Members of the Lexington Militia, Massachusetts Colony, lined up in formation on the town green and waited. When the British Regulars marched into town and saw them they rushed over and squared off facing them, ready for a fight. No one knows who fired the first shot. It was the beginning of a very long day, the first day of our American Revolution, April 19, 1775.
To what extent revolution is in the air today is a matter of perspective. But the parallel here, with the possibility of armed clashes, cannot be missed. Resistance to the gun registration laws of 2013 in Connecticut and New York has been extraordinarily stiff. Estimates for the total number of residents in the two states who have defied the new laws vary, but by any measure they are in the hundreds of thousands.
And each of those residents is risking a felony conviction, as well as confiscation of their firearms, by doing so. We’ll get to why they chose to do that in a moment. The more immediate concern is the risk taken by the states – that is, the potential for violence that now exists if the law is enforced. Enforcement raises the specter of arrests, confiscations, prosecutions, imprisonments, and violence due to miscalculation, misunderstanding, or just sheer resistance to what is seen as a violation of the right of the people to keep and bear arms.
Our revolution began at Lexington after British troops were sent out there to seize armaments belonging to the colonials and used by their local militias. If this had been preceded by a demand to register all the colonial arms it would have been met with the same reception: resistance. Our revolutionary forbears knew better than to supply the fox with the keys to the henhouse. Registration is and has always been considered tantamount to confiscation.
And this is where we stand today in Connecticut and New York. It’s a standoff between the people and their state governments. The states cannot enforce the law without the high risk of violence, and if any resident is harmed as a result of such enforcement it will galvanize millions of people of arms all across the country. This is potentially catastrophic. An attack on one would be seen as an attack on all, a killing in the name of an unconstitutional law, an assault against life and liberty by a hostile government.
It won’t matter who shoots first, any more than it mattered at Lexington. In effect – and too many politicians have yet to grasp this – the registration law is the first shot: people of arms who are in violation have been declared fair game for arrest, imprisonment, and denial of the civil right to arms – loss of rights, livelihood, and liberty, all at the point of a gun. That is what the states have declared, and the people are well aware of what it means and what the possible consequences are.
When the mistrust, anger, and alienation between two sides reaches a certain pitch, all it takes is a spark at the right time and place and circumstance; a line is crossed, shots are fired, and there is no turning back, no way to undo the damage. We haven’t crossed that line yet. But if we’re going to keep things that way politicians are going to have to wise up and understand why their behavior is considered so threatening by their constituents and others throughout the land.
The “scofflaws” who are resisting registration are for the most part otherwise ordinary people who do not commit crimes. They have jobs, families, mortgages. Why are they taking such a risk, when all they had to do was register their weapons, after which they could have continued to possess them and use them as before? Partly it’s because they know their rights and they don’t like getting pushed around. But the motivation runs much deeper than just an individual right to keep his or her guns.
People of arms are part of a culture, a living tradition, where rights and responsibilities are two sides of one coin. The people know their rights were fought over and won for them by soldiers long gone, ancestors whose names and faces have faded from memory. Every generation learns that, and any generation might be called to the same duty. Today, if our rights are under threat, then we will someday be the ancestors to whom future generations will look back on and judge: did we keep our rights, did we preserve them for the future as people in the past preserved them for us, or did we lose – through lack of faith in the people, want of courage, lack of will, selfishness or laziness – and condemn them to an unequal struggle for a freedom we took for granted? Who would do that to their own progeny – their children, grandchildren, and all the generations who come after them – living in the shadow of our loss until things could be set right again at the expense of their own blood? The people of arms in Connecticut and New York have already given their answer. “Not on our watch,” they said.
People of arms recognize a right and a duty to resist registration. Many also recognize a right and a duty to resist forcible disarmament with force. This pits honest citizens against their lawful protectors, which is perverse. This is where the first clashes are most likely to erupt, between law enforcement and the targeted people of arms. But who set this deadly train in motion? It was the lawmakers, and there have been indications they themselves could become targets for retaliation if the people are harmed in any enforcement efforts. Obviously this would be a very ugly situation.
There are few people on any side of the issue that would like to see this happen. It’s bad enough that in our political sphere we have good people fighting against each other more often than they are actually working together in the common interest. How much worse would it be if we had good American citizens on both sides actually shooting at each other?
We have considered the parallels between the onset of our Revolution and the standoff in Connecticut and New York. Both have to do with disarmament (failure to register being a legal justification for disarmament) by the governing authority, and the risk of violence. This is important to keep in mind, because if the shooting starts we all lose control; all bets are off, and even the winners suffer greatly. But there are differences which could help mitigate current threats.
