An Open Letter to
Wayne LaPierre of the NRA
March 2013

by John Herring

 
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Last Edited 2013-03-09

Mr. LaPierre:


In your recent remarks (January 2013) at the Weatherby Foundation dinner and during your appearance before Congress, you described gun ownership as a “God-given freedom” and a “God-given right.” Would you mind clarifying this? Did God speak to you, personally, to let you know that your right to own guns is sanctioned by heaven itself? I’d like to think that you don’t really believe this. In what way, then, is the right to gun ownership “God-given”? Perhaps you believe that gun ownership is somehow endorsed by the Bible, or some religious authority. I don’t recall any mention of guns in the Bible at all. I don’t remember any Pope or other religious leader endorsing gun ownership. Do you?

President William Henry Harrison remarked that “We admit of no government by divine right . . . . The only legitimate right to govern is an express grant of power from the governed.” So of what force would “God-given” rights be in our democracy — where the people determine what is right? How, exactly, can rights even be called “God-given”? How and when did God give us these rights? If thereís no record of the rights that God supposedly gave us, how can we ever agree on what is or isnít “God-given”? What if I believe that God gave us the right to live in a gun-free society? That God does not want us to own guns? If you believe that God gave us the right to keep and bear arms, why does your belief take precedence over mine? What makes your position more correct than mine? It seems as though we’re discussing opinions here. Is your opinion more right than mine? How could we ever agree on such things?

You also stated that “No government ever gave [these freedoms] to us and no government can ever take them away.” Where, then, do such freedoms originate? If we can’t demonstrate God’s endorsement, and if no government gave these freedoms to us, where do they come from? The Declaration of Independence states that “to secure [our] rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed . . . .” While the Declaration is not the law of the land (it’s not the Constitution, after all), it does help us understand a little better how the Founding Fathers thought. This passage certainly looks like they thought that such rights as we enjoy are guaranteed by the government, which in this country proceeds from the will of the people.

The Declaration of Independence does speak of certain “unalienable rights” as being God-given, but then lists only the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. A good thing, too. If we were to regard all the rights enumerated in our Constitution as God-given, then weíd have to assume that these couldnít ever be changed. If what’s right is always what’s right, then we couldn’t amend the Constitution to outlaw disagreeable practices, and then re-amend it to allow them again, as we did with Prohibition.

It’s hard to defend the idea that rights are always right. That what’s right doesn’t change, and governments merely acknowledge and enumerate such rights, rather than grant them. That rights proceed from God, who does not change, and therefore rights themselves do not change. That governments only grope toward better codifications of these rights, and may make mistakes from time to time, without thereby altering what is truly right. That what we define as rights are only legal enumerations of rights, rather than a complete listing of moral rights, which are themselves unchanging. That our declarations of legal rights are just approximations of a perfect moral code, and may need to be revised from time to time to better approximate that perfect moral code.

I submit that we canít really know which moral rights will and will not be included or excluded from a future version of an enumeration of legal rights. In fact, we canít really know which should be, not with complete certainty. Things change. Take, for instance, a woman’s right to vote. Until 1920, women didn’t have the legal right to vote in this country. Now they do. Where did this right come from? Is it merely legally right, and not necessarily morally right? Or is it morally right, and we just didn’t acknowledge that moral right in our legal code until 1920? I’m going to assume that you agree that women should be allowed to vote, and that you therefore agree that this is a moral right, one that we unfortunately didn’t include from the start in our Constitution as a legal right. Back in 1791, the Framers didn’t agree that women should have the right to vote. We’ve since come to a better understanding of rights (we think), and weíve made sure that women can vote. Do you think this was an error? Should women have the right to vote? Or did they always have the right, but had to wait until 1920 to see that right legally acknowledged?

The Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789) is another historically important attempt to codify natural rights, but it doesn’t even mention guns. What makes our Constitution better or more complete or more correct than the French enumeration of rights?

Is it wrong to alter the Constitution? Are the Amendments to it less important than the original, unamended text? If Amendments to the Constitution have the same weight and authority as the rest of the Constitution (and I’m assuming you would agree with this statement, since the right to bear arms is enumerated in the Second Amendment), then should we just stop amending the Constitution? Is there something privileged or sacrosanct about the Constitution as it now stands? Is there some reason why we can’t or shouldn’t amend it further? Until 1913, we didn’t have the right to choose our own senators by popular vote. Now we do. Where did this right come from? The will of the majority, ratifying Amendment 17.

