Ronald Reagan: The Gun Owner's Champion
[In the September 1975 issue of Guns & Ammo magazine, Ronald Reagan, then two-time Governer of California, penned this column. A man of conviction, Ronaldus Magnus was true to these words before and during his eight-year presidency.]
There are tales of robbery victims that are shot down in cold blood or executed "gangland style." There are stories of deranged parents killing their children or deranged children killing their parents. There are reports of snipers. And now and then the headlines blurt out that an assassin has struck again, killing a prominent official or citizen. All of these stories involve the use of guns, or seem to. As a result, there is growing clamor to outlaw guns, to ban guns, to confiscate guns in the name of public safety and public good.
These demands come from people genuinely concerned about rising crime rates, persons such as Sheriff Peter Pitchess of Los Angeles, who says gun control is an idea whose time has come. They come from people who see the outlawing of guns as a way of outlawing violence. And they come from those who see confiscation of weapons as one way of keeping the people under control.
Now I yield to no one in my concern about crime, and especially crimes of violence. As governor of California for eight years, I struggled daily with that problem. I appointed judges who, to the best of my information, would be tough on criminals. We approved legislation to make it more difficult for persons with records of crime or instability to purchase firearms legally. We worked to bring about swift and certain punishment for persons guilty of crimes of violence.
We fought hard to reinstate the death sentence after our state Supreme Court outlawed it, and after the U.S. Supreme Court followed suit, we won.
Now, however, the California court that sought eagerly to be the first to outlaw the death penalty is dragging its heels as it waits for the U.S. Court to rule. The Chief Justice in California, whom I appointed with such high hopes, in this regard has disappointed many of us who looked to him to help again make our streets, our shops and our homes safe. I find it difficult to understand persons like President Ford's new Attorney General, Edward H. Levi. Attorney General Levi would ban guns in areas with high rates of crime.
Mr. Levi is confused. He thinks somehow that banning guns keeps them out of the hands of criminals. New Yorkers who suffer under the Sullivan Act know better, they know that the Sullivan Act makes law-abiding citizens sitting ducks for criminals who have no qualms about violating it in the process of killing and robbing and burglarizing. Despite this, Mr. Levi apparently thinks that criminals will be willing to give up their guns if he makes carrying them against the law. What naivete!
Mightn't it be better in those areas of high crime to arm the homeowner and the shopkeeper, teach him how to use his weapons and put the word out to the underworld that it is not longer totally safe to rob and murder?
Our nation was built and civilized by men and women who used guns in self-defense and in pursuit of peace. One wonders indeed, if the rising crime rate, isn't due as much as anything to the criminal's instinctive knowledge that the average victim no longer has means of self-protection.
No one knows how many crimes are committed because the criminal knows he has a soft touch. No one knows how many stores have been let alone because the criminals knew it was guarded by a man with a gun or manned by a proprietor who knew how to use a gun.
Criminals are not dissuaded by soft words, soft judges or easy laws. They are dissuaded by fear and they are prevented from repeating their crimes by death or by incarceration.
In my opinion, proposals to outlaw or confiscate guns are simply unrealistic panacea. We are never going to prevent murder; we are never going to eliminate crime; we are never going to end violent action by the criminals and the crazies--with or without guns.
True, guns are a means for committing murder and other crimes. But they are not an essential means. The Los Angeles Slasher of last winter killed nine men without using a gun. People kill and rob with knives and clubs. Yet we have not talked about outlawing them. Poisons are easy to come by for the silent killer.
The automobile is the greatest peacetime killer in history. There is no talk of banning the auto. With the auto we have cracked down on drunken drivers and on careless drivers. We need also to crack down on people who use guns carelessly or with criminal intent.
I believe criminals who use guns in the commission of a crime, or who carry guns, should be given mandatory sentences with no opportunity for parole. That would put the burden where it belongs--on the criminal, not on the law abiding citizen.
Let's not kid ourselves about what the purpose of prison should be: It should be to remove criminals from circulation so that they cannot prey upon society. Punishment for deterrent purposes, also plays a part. Rehabilitation, as many experts, including California Attorney General Evelle Younger, have discovered, is not a very good reason for imprisoning people. People don't rehabilitate very well in prison.
