At an address in Baltimore in 1864, one year before the end of the Civil War and his own death, President Abraham Lincoln discoursed on the subject of liberty. The word had had a great deal of exercise during the war, since Abolitionists in the North saw the goal of the struggle as the liberation of slaves; while the South saw it as the liberation from Northern tyranny. Lincoln here adds his own log-splitting common sense to the debate:
“The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name, liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names –liberty and tyranny.
“The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as his liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act, as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly, the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty…”
In the debate over gun legislation raging in Washington, as well as all over the country, advocates for stricter gun laws and their opponents among the gun lobbies are currently wrestling with that very issue: what is freedom? The former would like to be able to drop their children off at school without having to furnish them with bullet-proof vests; the latter want government to get off their backs and stop restricting their “constitutional freedom.” One seeks freedom from fear; the other, freedom from Uncle Sam.
But when someone else’s definition of freedom puts us all in danger, we have every right to seek the government’s protection. When the freedom enjoyed by the few threatens the freedom enjoyed by the multitude, something must give.
A total ban on assault weapons and clips, designed for military use, is not a violation of our constitutional right to bear arms. Neither are a background check and waiting period for private gun sales. These are hardly examples of government tyranny; they are a very rational and necessary response to a problem that has become a national nightmare, an epidemic that threatens us all. As much as they may have wished ordinary citizens to possess weapons as a check on government tyranny (at least, that was one of Mr. Madison’s arguments), the Framers of our Constitution would have been horrified at the thought of ordinary Americans’ being able to stockpile, not to mention use, weapons of mass slaughter.
Times have changed. Single-shot muskets, which took even a highly experienced soldier at least 15 seconds to reload, have given way to more rapid weapons of annihilation. New technologies create new challenges and demand new thinking, or at least, a more sane and rational approach to the old thinking.
Our children, as well as the rest of us, deserve a more sporting chance.