Perhaps rights proceed from the will of the people instead of from God. If the will of the people is all that’s needed to amend the Constitution, then it seems that rights are granted and withdrawn by the will of the people. Unless you think that rights proceed from some other source. God? You’ve already said that the right to bear arms doesn’t proceed from the government. Where, then, does it proceed from? Is it just one of those things that’s always right, whether or not it’s acknowledged by a government? What sorts of things are included in this class of what’s always right? What kinds of things do you think belong in the category of always right, no matter what someone else has to say about it? Who gets to define this class of eternally right things?

Well, in this country, we try to govern according to the will of the majority of the people. It may not be a perfect system, but we don’t seem to have a better approach handy. This is why we had Prohibition, and why Prohibition is no longer with us — in 1919, the majority of the people voted to ratify the Amendment establishing Prohibition. In 1933, the majority voted to repeal it. A right was taken away, and later restored, all by majority vote.

We don’t really have anything to base our governmental principles upon other than the will of the people. It’s called democracy. We don’t make laws to recognize “God-given freedoms.” You can see the problem, I hope, with the idea of basing a government on “God-given freedoms” — who gets to list these freedoms? Whose ideas about Godís will do we follow? Instead of having such a theocracy, in this country we enumerate our rights, as acts of government, because that’s the only way we know how to pass laws fairly. Do you have a suggestion for something that should replace the will of the majority? Or is the will of the majority to be disregarded when you don’t agree with it?

If the Second Amendment were someday repealed, would you abide by the new law of the land, prohibiting gun ownership? Or would you just disregard the new law because you believe that your right to own guns is “God-given”? Isn’t that what criminals do? Disregard the law?

You also said that “We believe in our Bill of Rights. And we believe in our Second Amendment, ALL of our Second Amendment.” (Your emphasis.) But if you really believe in ALL of the Second Amendment, which militia do you belong to? The Framers of the Constitution clearly intended that the militia (one per state, if I’m not mistaken) should be well ordered and well equipped; this was the ONLY reason they listed for people to own guns. How can you justify owning guns if you’re not part of a militia? Any such justification is clearly not constitutional. Taking the Second Amendment as written, you must belong to a militia in order to have the right to own guns.

Further in your remarks, you objected to the idea of universal background checks, on the grounds that they wouldn’t do any good because criminals would defy and disregard such laws. Following your logic, why should we bother to have any laws at all? Criminals always disregard laws; this is why we call them criminals. Do you really think we shouldn’t have laws against murder, rape, and robbery? Murderers, rapists, and robbers certainly do not feel bound by such laws, so what good are they? (Why, by the way, do you insist on this position when not only the majority of Americans support such background checks, but a majority of NRA members do also?) I happen to believe in a society governed by laws. I think it’s a good idea for us to have laws, even though criminals break them.

You also objected to expanded, universal background checks, saying that it was only one step from background checks to the establishment of a national registry of gun owners. What exactly would be the big deal if we did have such a registry? We’re all required to register our cars now, and to keep those registrations up to date every year. Certainly assembling a national registry of car owners would be a fairly easy thing to do. But, you might say, no one wants to take away our cars, and there are those who want to take away our guns, and such a registry would make that easier for a hypothetical tyrannical government, bent on oppressing the citizenry, to do.

A brief look at some other developed nations might be instructive. The British, Australian, and Japanese people are all prohibited, for the most part, from owning guns. Most of these people do not own guns of any kind. Even the police in England usually go unarmed — there’s just not much need for even the police to have weapons, since the criminals generally don’t have guns in the first place. (And I’m fairly sure that the British, the Australians, and the Japanese don’t regard their governments, which took away their rights to own guns, as tyrannical. I’m even willing to bet that they do not fear armed governmental oppression, even though their governments have guns and their people do not. Why do you fear that the American government will turn on its citizens?)

You’ve also suggested that gun owners should have the right to meet intruders and criminals on an equal basis, armed with equal technology. But why stop there? Why not give the law-abiding citizen the right to employ superior firepower? If your attacker comes at you with a pistol, why shouldn’t you be allowed to defend yourself with a semi-automatic rifle? If the criminal has a semi-automatic rifle, why shouldn’t you be allowed to respond with a fully automatic rifle? Or a mini-gun, firing 2,000 rounds a minute? Where do you draw the line?