When our Revolution started people were ready for a change. The British authority sought to seize the colonials’ arms so they would not be a military threat to British rule. The colonials did not need the British authority and after eight grueling years of war they got rid of it. Today, people of arms have the same rights to protect, but revolution is in general not the goal. It’s no secret that most gun owners only wish to be left in peace, to be left alone to enjoy the freedoms they’ve always had. And people in Connecticut and New York have been bolstered by widespread notices from sheriffs and state troopers saying they will not enforce the new laws. In other words, the people’s protectors are on the side of the people, not the politicians.
That’s one thing that’ll help keep the peace. The other thing is that it seems the main intent of the new laws was to ban certain types of firearms and magazines; creating a registry of the weapons and their owners is of secondary importance. The firearms are expected to slowly drain away by attrition: as the owners die or get tired of them they will be sold to out-of-state buyers and eventually banished altogether from the states, since residents are now prohibited from buying them. This is what the states’ administrations really want, and as far as a strategy is concerned it may not a bad one: no confrontation, and the “problem” slowly leaks away.
Well, not exactly. The AR-15 rifle, one of the most coveted targets of many a gun ban, is highly modular and easily modified to comply with legal restrictions. In California, for example, the most prominent alteration made it so the ammunition are magazines non-detachable (“bullet button” feature). And now in New York it’s the pistol grip just behind the trigger that’s been done away with; people will have to hold the gun differently when they shoot, but other than ergonomic and cosmetic changes it’s the same thing. Similar innovations offer Connecticut residents a version of the rifle that conforms to their new law. The gun is not going away any time soon. The Yankee ingenuity that gave us the AR-15 is a gift that just keeps on giving.
It’s not clear how many will adopt the new designs (or least of all, magazine restrictions), which handicap the defender – criminals and the tyrant’s henchmen won’t obey any restrictions or bans (however unlikely one thinks tyranny here is possible, even in the infinite future, that’s one purpose of the weapons) – while the aggressors have free reign. What gun owner would accept such a handicap when it comes to defending himself, his family and his country? Private citizens and law enforcement personnel (and criminals alike for that matter) have always had access to the same kinds of weapons. And now there is an attempt to split, to drive a wedge between those that govern and enforce, and the rest of the people who are often referred to as “civilians” and considered unworthy of the same firearms for protection. But in America, everyone in our society is a civilian, regardless of rank or badge. We are all equally worthy of living and worth defending.
People of arms cannot be separated from their firearms because they cannot be separated from what they know is their responsibility for defending life and liberty. So while each state’s administration has in effect said to the people, We don’t want your weapons in this state, what they really means is, We think people like you don’t belong in this state, no matter even if they were born and raised there.
That’s a pretty serious thing for a government to say to its citizens, particularly when it comes with an implied threat of force. And so what if the law is not enforced and force is not used? Here government passes a law threatening the people with fines and imprisonment, then sits back on its hands because it’s shocked by the defiance and afraid of the consequences of enforcement, yet doesn’t have the sense or the guts to rescind the ominous law. And who’s to say the law won’t be enforced at some local level? The stage is set for tragic consequences as long as the law is in effect.
While the resistance has been overwhelming in terms of percentages and sheer numbers, what’s difficult to gauge is how militant the resistance is, or put another way, what fraction of the resistance is willing to make a fight of it if preyed upon by its own government. There is a thin line between being a member of an outcast minority and being a revolutionary. And again, it’s important to remember, people of arms are a national minority, and could come from all over the country to assist people under siege. In that sense it doesn’t matter how militant the people would be; there would be enough of them to raise hell, and that’s what war is.
A line has been drawn and both sides have guns. No shots have been fired so far, but the resistance is a warning. We must assume people of arms will defend their rights as they would defend their lives. For now, the state governments have blinked, and much of the gun culture has gone underground, making for an uneasy peace and a dangerous time to miscalculate.
The politicians must begin to understand just how threatening their behavior is to people of arms. That’s the most important thing that needs to happen if we are to avoid violence. Politicians: get educated! You don’t know your people. Learn before it’s too late.
The other thing is that with so many people at odds with their government the legitimacy of government itself is at stake. Americans are already feeling increasing disillusionment and loss of faith in government in general. And now we have something new: widespread disobedience among a peaceable demographic even against the threat of stiff penalties. It’s the culmination of the worst of gun control laws that do the thing gun control does best – turn law-abiding citizens into criminals.
If the state governments had counted on their people rolling over, and not caring about their rights and responsibilities, or not recognizing the threats inherent in a government’s drive to create a monopoly of force against them, then they have found themselves much mistaken. The people understand that under such a principle, when it comes to weapons the government claims it can have whatever it wants, and the government can decide whatever you need. And this is not the way of a free people.
Odysseus M Tanner