L. Neil Smith
I don't think many people realize it any more—many of those who do are inclined to lie about it and attempt to cover it up—but the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, commonly known as the Bill of Rights, were written not just to protect us from the would-be kings and dictators in government, but to protect us, as well, from democracy.
On both sides of the Federalist-Antifederalist split, most of the Founding Fathers expressed hatred and fear of the notion of "absolute democracy" in which the highest law was "vox populi, vox dei" ("The voice of the people is the voice of God."), an ancient proverb that novelist Robert A. Heinlein, an unusually astute observer of history and human nature, translated as "How the hell did we get into this mess?"
The rights that the Founders chose to enumerate were meant never to be decreed, legislated, adjudicated—or voted—away. They had been placed (or at least the Founders believed) beyond the reach of politicians, bureaucrats, and the people, themselves. While they were inclined to celebrate the mind and spirit of the individual human being, the Founders knew that our species doesn't play particularly well in groups, and that the collective intelligence of a mob is that of its brightest member—divided by the number of people in the group.
So how did we get from a society in which individuals were free, and the Bill of Rights was unassailable, to a society in which nothing is allowable unless you have begged specifically for the government's permission?
There are many answers to that question—my first novel, The Probability Broach, for example, is primarily about the unfortunate influence that the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion had on American history—but my purpose here is to consider the role of two more fundamental phenomena: an irrational obsession to make the whole world "safe" for idiots, and an insatiable desire to extract big bucks from deep pockets.
The single action cartridge revolver (relax, I'm not actually changing the subject, here) is a comparatively simple contrivance, although it does require that you meet it halfway in some respects. For example, although the original 1873 Colt "Peacemaker"—and its many imitators—has six chambers for cartridges bored into its cylinder, it is only safe to load five, leaving one chamber empty so that an accidental blow to the hammer (as when you drop it, or the stirrup falls onto it from your saddlehorn when you're tightening the cinch) can't unintentionally discharge the firearm straight into your leg.
For more than a hundred years, that was the drill, and everybody understood it. It's even mentioned in movies like The Shootist, when John Wayne explains it to a young man—Ron Howard—he's teaching to shoot. All you have to do is count cartridges as you slide them, one by one, through the opened loading gate, into the cylinder. Stop when you get to five. Make sure the chamber you leave empty is the one that's just forward of the hammer, and that the cylinder is indexed—locked in place—before you close the loading gate. As impossibly complicated as it is to try to write—maybe impossibly complicated to read, as well—it's extremely simple in practice. There's even an alternative technique, involving skipping the second chamber that you roll past, but I don't care for it, and I'm not going to go into it here.
Believe me, it's much simpler than driving a car with a manual transmission.
For all of that trouble, you get four extremely soul-satisfying clicks whenever you cock the weapon, a soul-satisfaction that's frustratingly hard to describe, easy to experience, and impossible to forget. You used to be able to hear it in the opening moments of Gunsmoke.
It's the very sound of the Old West, come to life.
All of that changed in 1973, however, the hundredth anniversary of Colt's first cartridge revolver, when Sturm, Ruger and Company, an outfit that had been succesfully manufacturing single actions in many ways superior to the Colt for 20 years, introduced what I have always referred to as their "Ralph Nader Safety Revolver", a gun designed, in essence, by liability lawyers, for idiots who can't count to five and stop.
Apparently some of those idiots had gotten lawyers themselves and sued the company, blaming it for the unfortunate results of their own idiocy. Because of the newly-designed ignition system, it was now safe to load all six chambers. Ruger would even convert your dangerous, nasty old five-shooter to a safe and sound six, for free. But a single action revolver is all about the sense of history it invokes. The click, clickity-click was gone forever, and with it, in this writer's opinion, the thrill it had offered—along with any reason not to buy a double action revolver instead, or even better, a semiautomatic pistol.
