them enforce background checks for the 40% of guns and ammunition purchased in gun shows or online.

Wayne LaPierre blames movies and video games for promoting a culture of violence, and then, in the same breath, declares that the solution is to further militarize our civic institutions. The dystopian vision of America presented by Mr. LaPierre is far more terrifying, more stifling, and more oppressive than anything ever previously imagined. Even Charlton Heston’s rigor mortis would relax.

Put simply, the people who believe that we should all enjoy unfettered access to semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines are, by definition, unqualified to lecture the rest of us about mental health, American culture, or the best ways to eliminate gun massacres. This has nothing to do with putting more armed guards in more schools; it’s a red herring. Nearly a third of American schools already have armed security. Remember, these gun massacres aren’t just occurring in our schools; they’re taking place in our shopping malls and movie theaters and office parks and public streets.

Newtown refocused the country’s discussion on these issues, as well it should have, but we would be foolish to let someone let Wayne LaPierre narrowly define the epidemic of gun massacres as something confined to our public schools. It is a shameless and naked exploitation, a willful distortion of the true scope and scale of the paralyzing terror brought onto this country by civilians who, more often than not, legally possess weapons designed to murder as many human beings as possible as quickly as possible.

In America, we’ve always aspired to be “a more perfect union,” a country kept in tact by a government that selflessly serves and protects the common good.

This isn’t about your handgun or your hunting rifle. Let’s get real.

Wayne LaPierre and the National Rifle Association should be called out for what they actually are: Negligent enablers and lobbyists who are paid by gun manufacturers to distort the facts, terrorize our public discourse with hackneyed pro-gun propaganda, and promote a future that cares absolutely nothing about decreasing violence and everything about selling more guns to more people in more places.

I earnestly hope that, in light of the unhinged commentary promoted by the NRA, responsible American gun owners will follow the lead of Republican President George H.W. Bush and countless others and tear up their membership cards; we, as a country, deserve better than Wayne LaPierre’s extremism, negligence, and hypocrisy.


12 thoughts

  1. As usual, Lamar, you are so right about Heston & his remarks. If you will recall, it wasn’t too long after that he was diagnosed with Alzheimers’ & totally disappeared from the public eye.

  2. Lamar,

    You say: “[The NRA] launched a media campaign that heralded the Second Amendment as the country’s “most important amendment.” They gleefully endorsed and embraced a whole roster of paranoid conspiracies, including, most destructively, the notion that the Second Amendment was actually intended to provide citizens with unfettered access to weapons that could be used for an armed rebellion against the government. It’s an incomprehensibly stupid position that requires us to believe that our Founding Fathers thought that our democracy could be legally overthrown by any random, ragtag group calling themselves a “well-regulated militia.”

    First of all, you still seem to refuse to believe that the “militia” was a broad term inclusive of every able-bodied male of age, not just a “random, ragtag group.” This is the way the Militia Act of 1792 defined the militia, and how federal law still defines the militia today. There really is no legitimate debate over that. You either accept the fact of it or you obfuscate.

    Secondly, you continue to deny the historical evidence that the militia was considered a bulwark against tyranny. Even Hamilton said this in Federalist 29, citing his “select militia” as a substitute for, or counterbalance to, a standing federal army. It was definitely a view held by the anti-Federalists, and no serious historian would suggest otherwise.

    Thirdly, what you call “an incomprehensibly stupid position” is the position enunciated by Justice Story:

    “The right of the citizens to keep and bear arms has justly been considered, as the palladium of the liberties of a republic; since it offers a strong moral check against the usurpation and arbitrary power of rulers; and will generally, even if these are successful in the first instance, enable the people to resist and triumph over them.” — Justice Joseph Story, Commentaries on the U.S. Constitution, 1833

    You may not agree with Justice Story or the NRA, but their position on the Second Amendment has a great deal more credibility than yours.

    You also talk about “enforc[ing] background checks for the 40% of guns and ammunition purchased in gun shows or online.” As I noted before, there is no basis for this statistic. Repeating it shows a complete disregard for the truth. The study cited by Bloomberg was from 1997 and didn’t address the internet at all. It did cite gun show sales, but lumped them in with “flea markets” and didn’t provide data as to whether they went through an FFL. And even then, gun shows only amounted to 4% of sales.

