Freedom and Firearms

Keynote Remarks by Senator Tom McClintock

Western Conservative Conference, Los Angeles, June 9, 2001

Introduction. Where do your Rights come from?  This is an example of one major difference between conservatives and liberals.  The liberals believe that rights are what they as our governors, decide upon.  So, unsurprisingly, they dream up new rights on a regular basis, which are most often (if not always) a matter of some new benefit that government will then “give” to the targeted group.

The liberals object to what President Obama calls the list of “negative rights” enumerated in our Constitution, especially what he calls the “negatives” in our Bill of Rights, where the power of government is limited and curtailed, but no benefits are given by government to the citizens (according to him and the liberals).

Conservatives on the other hand, defend and uphold the original intent of America’s Founding Fathers, where they purposely aimed to limit government power, and defined rights as the opportunity in a freedom system, to live and to pursue your own “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” – none of which would be “granted” to you.

Most especially, and most critically, conservatives believe that our rights are a gift from God, while liberals believe that our rights are a grant or a gift, from them, our governors.

One of the finest explanations of this difference, are the remarks at one of our first conferences in California, by then State Senator (and now U.S. Congressman) Tom McClintock, one of our original, founding, Honorary Conference Co-Chairman.

These remarks are on the subject of Firearms Freedom by now U.S. Congressman Tom McClintock as a founding Co-Chairman of the Western Conservative Conference in southern California, begun on June 9, 2001.  Many conservative leaders believe that this is the finest explanation of the difference between conservatives and liberals on a major topic – our rights as Americans – which has been written in many years.  Here is now Congressman, then State Senator, Tom McClintock of California.

There are two modern views of government that begin from entirely different premises.

There is the 18th Century American view propounded by our nation’s founders. They believed, and formed a government based upon that belief, that each of us is endowed by our creator with certain rights that cannot be alienated, and that governments are instituted to protect those rights. This view is proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and reflected in the American Bill of Rights.

The second view is 19th Century German in origin and expressed in the philosophies of Marx and Hegel and Nietzsche. It is a restatement of philosophies of absolutism that have plagued mankind for millennia. In this view, rights come not from God, but from the state. What rights you have are there because government has given them to you, all for the greater good – defined, of course, by government.

In the 20 years I have been actively engaged in public policy, I have seen the growing influence of this 19th Century German view. It disdains the view of the American Founders. It rejects the notion of inalienable rights endowed equally to every human being by the “laws of nature and of nature’s God.” In this view, it is the state, and not the individual, where rights are vested.

I mention this, because of a debate that occurred last week on the floor of the State Senate. It was a debate that occurred under the portrait of George Washington and the gold-emblazoned motto, “Senatoris Est Civitatis Libertatum Tueri” – “The Senators protect the Liberty of the Citizens.”

At issue was a measure, SB 52, which will require a state-issued license to own a firearm for self-defense. To receive a license, you would have to meet a series of tests, costs and standards set by the state.

We have seen many bills considered and adopted that would infringe upon the right of a free people to bear arms. But this was the most brazen attempt in this legislature to claim that the very right of self-defense is not an inalienable natural right at all, but is rather a right that is licensed from government; a right that no longer belongs to you, but to your betters, who will license you to exercise that right at their discretion.

During the debate on this measure, which passed the Senate 25 to 15, I raised these issues. And I would like to quote to you the response of Senator Sheila Kuehl, to the approving nods of the Senators whose duty is to protect the liberty of the citizens.

She said, “There is only one constitutional right in the United States which is absolute and that is your right to believe anything you want.”

I want to focus on that statement. “The only constitutional right which is absolute is your right to believe anything you want.”

Now, compare that to the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

What rights have a slave? There is only one: a slave can think anything he wants: as long as he doesn’t utter it or act on it – he may think what he wants. He has no right to the fruit of his labor; no right to self-defense, no right to raise his children, no right to contract with others for his betterment, no right to worship – except as his master allows. He has only the right to his own thoughts. All other rights are at the sufferance of his master – whether that master is a state or an owner.

Now, let us continue to look at this new constitutional principle propounded by Senator Kuehl, under the portrait of George Washington to the delight of her colleagues whose duty, according to the proud words above them, is to “Protect the Liberty of the Citizens.”

She continued, “Other than that, (the right to your own thoughts) government has the ability to say on behalf of all the people – I will put it in the colloquial way as my grandmother used to – your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins. It’s a balance of your rights and my rights because we all have constitutional rights. And the question for government is how do we balance those rights?”

Indeed, the right to swing your fist does end where my nose begins. An excellent analogy. Shall we therefore amputate your fist so that you can never strike my nose? And would you deny me the use of my own fist to protect my nose?

Senator Kuehl and her colleagues believe government has the legitimate authority to do so. It is simply the question of balancing.

It is very important that we understand precisely what Senator Kuehl and the Left are saying.

A thief balances your right to your wallet against his right to eat. A murderer balances your right to life against his right to freedom. A master balances your right to “work and toil and make bread,” against his right to eat it. These are matters of balance.

The American view is quite different. In the view of the American Founders, the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God endow each of us with rights that are inalienable, and we are each equal in those rights. It is not a balancing act. These rights are absolute. They cannot be alienated.