If you object to restrictions on magazine capacity, how many bullets do you need? You might suggest that you should be allowed to have as many bullets available as an attacker might have. But the gunman in the theater in Aurora, Colorado, shot 70 people with his 100-round magazine. Should we be allowed to buy 100-round magazines? Why not fully automatic rifles?

Even the majority of the members of the NRA believe that fully automatic weapons should be restricted, that it’s OK for the government to ban these things, that it makes sense to keep them illegal. And what’s the result? All law-abiding citizens, and most criminals, do not have fully automatic weapons. Now suppose that we ban semi-automatic rifles . . . .

Since the Second Amendment did not specify why having a well ordered militia would be a good thing, other than to ensure the security of the state, how can you argue that the Second Amendment gives you the right to keep and bear arms for hunting, target shooting, or even self-defense? These things are clearly not spelled out in the Second Amendment. It speaks of the militia only. If you’re not keeping and bearing arms in pursuit of what the Second Amendment authorizes, you’re violating the spirit and the letter of the Amendment. Youíre inventing reasons why you should be allowed to have guns, reasons that are not recognized by the Second Amendment.

One reason the Framers wanted a well equipped, well ordered militia was so that it could supplement or substitute for the standing army, when needed. Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist #29, describes a well regulated militia as “the most natural defense of a free country.” He went on to recommend the proper use of the militia — “ . . . the federal government can command the aid of the militia in those emergencies which call for the military . . . in support of the civil [authority].” Where is there any mention of things like hunting and self-defense?

Supreme Court Justice Story wrote in 1833 that “The right of the citizens to keep and bear arms . . . offers a strong moral check against the usurpation and arbitrary power of rulers; and will generally, even if these are successful . . . enable the people to resist and triumph over them.” Do you really think that this applies today? That any militia or combination of militias (the National Guard?) would be able to mount an effective defense against a determined attack by the US military? Isn’t having such a militia, then, pointless?

The Framers of the Constitution, when they included the Second Amendment in 1791, were aware only of single-shot muskets and pistols. We can assume that they thought such weapons would be adequate against a hypothetical oppressive government, similarly armed. If the goal was to allow the citizens armaments equal to those of the government, so they would be able to resist that government when needed, why don’t we allow the public to own fully automatic rifles, mini-guns, fighter jets, and nuclear weapons today? (I’m assuming that you wouldn’t be in favor of such a thing.) We don’t allow these things because the public doesn’t need fully automatic rifles, mini-guns, fighter jets, and nuclear weapons. We have no problem restricting the public this way — infringing their right to keep and bear arms — because it would be far too dangerous to allow the general public to have access to these things.

Did I say “far too dangerous”? I think it’s also “far too dangerous” to allow citizens access to semi-automatic rifles. I think the parents of those killed at Columbine, Aurora, Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook would agree. If you think it’s NOT far too dangerous to allow these weapons in the hands of the public (without background checks, no less!), tell me this: what weapons SHOULD we allow people to use? Which weapons are NOT far too dangerous?

You seem to think that public ownership of semi-automatic weapons is justified (justified by the fact that criminals own them and might use them), no matter what the cost in innocent human life. I see a problem with this. I don’t find the rate of loss of human life we currently suffer to be an acceptable price to pay to ensure that we can meet the bad guys with weapons similar to those they have. You apparently do. Let me ask you, then, just what rate of loss would you find unacceptable? Not 100%, because then we’d all be dead and not having this discussion. How about 95%? Would you be willing to see 95% of our population killed, if that were the price of allowing our citizens to be armed with semi-automatic weapons? Seems pretty drastic to me. How about 90%? 80%? 70%? At some point, we’re going to get to a number that you DO find acceptable. And that’s the problem. There is a number, somewhere, that you do find acceptable.

Women didn’t gain the right to vote until just 1920, less than a hundred years ago, but we would today view anyone who wanted to take that right away as being sadly out of touch with modern realities. In just the same way, you’re clinging to a view that’s centuries out of date, and is just no longer relevant to today’s society. You’re on the wrong side of history, Mr. LaPierre.

I trust that when the Second Amendment is repealed, you’ll respect the law and give up your guns.