    ATF regulations require all firearms dealers, save those dealing exclusively in antique guns, to have an FFL. There are specific regulations governing official vendors at gun shows. The only sales going through the “gun show loophole” are private sales (i.e., sales between non-dealers) that occur at gun shows, and the fact that any of them occur at a gun show is incidental — private sales can occur anywhere. Internet sales also generally go through an FFL because they usually occur between states and the ads are posted by established dealers. In short, the private sale loophole is a small one and has never been shown to be a significant source of guns used by criminals.

    But what is definitely clear is that the 40% statistic is completely baseless.

  3. Owen–

    Once again, you are completely and entirely misreading the Second Amendment. In Heller, the dissenting justices argued that the Second Amendment had intended to provide the right to keep and bear arms only to those in well-regulated militias; this is, perhaps, the narrowest reading one can argue. Notably, there’s been no legitimate discussion over the definition of the word “militia. For centuries, the courts and common law defined militias as a matter of fact and understanding as being regulated by the government.

    The debate Hamilton was articulating in Federalist 29 was about which government agencies should do the regulating? Should we have 13 disparate militias, each uncoordinated and each autonomous from federal oversight, or should we consider a national militia under the direction and power of the federal government; Hamilton was arguing for a robust national militia, Mr. Federalist Himself.

    Of course, we were left with somewhat of a compromise: States could legally organize and regulate their own militias, with the implied caveat that those forces could be federalized under certain circumstances. If you read the Second Amendment like this, then, to some, it may imply that the right to keep and bear arms is provided only to members of well-regulated militias (i.e. National Guards and the US military).

    But, of course, there is another way to read the Second Amendment, a position adopted in Justice Scalia’s majority opinion: The militia provision is merely prefatory. He views those clauses distinctly, and suggests that because the militia provision is merely prefatory, the controlling language is the next clause: The right to keep and bear arms.There is no need to get hung up into this rhetorical trap, like suggesting the Founding Fathers meant militias as potentially non-state actors or organized armed organizations attempting to inflict vigilante justice whenever they disagree with the government.

    You’re getting too hung up on this paranoiac, dystopian fantasy. All you need to do is focus on the second clause– the right to keep and bear arms. And throughout American history, we’ve recognized that right as a limiting right: You can’t buy tanks or fighter jets or certain types of guns.

    Here’s what Justice Story said in the beginning of his commentary. I advise you to read it more carefully:

    § 1890. The importance of this article will scarcely be doubted by any persons, who have duly reflected upon the subject. The militia is the natural defence of a free country against sudden foreign invasions, domestic insurrections, and domestic usurpations of power by rulers. It is against sound policy for a free people to keep up large military establishments and standing armies in time of peace, both from the enormous expenses, with which they are attended, and the facile means, which they afford to ambitious and unprincipled rulers, to subvert the government, or trample upon the rights of the people. The right of the citizens to keep and bear arms has justly been considered, as the palladium of the liberties of a republic; since it offers a strong moral check against the usurpation and arbitrary power of rulers; and will generally, even if these are successful in the first instance, enable the people to resist and triumph over them. And yet, though this truth would seem so clear, and the importance of a well regulated militia would seem so undeniable, it cannot be disguised, that among the American people there is a growing indifference to any system of militia discipline, and a strong disposition, from a sense of its burthens, to be rid of all regulations. How it is practicable to keep the people duly armed without some organization, it is difficult to see. There is certainly no small danger, that indifference may lead to disgust, and disgust to contempt; and thus gradually undermine all the protection intended by this clause of our national bill of rights.

    § 1891. A similar provision in favour of protestants (for to them it is confined) is to be found in the bill of rights of 1688, it being declared, “that the subjects, which are protestants, may have arms for their defence suitable to their condition, and as allowed by law.” But under various pretences the effect of this provision has been greatly narrowed; and it is at present in England more nominal than real, as a defensive privilege.

    As far as the 40% claim, fine, you don’t like Bloomberg, but that is just the tip of the iceberg.

