I understand the basis for the positions taken by the National Rifle Association more than you might know. In 1993 I published a newspaper that was strongly opposed by local elected officials. In fact, city councilmen openly approached advertisers telling them not to advertise in my newspaper. One particular city councilman blatantly stole stacks of newspapers from Town Center and threw them away. The theft was caught on video, reported to me by a police officer several weeks later. When I requested to see the video tape, city manager Jim Witt told me the tape did not exist. During the 18 months that I published the newspaper, government repeatedly violated the Texas Open Records and Open Meetings Acts with impunity. I was threatened with legal action about a dozen times, had personal contact with four or five FBI agents, was accused of arson, libel, and being a homosexual because I was considered highly intelligent. (Insider note: My dearly departed friend Walter Pettijohn told me that. He explained, “It’s because all those homosexuals are real smart, so people just figured you were one too.”)
After the smoke had cleared, four city councilman decided not to run for office again, two police captains left the department, the chief of police was fired (and secretly rehired and retained on the payroll for eight months in order to keep him quiet about who on council had ordered him to get dirt on a citizen without probable cause), my campaign to create an “ethics ordinance” resulted in the implementation of today’s Code of Conduct, and to top it all off, I won a national award in journalism for my “significant achievement” in the effort to shed light on government, the quintessential Sunshine Award awarded annually to a nominated and chosen recipient by the Society of Professional Journalists, considered to be the “heavy-weights” of the journalism community. At the conclusion of my activities, I received a call from the FBI asking if I thought the city government of Coppell, Texas had violated the Rico Act. I responded, “I just think we have a lot of good people here doing some really stupid stuff.” That was the last time I ever heard from the FBI.
I know a little bit about government. I know a bit about tyranny, conspiracy and intentional wrong. It’s more than 20 years later. After I shut the paper down, I returned to serve as a volunteer in the community. I did not “disappear” from view, or dismiss the merits of community service. I did not succumb to cynicism, or waste away as I fumed about conspiracies. I took some time off, found my smile again, and went back into the fray of public service in order to serve the community.
Throughout my adventures in journalism, I was trying to trace the origins of morality. That may seem odd, but I believe everyone has a fundamental reason or interest which drives them in a social cause. it was my hope, and plan, to come to understand morality and freedom from the perspective of a small town – the smallest unit of American government. I started with a hypothetical, “If freedom exists, then it must exist at every level of government.” The test for freedom is not measured solely by our relationship with our Federal or State governments. The truer test is found in our relationship with our locally elected leaders. I cannot write about all that I know, but I wanted to share some perspectives about small town “freedom” so you can consider my comments as you think about gun control.
As citizens, we are increasingly required to relinquish our freedoms. I think the NRA would agree with that. The justification used to limit our freedoms always depends on a debate between the interests of the community and our reserved rights.
When you try to enter a school in this town, you must check in at a kiosk in the main office. You swipe your driver’s license in a machine and your identity is checked against a database. I do not know what is in the database, but I assume that if you have a criminal record, are on a list of known sex offenders, or maybe if there are outstanding warrants out against you, you will not be permitted to secure an ID badge required to enter the school.
Is that a violation of your freedom? It might be, but your right to privacy, or right to enter a government building, is not as important as the effort to protect the interests of the children and staff who work in the school building.
Often, you must prove to others that you are not a criminal. You are considered guilty unless you submit to tests that confirm your innocence. If you coach children in sports, you must first submit to a criminal background check. If you want to be employed by government (or many corporations), you must submit to periodic drug tests. You cannot carry a firearm into a government building. In these and other examples, the safety and well-being of other people is considered to be of more import than your right to privacy. If you want to retain your privacy, or if you insist that you are “innocent unless proven guilty”, then you will not be permitted to coach, or visit your child during school, or participate in city government. It’s your choice, but relinquishing your freedom is required in order to participate.
Now I am going to write something that you have probably never read. What I am about to write is a view about freedom that I discovered on my own: I have never read this idea expressed by anyone else. I believe it is a critical philosophical conclusion that is missing in the debate between community standards and the rights of individuals. Here it is: Freedom is a means to an end, not an end in itself.
If you are a philosopher you recognize the power of that assertion, and after some reflection, you will encounter the difficulties it creates. Freedom is not an end in itself. You cannot rightly assume to be a member of a community but at the same time, maintain a right to be free from the obligations of that community. This means, if you want to coach children, you must first submit to a criminal background check. If you want to coach children; be a source of power in the determination of their development, you MUST submit to the tests imposed by members of the community you seek to serve. End of discussion (for now).
Let us now compare the power you have as a coach of children with the power you gain by carrying a concealed firearm. There is a considerable — monumental — difference in the amount of power that you have when you carry a firearm. It is absolutely ridiculous to maintain that you can own a handgun simply because of a few ambiguous words written in our Constitution. If you believe that you can use freedom as an end in itself – to the end that you remain absolutely separated from any social obligation, responsibility or accountability, then you have completely misinterpreted the definition and limits of freedom.
Some readers of my blog live in Europe, and take great interest in reading the ideas expressed by Americans. Let me tell this next story for their benefit. I was once a national sales manager for a very large company. I managed a sales force of fourteen territory sales managers, seven telemarketers and two administrative assistants. As part of my “assimilation” into the company, I met individually with every officer and manager. During most of those interviews, the officer or manager in question withdrew a firearm from his desk and placed it on the desktop. The gesture was clearly an act of bravado, not intended to intimidate as much as it was to demonstrate membership in a defiant and masculine club of independent and strong “Americans”. The message was clear, “I can shoot you.”
