Protesters in Denver this week hold signs making a familiar, if absurd,… (Mark Piscotty / AFP/Getty…)
"Happiness is a warm gun," wrote John Lennon, 12 years before being gunned down in front of his New York apartment building by a madman armed with a .38 special. Lennon, of course, was being ironic, but there's no trace of irony being exhibited by another group of Americans in love with the power, beauty and mystique of their powder-heated death tools: The sponsors of Gun Appreciation Day on Jan. 19.
Event chairman Larry Ward warmed up the blogosphere Friday morning when, during an appearance on CNN, he proclaimed that if all African Americans had been included under the 2nd Amendment from the beginning, it might have meant the end of slavery. It's possible that Ward isn't as dumb as this statement makes him sound. He is the head of a Republican consulting firm called Political Media Inc., whose name suggests that he knows something about the power of outrageous statements to draw attention to one's cause.
Gun Appreciation Day is being led by Ward but is backed by a mishmash of conservative, pro-gun groups. Its aim is to repeat the success of the religious right's day of organized support last summer for Chick-fil-A, the restaurant chain whose CEO had outraged liberals by speaking out against same-sex marriage. On Jan. 19, supporters are being asked to gather at shooting ranges, gun shows and other firearm-friendly locales, carrying copies of the Constitution and signs urging the government to keep its hands off their shooting irons.
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The movement is, needless to say, a response to the national uproar and political fallout from December's school massacre in Newtown, Conn. Ward's remarks, meanwhile, were in response to critics who assert his gun day is in monstrously bad taste given that it comes during the three-day weekend capped by Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 21 -- King was, after all, killed by a rifle bullet.
Gun day organizers almost certainly were capitalizing on the timing of a different event -- the inauguration of President Obama -- and probably never thought twice about the King holiday. Moreover, those out to take umbrage could have doubtless found any number of celebrated shootings to get outraged about on any given day the organizers could have chosen. Still, Ward's response is instructive.
On its face, his statement is absurd. Even if slaves had the right to buy guns, they would not have had the ability; they weren't paid for their labor, would have found it nearly impossible to find a musket seller to serve them and of course would never have been allowed to keep a firearm by their owners. But that's all historical gobbledygook; in the context of the modern debate over gun control, Ward was hitting a prime target.
Ward's real point: The only way to guarantee freedom is with a well-armed populace, because otherwise there's nothing to stop the jack-booted Washington thugs from taking away your property, your livelihood and your pursuit of happiness. This has been a fundamental tenet of the gun-rights movement for so long that supporters seldom seem to question it, let alone think too deeply about the historical record on guns and government control.
So, sure, slavery may not be the best example. But what about all those other times when guns have maintained our freedoms? Times like ... um ...
Well, there were the Branch Davidians, an end-of-the-world cult in Waco, Texas, whose freedom to practice their form of underage polygamy and stockpile illegal weapons was challenged by our oppressive government. That ended in a fiery siege that killed 76 Davidians, as well as a scandal that prompted a reexamination by federal law enforcement officials of the right way to handle confrontations with armed groups. But no one's freedoms were protected.
OK, bad example; surely there are other instances in U.S. history when an oppressed minority used guns to fend off the tyranny of the majority in legitimate defense of its rights. There was, say, the union movement of the 19th century, when laborers and employers sometimes resorted to open warfare against each other -- but that was more like a battle between competing private interests than a defense of rights against the government.OK, how about further back? There was the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791, when a new tax on whiskey propelled armed Western settlers to revolt against the government. That ended quietly when President George Washington sent in a huge militia; historians these days consider it a milestone because it represented the first test of the federal government's willingness and ability to enforce its laws in the face of armed resistance. Had things worked out otherwise and the rebels succeeded, American democracy might not have survived.