  4. Remember Waco Davidian Massacre ! Affirmed so a rag tag militia could never stand against the mightest war nation in the war, remember guns can be aimed to and fro and an armed military will ” never fire on its own people, unless the military belongs to a third world country dictatorship…

    1. Wait… so the Second Amendment is about ensuring that lunatics like David Koresh can stockpile weapons and evade arrest for child rape and child abuse by shielding himself around dozens and dozens of innocent people in a heavily-fortified compound? Waco was an absolute tragedy, no doubt about it, but if you think David Koresh was justified and if you honestly believe the government intended to provoke him into murderous “martyrdom,” then you need to find another website. Your understanding of the Second Amendment is the same as Timothy McVeigh’s.

      You see, Owen? This is the end-product of the revisionist absurdity that you’re attempting to intellectually justify.

  5. Lamar,

    Now you’re just being frustrating. I’m going to list a few things that you keep repeating/implying without evidence:

    1. The definition of the phrase “well-regulated militia” is unclear.

    No, it’s very clear. First of all, it is evident that the phrase “well-regulated” referred to having military discipline, to being well-trained and equipped. There is no evidence that it referred to being regulated by the government. It is an archaic meaning, but quite obviously the use that was intended.

    The Bill of Rights was passed in 1791, and the following year the Militia Act of 1792 was adopted defining the militia to automatically encompass all able-bodied males. Federal law still defines the militia this way today. Federalist No. 29, which we discussed, clearly defines the militia as encompassing the whole citizenry, which is why he argues for a “select corps” of the militia to eliminate the burden of training the entire populace. And then there’s other evidence. There’s George Mason, who said “Who are the militia? They consist now of the whole people.” There’s the Virginia Constitution of 1776, which referenced “a well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people.” Even as a matter of simple usage, “militia” still primarily means a non-professional, citizen-based fighting force. In short, there is ample evidence of what “militia” meant.

    Thus, the phrase “well-regulated militia” refers to the aspirational goal of having the general populace be well-trained and equipped as a fighting force. In light of this goal, the operative clause makes perfect sense insofar as it guarantees an individual right to keep and bear arms (originally, of course, only against the federal government but later incorporated against the states vis-a-vis the 14th Amendment).

    2. The National Guard and U.S. Military are the “well-regulated militias.”

    No, they aren’t. The National Guard could be called a “select militia” in some sense, but there is no historical evidence that the Second Amendment refers to Hamilton’s proposed “select corps” of militia as opposed to the militia as a whole. Remember: federal law still defines the militia the same way as it did in 1792.

    More importantly, though, the military is not a militia in any sense of the word whatsoever, period. That’s just stupid, Lamar. Even Hamilton was talking about his proposed “select militia” as an alternative and/or counterbalance to a standing army, and his viewpoint was at the extreme Federalist end of the spectrum. This is a viewpoint I do not respect, and if you continue to say that the military is part of the militia, I say you are being dishonest on a fundamental point and I see no point in debating you further. I am that serious about this — it is a litmus test for intellectual honesty in discussing the Second Amendment.

    3. The debate is over ignoring the militia clause or viewing it as controlling.

    No, it isn’t. As a matter of simple grammar, the militia clause doesn’t control the “bear arms” clause, but since the militia clause states a purpose it is not irrelevant to interpretation. However, that interpretation has to make sense. Your argument is that the militia clause only refers to the right of members of the National Guard or military, yet there is no logical connection between this and the guarantee of a right given to “the people” (which in all other parts of the Constitution means all individuals), and besides, there is no historical evidence supporting this interpretation.

    With respect to Justice Story’s commentary, I fail to see what context you are referring to. Nothing in it runs contrary to anything I have said, and I won’t try to speculate as to what you’re driving at.

  6. Excellent commentary! I tore up my card & mailed it back to LaPierre when they started putting forth lies after President Obama’s first election. It truly saddens me that so many of us, in the alleged smartest country on the planet, remains so damned ignorant about the NRA and their propoganda on behalf of gun manufacturer’s. I guess as long there’s a segment of society who longs to be exploited, hoodwinked, & bamboozeled, the NRA, & their Republican party enablers, will always be around to gladly oblige.

    1. Efrem, poor cuckoled gluck, the largest Procurer & Seller of Automatic weapons, “Is the U.S. Government. their turn around of armaments as in ” buy and sell so many weapons, that they had to find a new market in the Mexican Drug Cartels !
      Lump that !

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