On another occasion in Phoenix, Arizona, while accompanying one of my salesmen on a sales call, a young man carrying an electric guitar walked into the music store. The owner asked him, “Where did you get that guitar?” As soon as he asked that question, before the adolescent had time to answer, every employee in sight withdrew a firearm and placed it on the counter in front of them. I was a spectator. The event was surreal. Later I learned that the owner had received a call from another guitar dealer who reported that a person, matching the description of the young man with the guitar, had stolen a guitar from his store. The youth was trying to sell the guitar quickly to an unsuspecting music store. The police were called and the youth was soon arrested. The guns disappeared from view.
When you travel the nation, as I did, you see that America is really a large nation of many different cultures. When I was once in Wisconsin, it was expected that I would join others and drink beer during the sales presentation – at 11:00 in the morning. While in Louisiana, you will invariably encounter people who want to tell you “Little Boudreaux” jokes, or explain the correct pronunciation of LaFayette, a town in Louisiana. If you make a sales call in the “Valley” (Texas – Mexico) while wearing a Brooks Brothers suit, you will become the brunt of many jokes. In Atlanta, years ago, there was a music store owner who would randomly shoot at a cymbal hung in the corner of the ceiling of the music store. Salespersons would point out the bullet-ridden cymbal to customers for effect.
I recant these stories to establish in your mind the extremes of cultural values that are evident in America, and to underscore the difficulty anyone would encounter forming gun control legislation that would appeal unilaterally to every member of every sub-culture in America. To be certain, we have the right to bear firearms. It is also certain that we have the power to create legislation which protects the standards of every community. Those standards differ from community to community. It is represented by the NRA, and others who embrace an absolutist view about freedom, that the Constitution sets the national standard. Reason dictates otherwise. We are no longer a nation of 18th century pioneers.
I have never had cause or been uneasy when in the presence of a gun owner. In my experience, I have found that gun owners have a heightened sense of responsibility. Personally, I do not want to be placed in a position where I must rely on a firearm to protect myself, but if that situation arose, and perhaps only as a matter of principle, I would at least want someone to get a shot off in the direction of the perpetrator. It seems only fair that if someone is intent to shoot me, that someone would shoot him a couple of times too. With that concession made, I see no harm done asking gun owners to meet very strict requirements in order to carry a firearm. I would think they would agree for no other reason than because to do so would increase the integrity of their own membership. I assign absolutely no credibility to arguments that hold that such requirements would constitute a government conspiracy to usurp our constitutionally protected freedoms. I will add that, in general, gun owners — the vocal ones — have a temperament of masculine bravado that weakens the credibility of their arguments. When I hear someone shout in defiant anger, “I WILL NOT GIVE UP MY RIGHT UNTIL YOU TAKE THE GUN FROM MY COLD, DEAD HAND,” I tend to think, “Okay, someone shoot this guy now and we can continue our discussions after lunch.”
If there is a common good that can be done, it must be done by people who understand the many cultures that are evident in our country. That group is not going to include me. The outcome of their decision making is going to affect people in Texas and Arizona differently than people in Wisconsin (after they sober up). Creating a national standard can only be done by people who understand far more than I understand.
But I do understand freedom at the local level. In my past, I have been a big fish in a small pond. As power increases, so does responsibility and accountability. If the people in my community feel safer for my having submitted to the rigors of a criminal background check before I am permitted to coach their children, then I will meet their requirements with haste. Gun owners do more for their cause, their rights, by volunteering to submit to fair and reasonable tests too. But for those gun owners who say they have a right which is not beholding to the community standard; that their right to carry and conceal is an end in itself – I believe they have a warped and inaccurate understanding of what freedom really means. We confer power to government officials; except for those rights which we reserve for ourselves. But just as the conference of powers must include stringent rules of accountability, we are right to insist that the same level of accountability is assigned to those citizens who act on their reserved rights. Power, whether it is evident in government or an individual, requires checks and balances to protect us from the tyranny of government, or the tyranny of any individual.
Responsible gun owners (which I believe applies to most gun owners) should be outraged to be represented by political extremists such as our evident among the leadership of the National Rifle Association. The integrity of the membership of those who carry firearms is being drawn into question as a matter of this national debate, and it should therefore be gun owners who attend to the heartfelt concerns of community members who seek to hold gun owners accountable. Remaining resiliently opposed to reasonable challenges is no different than if government remains resiliently opposed to inquiries about its activities. That is to say, for every citizen who acts on reserved rights, the same level of accountability, checks and balances should be in place which protects the citizenry from a tyranny that might one day be imposed by any single citizen. It frustrates me that I have not yet seen this argument in print. A government can become a tyrant. An individual can become one too.
I am not opposed to gun rights. I am opposed to the abuses of gun ownership, and I recognize that gun owners are a valuable member in the debate. I only suggest that any presentation which carries the tone of angry defiance, laced with accusations of governmental conspiracy, probably isn’t the best way to make your argument. If gun owners rely on extremists to carry their message, then the public will soon regard all gun owners as extremists. That consequence would be a grave injustice toward all responsible gun owners.