And so the threat of government action—in this case the fear of civil lawsuits—reshaped American culture after all, in ways that the Founding Fathers didn't want, and couldn't have anticipated, all to protect idiots from themselves, and reward them when their idiocy catches up to them. The operation of an antique style of handgun may seem like a small thing, but it's representative of a much larger phenomenon.
Today, you must apply for an expensive, difficult-to-obtain permit from the government before you are allowed broadcast your ideas to the world.
You must get government permission if you and your fellow beings wish to assemble and march to protest against the same government (how insane is that?) or apparently even meet in private to plan the event.
Otherwise, government's hired thugs will electrocute you, gas you, herd you all together, knock you down, and stomp your head and chest before they drag you off to a barbed wire pen. No, don't look at me like that: every one of these outrages just happened—again—at the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis. They may do it—and tear your press pass off—even if you've obtained the requisite permission.
You even have to clear your spiritual beliefs with the expert theologians at the IRS before you can officially be said to have a religion.
And, of course, you have to get an okay from the government before you can purchase a gun, and a permit to exercise your right to tote it.
It's what I call "controlled carry".
And that's just the first two amendments
If you should happen to ask them about any of these violations of the Constitution—provided they don't just smash your face and have you hauled off to Guantanamo—the politicians and bureaucrats in charge will explain, faux-patiently, that it's all for your own good, and that safety considerations must always trump the rights of mere individuals.
"We had to destroy the Bill of Rights in order to save it."
So what we have now, apparently, is the political equivalent of Ruger's Ralph Nader safety revolver, a "Safety" Bill of Rights, if you will (or even if you won't), ostensibly intended to protect idiots—meaning you and me and anybody else feeble-minded enough to believe in exercising their individual liberties—from themselves. More to the point, our rights under the Constitution or any other construction don't mean a thing if our betters, our masters, and our owners decide that they represent a danger to them. That's what the Republican power elite was telling us last weekend in Minneapolis. It's the same thing that the Democratic power elite told us the weekend before that, in Denver.
Since even the smartest individuals are almost always idiots in groups, constituting a clear and present danger even to little old ladies with shopping carts, innocent sheep in Wyoming, and wooden Indians outside of cigar stores, it may be there's no way out of the trap that's been set for us. Safety fascism has taken America over permanently.
Or has it?
Lying on the desk beside my keyboard as I write, is a big, fat Glock M20, a 10 millimeter semiautomatic pistol with an absolutely astonishing (to me, anyway) magazine capacity. Many things about this weapon are remarkable, but the pertinent fact is that it doesn't have any kind of manual safety. A gun doesn't need a safety as long as you remember to keep your finger off the trigger until you mean to pull it.
The Glock is a relatively new development, historically speaking, one that flies in the face of every current trend by depending on the user's intelligence for safety. So maybe there's some hope left, after all.
At least for those of us who aren't idiots.
As for the rest of American civilization, maybe it's time for some reeducation. I have a book under development aimed at accomplishing that very thing and am now planning a website to expose and deal with police violence. I'd be happy to tell you all about them, any time you wish.
My old friend and partner Aaron Zelman is making a groundbreaking video for the Internet on the individual right to own and carry weapons. It's an expensive proposition to do it right and he could use help.
Go to www.jpfo.org.
I'm confident there are others hard at work on similar projects. Ron Paul's supporters don't seem to have missed a beat since their candidate stepped down, but appear more active and enthusiastic than ever.
If you don't have a project of your own for the advancement of liberty, and don't plan to start one of your own, then offer your support to those who do. It is of such stuff that true revolutions are made.
Freedom first, safety second—or maybe third.
Four-time Prometheus Award-winner L. Neil Smith has been called one of the world's foremost authorities on the ethics of self-defense. He is the author of 25 books, including The American Zone, Forge of the Elders, Pallas, The Probability Broach, Hope (with Aaron Zelman), and his collected articles and speeches, Lever Action, all of which may be purchased through his website "The Webley Page" at lneilsmith.org.