About a decade ago, while waiting at the town stoplight, I read the bumper stickers on the Jeep Cherokee in front of me. Two were familiar: "The West wasn't won with a registered gun" and "When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns." But the other one was new: "MY PRESIDENT IS CHARLTON HESTON."
Charlton Heston - president of the National Rifle Association from 1998 to 2003 - died on April 5. He was 84.
Heston made his name as an actor. He 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. Heston was 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 local whites regained control of their state governments, they passed some of America's first gun-control laws, aimed at preventing blacks from defending themselves against Ku Klux Klan terrorism.
A Mississippi law, for instance, stated that no freedman "shall keep or carry fire-arms of any kind, or any ammunition." At a congressional hearing in 1866, Gen. Rufus Saxton (a military governor then attempting to "reconstruct" the South) testified that whites "were seizing all fire-arms found in the hands of the freedmen. Such conduct is in clear and direct violation of their personal rights as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States."
Setting aside 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" - let's look at our state constitutions. Each has its own "Bill of Rights" or "Declaration of Rights." They're not amendments; they come in the first or second article, and guarantee rights such as religious liberty, freedom of expression and trial by jury.
Arizona proclaims that "The right of the individual citizen to bear arms in defense of himself or the State shall not be impaired." Colorado warrants that "The right of no person to keep and bear arms in defense of his home, person, and property, or in aid of the civil power when thereto legally summoned, shall be called into question." Idaho says that "The people have the right to keep and bear arms, which right shall not be abridged." Nevada states that "Every citizen has the right to keep and bear arms for security and defense, for lawful hunting and recreational use and for other lawful purposes."
All the Western states, 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 don'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 civil right that stands alongside religious liberty, freedom of speech and all the rest. And in the South 140 years ago, the right to bear arms was deemed a way for an oppressed people to protect their other civil rights granted by the federal Bill of Rights.
The West is Gun Country. A 2001 survey showed that Wyoming led the nation in households with guns - 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. The others in the top 10 were in the South.
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 none at all. You can join a peaceful protest assembly. You can read what you want, write letters to the local newspaper or found your own, and you can blog to your heart's content.
However, your Second Amendment rights have evaporated. By federal law, a convicted felon can't even 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. If your other rights are restored after you've done your time, why not that one?
Perhaps 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, and the other claimed that it guarantees a personal right to firearms for self-defense, among other things.
I don't know how the court will rule, but for my part, I think of it as a personal right that I choose not to exercise. Owning a gun is more than a right; it's also a responsibility, requiring safe storage in a house with children, cleaning and oiling, target practice to maintain proficiency, etc. 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.
Ed Quillen lives in Salida, Colorado, where he publishes Colorado Central Magazine and is a regular op-ed columnist for the Denver Post.