Sunday, January 13, 2013

Imagine that! George Washington defended assault weapon ownership. (Or, misquotes, lies, and illogical arguments attributed to the Founders)

If you believe what you see floating around on the internet, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin were staunch advocates of assault weapon (and, in some cases, unlimited weaponry) ownership. Should you doubt that, never fear: there are plenty of quotes, attributed to those founders, floating around to prove the point. Some are even superimposed over portraits of the founders, to lend an air of gravitas to the words. Many are “quotes” for which there is absolutely no evidence that the person in question ever uttered or wrote those words, and others are outright distortions. Consider, for example, the following quote, supposedly by George Washington:

A free people ought not only be armed and disciplined, but they should have sufficient arms and ammunition to maintain a status of independence from any who might attempt to abuse them, which would include their own government.

Or, if you prefer the complete-with-Washingtonian-imagery-gravitas version:

Advocates of unlimited weapon ownership couldn't ask for a more apropos quote from a founding father. Alas, then, for them that it's bogus (though apparently the hundreds who liked it and thousands who shared it and similar versions didn't bother to look further). Abraham Lincoln perhaps said it best in his famous line, “you cannot believe most of the quotes you see on the internet”.* This seems to be a concept that many have not yet come to terms with: that people will lie to advance a cause they believe in, therefore some investigation is in order when a “too good to be true” quote comes out, and it's probably best to do some digging to validate it before passing it along (because, who knows, some irritating blogger might spot it, and be inspired to write a piece about it). Of course, such uncritical acceptance is not to be anticipated by those on the other side of the discussion.

A blogger at DailyKos picked it up, and found the following:

The quote is floating around on Facebook and on various anti-gun control blogs like "Ammunition Depot"  and "Famous Second Amendment Quotes."  Sometimes the quote has a source, usually the Boston Independent Chronicle, January 14, 1790 but usually is just attributed nakedly to George Washington.  The quote, of course, is bogus. It is a blatant distortion of what Washington actually said. Its evolution is an interesting case study on how quotes are distorted and distributed for political purpose.

The actual quote comes from Washington's address to Congress on January  8th, 1790 and goes like this: "A free people ought not only to be armed, but disciplined; to which end a Uniform and well digested plan is requisite: And their safety and interest require that they should promote such manufactories, as tend to render them independent others, for essential, particularly for military supplies."

The full text of Washington's address can be found here (credit for the find goes to the Daily Kos article). So when I, thinking that the quote sounded a little “too good to be true” for the “the AR-15 is what stands between us and tyranny!” crowd, set out to do a little research, it didn't take long. But, while the appeal to authority is nullified, what about the idea behind it? What about the idea that the right to “bear arms” is actually the right to “bear arms” that will enable us to best the government and so save us from its tyranny? This is an oft repeated argument amongst the anti-gun control movement, and is used to stoke some very strong fears (the Piers Morgan/Alex Jones argument, and I do use the term loosely, as it was more of a one-sided paranoia fest, is a good example of just how deep rooted the fear that any measure to limit gun control will automatically lead to overt oppression can be). It follows, then, that such a concern must be addressed before a reasonable national conversation can continue.

So, was it the intention of the founding fathers that the people carry the same weaponry as the government with absolutely no gun control measures to prevent tyranny, and is that a reasonable expectation today? The answer to both questions, I would suggest, is “no”. I cannot speak for the thoughts and minds of all the founding fathers, and, unlike some, I have no intention of attempting. But I can form my opinions based on their actions; and those actions do not indicate that they believed everyone, anywhere, should be able to own anything, nor did they oppose all measures that we would consider “gun control” efforts. As The Atlantic puts it:

The Founding Fathers instituted gun laws so intrusive that, were they running for office today, the NRA would not endorse them. While they did not care to completely disarm the citizenry, the founding generation denied gun ownership to many people: not only slaves and free blacks, but law-abiding white men who refused to swear loyalty to the Revolution.

Nor did the Founders take kindly to the people exercising what NRA types would have us believe was a Founder-granted (even God-granted) right to armed opposition to the will of the government. (Shay's Rebellion, anyone?) So whatever the founders intended by “[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,” their own actions, and how they approached gun ownership at the time, indicate that they did not mean that everyone has the right to carry guns, nor did they support the idea of using those guns to oppose the federal government.

To be clear, I do not hold that such is an argument for or against gun control (the Founding Fathers were hardly perfect, and so their support for or opposition to an idea is neither a gold stamp of approval nor a definitive putdown); it is simply an argument against a commonly rehashed anti-gun control argument. The Founding Fathers implemented “gun control” measures, and actively stamped out armed insurrection (despite the fact that the rebels believed they were standing up to tyranny just as they had during the revolution). Therefore the “unlimited gun rights” folks cannot honestly make the appeal that the founding fathers would have supported their unlimited gun rights in order to rise up against government overreach – because they in fact opposed them for their own contemporaries, and put down such rebellions.

