Writers on the Range: Guns, guts and cold dead fingers
Writers on the Range
About a decade ago, while waiting at the town stoplight, I read the bumper stickers on the Jeep Cherokee in front of me. One was familiar: ‘When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.” But the other was new: ‘MY PRESIDENT IS CHARLTON HESTON.”
Charlton Heston was president of the National Rifle Association from 1998 to 2003; he died this April 5 at age 84. Heston won an Oscar in 1959 for his leading role in Ben Hur, and is perhaps best remembered for playing Moses in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic, The Ten Commandments.
But you may not know that Heston was also a staunch supporter of civil rights. In 1961, he joined a picket line outside a segregated theater in Oklahoma, carrying a sign that read ‘All Men are Created Equal ” Jefferson.” He marched alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the great civil rights demonstration of 1963. He opposed the Vietnam War.
Heston’s obituaries made it sound as though he must have received a personality transplant somewhere along the way, as if one person could not simultaneously support civil rights and oppose gun control. But there is a historical connection between arms and civil rights. After the Civil War ended in 1865, former slaves gained their freedom. But as soon as whites regained control of their state governments, they passed gun control laws aimed at preventing blacks from defending themselves against Ku Klux Klan terrorism.
Besides the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ” which reads in its entirety: ‘A well-regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed” ” state constitutions in Arizona, Idaho and Nevada protect the right to bear arms. All the Western states, in fact, except California, have similar provisions, and most also have limitations.
The right to bear arms does not extend to concealed weapons in Colorado, Idaho, Montana and New Mexico. And Arizona and Washington say it doesn’t authorize ‘individuals or corporations to organize, maintain or employ an armed body of men.”
So there’s certainly a case to be made, out here in Gun Country at least, that keeping and bearing arms has long been considered a basic right that stands alongside religious liberty, freedom of speech and all the rest.
The West is Gun Country. A 2001 survey showed that Wyoming led the nation in households with gun ownership ” 59.7 percent. Next was Alaska at 57.8, followed by Montana at 57.7 and South Dakota at 56.6. Idaho was seventh at 55.3, and North Dakota 10th at 50.7.
But there’s something different about Second Amendment rights. Assume you’re convicted of certain felonies. You go to jail, serve your time and get out. You can then exercise your First Amendment rights. You can go to any church or join a peaceful protest assembly. You can read what you want, write letters to the local newspaper or found your own. But your Second Amendment rights have evaporated. By federal law, a convicted felon can’t touch a gun, much less own one. And the National Rifle Association, that zealous guardian of Second Amendment rights, is perfectly OK with that.
Not that I’m in favor of having armed violent felons at large, but this indicates that even the NRA does not consider gun ownership as the same kind of fundamental civil right as free speech or religious liberty.
We’ll soon learn more about the meaning of the Second Amendment. On March 18, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that challenged a District of Columbia ordinance that essentially banned the private possession of handguns and required long guns to be stored in an unusable state. One side argued that the Second Amendment merely protects the right of states to maintain militias. The other claimed that it guarantees a personal right to firearms for self-defense.
For my part, I think of it as a right that I choose not to exercise. Owning a gun is also a responsibility, requiring safe storage in a house with children, cleaning and oiling and target practice to maintain proficiency. There came a time when I didn’t have time for those responsibilities, and so I sold my guns.
Since then, the family dog has done a fine job of protecting this household, and I will give up my dog when you pry my cold dead fingers off his collar.
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