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September 26, 2000

   Aux Armes, Citoyens!


Some pieces I wrote for NR Online about my satisfaction at becoming a handgun owner and my adventures in search of cheap ammunition got me invited to a political rally near my home town this past Sunday — the first event on behalf of the gun rights lobby I had ever attended. The rally was organized by S.A.F.E., the Sportsman's Association for Firearms Education, which does valuable work here on Long Island in teaching young people the proper use and handling of firearms.

This was a major event, held in the Grand Ballroom of our nearest big hotel. Wayne LaPierre, the Executive Vice President of the N.R.A., was on the platform. U.S. Rep. Bob Barr, who has much more pressing matters to attend to in his own election battle down in Georgia, none the less found time to attend. Professor John Lott, who wrote More Guns, Less Crime, the definitive analysis of the benefits of widespread gun ownership, was there. So was Texas State Rep. Suzanna Gratia Hupp, who lost her parents in a 1991 restaurant massacre — an event Ms. Gratia Hupp could only watch helplessly because, complying with her state's carry laws, she had left her own handgun locked in her car outside. Charlton Heston couldn't make it, but delivered a stirring address by video.

My first impression on finding myself in a room with 1,200 other gun enthusiasts was that this was a very friendly crowd. I don't know what I had expected: a mob of snaggle-toothed, visor-capped strays from the set of Deliverance, perhaps. I think I did in fact spot a couple of that species, but the overwhelming majority of participants were my neighbors and yours — working- and middle-class Americans who cherish their rights and want to defend them. A surprising number were women, and a surprising number of these were beautiful. P.J. O'Rourke has argued that you know you're involved in a significant social phenomenon when you find yourself among lots of good-looking women. Woodstock 1969; journalism 1976; Wall Street 1984; I think you can add Second Amendment rights 2000 to the list. Suzanna Gratia Hupp is a knockout.

The other thing I noticed was the high level of good manners among gun folk, bringing to mind Robert A. Heinlein's aphorism: "An armed society is a polite society." (A sufficient explanation, perhaps, for the appalling rudeness now universal in my own, thoroughly disarmed, homeland of Britain … Where, by the way, according to my friends and relatives over there, having one's house burgled is now regarded as one of life's unavoidable nuisances, like catching the occasional head cold.)

The racial mix of the audience was interesting. The blessing was given by a black minister from Nassau county, and there was a sprinkling of black faces in the audience; yet I am pretty sure we were short on blacks, though since this is white suburbia it's hard to be certain. If true, this is a shame: as Prof. Lott pointed out, restrictions on gun ownership cause most harm to the weakest groups in society — women, the old, minorities. Some of the first gun laws in the U.S.A. were passed to keep weapons out of the hands of mutinous black slaves. On the other hand, there were a surprising number of yarmulkes on show — surprising, I mean, for a group with a reputation for hard-core left-liberalism. Alan Chwick, the gentleman who introduced me to S.A.F.E. — he runs several of their programs — is a witty, fast-talking New York Jew straight out of Central Casting. Is there something here that Hillary Clinton doesn't know?

The standard of speaking was very high. I imagine these people have found themselves sharing the same platform quite a lot; at least, they complemented each other very well. Prof. Lott gave a lucid summary of the thesis set out in his book. Of course (he argued) a society with lots of armed citizens will have more accidental gun deaths and more rampages by armed lunatics that a society with no guns. It will also, however, have far more crimes deterred, discouraged and foiled; and a responsible social scientist should try to estimate the net gain or loss. That is what he had set out to do; and I recommend that anyone who wants to talk intelligently about this topic read his book. Bob Barr gave a brilliant, fiery speech calling us to the colors on behalf of his party and its presidential candidate. Wayne LaPierre made up in passion what he lacked in coherence. Suzanna Gratia Hupp brought to mind Margaret Thatcher in her prime, and left me with a lump in my throat on that account. I have sat through a lot of speechifying in my time; this event was way up in the higher levels.

It was the more surprising to find such a successful, well-attended event here in the outer suburbs of New York City. A neighbor I encountered in the hall, a man in his fifties who grew up around here, put this in perspective for me. "When I was 14 years old, I used to walk down the street with a rifle over my shoulder, on my way to go hunting. Kids used to take guns to school with them, on the bus. The same in New York City — the city schools had gun clubs, too. Nobody thought anything of it. There weren't any accidents that I ever heard of — everybody knew how to handle their guns. Have people changed so much, that they can't be trusted with the rights they had 40 years ago? I don't believe it."

At the heart of the Second Amendment battle is precisely that issue, a core issue in the politics of today: whether citizens are to be trusted to run their own lives, or whether managerial elites are to run our lives for us. The eliteniks have won most of the big battles in recent decades; but here, in a genteel middle-class suburb in a left-wing state, the opposition is strong — strong enought to fill a big hall to standing-room only with enthusiasts — and articulate and organized. There is a train back from what de Tocqueville called "administrative despotism," and the passion for Second Amendment rights is helping to power that train. Whether you care about guns or not, if you believe in running your own life and deciding your own fate, this movement is your movement, and you could do a good thing for yourself and your country by joining four million other Americans in the N.R.A.