But let's look at the reasonableness of the argument itself, especially as it's applied. Even the most ardent gun enthusiasts rarely make the claim that they should be able to own exactly the same "arms" as the military (tanks, anyone? How about fighter jets? Nuclear missiles?). The idea is instead pared down to weapons that are already legal to own -- which seems to indicate that the gun advocates who employ this line of reasoning already reject it as being absurd, or else something that the rest of the populace would reject as absurd. Instead, they use what would really be an argument for firepower equal to the military to argue that assault weapons are the point at which we face tyranny or freedom. Which is not, actually, the argument they're making.

But, it reasonable, then, to suppose that the thin red line between tyrannical government take over and peace and democracy are the gun enthusiasts around the country who own semi-automatic weapons? Is it reasonable to suppose that a country with a military of millions, armed with tanks, jets, gun ships, and, hey, nuclear weapons is going to be stopped by semi-auto guns and their owners? I've got to say, such a notion seems downright preposterous to me. Yes, it might be easier for this mythical tyranny you fear to cart you off to Guantanamo Bay if you do not own high capacity clips and assault weapons, for the few seconds that you get to fire before they take you out. But let's be serious: all the AR-15's in the world aren't going to save you if the Big Bad Government really wants you. Your assault weapons can't take out tanks. They can't stop missiles. They can't stop armies.

Back in the days of muskets, this would have been a more persuasive argument; but nowadays, it's a preposterous one. Back when the best firepower the (British) government had was on par with the firepower the rebels owned, sure: an armed populace (with appeal to outside help) could successfully prosecute a revolution. But nowadays the government is, and, any reasonable person would agree, must be, better armed than the populace. Is, because weaponry has advanced far beyond the musket & the military has kept up at a pace that far outranks civilian weapon ownership; and must be, because we want our military armed with tanks, jets, and nuclear warheads, but not our neighbors. The only way that the populace being armed, today, could provide a significant threat to “tyranny” from the government is if civilians were armed exactly like the government: including tanks, jets, warships, and nukes.

So let's not delude ourselves. You or me, or everyone on the block, owning an assault weapon is not stopping the government from killing us all and carting our grandmothers off to gulags. This is real life, not video games where we can take on whole armies of advanced alien warriors single-handedly or shut down hell gates all by ourselves. If a government with a well armed, modern military like ours was intent on putting the populace down, persecuting them ala Sharkey in the Shire, or anything else, the best the “thin red line” of gun enthusiasts could realistically aspire to be is a pest; and, like an annoying fly buzzing about the head of a superior life form, freedom fighting gun owners with assault weapons would be swatted down by the billions of dollars of high-tech military equipment, and the vast armed forces, that our government has. Not because it's not a noble ideal (freedom fighting heroes taking on tyrants is, of course), but because it's an unrealistic aspiration. In this day and age, with weaponry where it is, our best hope of staving off tyranny is to make sure our democratic Republic doesn't enact it...Because, unlike our musket wielding forefathers, American civilians nowadays don't have a snowball's chance in hell of taking on the military that they have continually poured money into making the strongest and best equipped in the world. The power is in our hands – and not in the form of an AR-15, but in the form of the vote.

But, still, if this is your argument, be honest about it. Don't tell us that the Founding Fathers, whose actions belie your claim, issued statements to support your ownership of assault weapons. Don't tell us that you need assault weapons to keep the government in check and prevent a hideous downthrow of freedom. Tell us that you believe that you should have unlimited access to assault weapons because someday you might need to more or less buzz about the ears of a tyrannical government, countering their heavy armor and heavy weaponry, their drone technology and nuclear capabilities, with assault weapons. It's not that impressive, but, then again, neither is the idea of a bunch of civilians with guns taking on a modern military. Nor, for that matter, is people inventing quotes to further grandiose delusions of revolutionary heroism.

* which was a fun quote going around awhile ago to warn people of this very thing. Obviously, Lincoln did not anticipate the internet. Because nobody expects the Internet! (Ok, I'll stop...)


  1. UPDATE: Found this on the Mount Vernon website as well:

  2. heh, I once asked someone to provide a source for this. he linked me to a page entitled "Spurious Quotes," and declared his task complete. Asked if he'd read the page, the man told me I was being rude.

  3. Since I know this remark will vanish as did my previous counter-argument to your silliness when you found no valid refutation, I will only add that I find your dishonesty to be distastefully representative of your cowardly, human-hating ilk.