There is an old saying that slaves remain slaves while free men set themselves free. It is true with rehabilitation, also. Criminals rehabilitate themselves, there is little you and I can do about it. But back to the purpose of this article which, hopefully, is to make the case against gun control.
The starting point must be the Constitution, because, above all, we are a nation of laws and the foundation for our laws, or lack of same, is the Constitution.
It is amazing to me how so many people pay lip service to the Constitution, yet set out to twist and distort it when it stands in the way of things they think ought to be done or laws they believe ought to be passed. It is also amazing to me how often our courts do the same thing.
The Second Amendment is clear, or ought to be. It appears to leave little, if any, leeway for the gun control advocate. It reads: "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."
There are those who say that, since we have no militia, the amendment no longer applies; they would just ignore it. Others say nuclear weapons have made the right to keep and bear arms irrelevant, since arms are of little use against weapons of such terrible destructive power. Both arguments are specious.
We may not have a well-regulated militia, but it does not necessarily follow that we should not be prepared to have one. The day could easily come when we need one.
The nuclear weapon argument is even more silly. Many wars have been fought since World War II and no nuclear bomb has been dropped. We have no assurance that the next world war will be a nuclear war. But, regardless of any possible merit they might have, both these arguments beg the question, which is: Shall the people have a right to keep and bear arms?
There is little doubt that the founding fathers thought they should have this right, and for a very specific reason: They distrusted government. All of the first 10 amendments make that clear. Each of them specifies an area where government cannot impose itself on the individual or where the individual must be protected from government.
The second amendment gives the individual citizen a means of protection against the despotism of the state. Look what it refers to: "The security of a free state." The word "free" should be underlined because that is what they are talking about and that is what the Constitution is about--a free nation and a free people, where the rights of the individual are pre-eminent. The founding fathers had seen, as the Declaration of Independence tells us, what a despotic government can do to its own people. Indeed, every American should read the Declaration of Independence before he reads the Constitution, and he will see that the Constitution aims at preventing a recurrence of the way George III's government treated the colonies.
The declaration states this plainly: "But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government and to provide new Guards for their future security."
There is no question that the first 10 amendments are a part of those "new guards" for their future security. And one of the most basic of those guards is the right to keep and bear arms.
There are those in America today who have come to depend absolutely on government for their security. And when government fails they seek to rectify that failure in the form of granting government more power. So, as government has failed to control crime and violence with the means given it by the Constitution, they seek to give it more power at the expense of the Constitution. But in doing so, in their willingness to give up their arms in the name of safety, they are really giving up their protection from what has always been the chief source of despotism--government.
Lord Acton said power corrupts. Surely then, if this is true, the more power we give the government the more corrupt it will become. And if we give it the power to confiscate our arms we also give up the ultimate means to combat that corrupt power. In doing so we can only assure that we will eventually be totally subject to it. When dictators come to power, the first thing they do is take away the people's weapons. It makes it so much easier for the secret police to operate, it makes it so much easier to force the will of the ruler upon the ruled.
Now I believe our nation's leaders are good and well-meaning people. I do not believe that they have any desire to impose a dictatorship upon us. But this does not mean that such will always be the case. A nation rent internally, as ours has been in recent years, is always ripe for a "man on a white horse." A deterrent to that man, or to any man seeking unlawful power, is the knowledge that those who oppose him are not helpless.
The gun has been called the great equalizer, meaning that a small person with a gun is equal to a large person, but it is a great equalizer in another way, too. It insures that the people are the equal of their government whenever that government forgets that it is servant and not master of the governed. When the British forgot that they got a revolution. And, as a result, we Americans got a Constitution; a Constitution that, as those who wrote it were determined, would keep men free. If we give up part of that Constitution we give up part of our freedom and increase the chance that we will lose it all.
I am not ready to take that risk. I believe that the right of the citizen to keep and bear arms must not be infringed if liberty in America is to survive.