But in a state of nature, there are predators who would deny us those rights. And thus we come together to preserve our freedom. In the American view, the only legitimate exercise of force by one person over another, or by one government over its people, is “to secure these rights.”

Senator Kuehl continues, “My right to defend myself in the home does not extend to my owning a tank, though that would make sense to me, perhaps, that no one would attack my home if I had a tank sitting in the living room.”

Let us put aside, for a moment, the obvious fact that a tank is only an instrument of self-defense against a power that employs a tank. But let us turn to the more reasonable side of her argument: that rights can be constrained by government; that there is, after all, “no right to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater. How can a right be absolute and yet constrained by government?

To Senator Kuehl and the Left, the answer is simply, “it’s easy — whenever we say so.” Or, in her words, “government has the ability to say (so) on behalf of all the people.”

The American Founders had a different view, also, not surprisingly, diametrically opposed to Senator Kuehl’s way of thinking.

The right is absolute. In a free nation, government has no authority to forbid me from speaking because I might shout “fire” in a crowded theater. Government has no authority to forbid me from using my fist to defend myself because I might also use it to strike your nose. And government has no authority to forbid me from owning a firearm because I might shoot an innocent victim.

Government is there to assure that the full force of the law can be brought against me if I discharge that right in a manner that threatens the rights of others. It does not have the authority to deny me those very rights for fear I might misuse them.

Senator Kuehl continues, “In my opinion, this bill is one of those balances. It does not say you cannot have a gun. It does not say you cannot defend yourself. It says if you are going to be owning and handling and using a dangerous item you need to know how to use it, and you need to prove that you know how to use it by becoming licensed.”

How reasonable. How reassuring. How despotic.

We must understand what they are arguing, because it is chilling. They are arguing that any of our most precious rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights – any at least they decide are conceivably dangerous — may only be extended through the license of the government.

If that is the case, they are not rights. With that one despotic principle, you have just dissolved the foundation of the entire Bill of Rights. You have created a society where your only right is to your own thoughts.

Inalienable rights are now alienated to government, and government may extend or refuse them upon its whim – or more precisely, upon a balancing act to be decided by government. Let us follow – in our minds at least – a little farther down this path.

Hate groups publish newsletters to disseminate their hatred and racism. Sick individuals in our society act upon this hatred. The Oklahoma City bombing killed a score of innocent children. Shouldn’t we license printing presses and Internet sites to prevent the pathology of hate from spreading? Such an act doesn’t say you cannot have a press. It does not say you cannot express yourself. It says if you are going to be owning and handling a printing press, you should know what not to say and prove that you can restrain yourself by becoming licensed.

And what are we to do about rogue religions like those that produced Heaven’s Gate and Jonestown. How many people around the world are killed by acts of religious fanaticism every year? Should we not license the legitimate churches? Such an act doesn’t say you cannot have a church. It does not say you cannot worship. It says if you are going to be running and conducting a church, that you must know how to worship and prove that you know how by becoming licensed.

The only right you have is the right to believe anything you want. The only right of a slave. The rest is negotiable – or to use the new word, “balanceable.”

In 1838, a 29 year old Abraham Lincoln posed the question for which he would ultimately give his life. Years later, he would debate Stephen Douglas, who argued that freedom and slavery were a matter of political balance. But in this speech, he spoke to the larger question that we must now confront:

“Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step over the ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! — All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a Thousand years. At what point, then, is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

The American Founders worried about the same thing. Late in life, Jefferson wrote to Adams, “Yes we did create a near perfect union; but will they keep it, or will they, in the enjoyment of plenty, lose the memory of freedom. Material abundance is the surest path to destruction.”

And as I listened to Senator Kuehl proclaim that “the only constitutional right in the United States which is absolute … is your right to believe anything you want,” and as I gazed at the portrait of George Washington, and as I thought about the solemn words, “the Senators Protect the Liberty of the Citizens,” I couldn’t help but think of an aide to George Washington by the name of James McHenry, who accompanied the General as they departed Independence Hall the day the Constitution was born. He recorded this encounter between Benjamin Franklin and a Mrs. Powell. She asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Answered Dr. Franklin, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”

For this generation, that is no longer a hypothetical question. History warns us that to one generation in five falls the duty – the highest duty and the most difficult duty of this Republic – to preserve the liberty of the citizens. It is the most difficult, because as Lincoln warned, it is a threat that springs up not on a foreign shore where we can see it – it springs up amongst us. It cannot be defeated by force of arms. It must be defeated by reason.

Have you noticed yet, that ours is that generation? And how ironic it would be that the freedoms won with the blood of Washington’s troops, and defended by so many who followed, should be voluntarily thrown away piece by piece by a generation that had become so dull and careless and pampered and uncaring that it lost the memory of freedom.

The Athenian Democracy had a word for “citizen” that survives in our language today. “Politikos.” Politician. The Athenians believed that a free people who declare themselves citizens assume a duty to declare themselves politicians at the same time. It is time we took that responsibility very seriously.

In 1780, the tide had turned in the American Revolution, and the Founders began to sense the freedom that was within sight. John Adams wrote these words to his wife that spring. He said, “The science of government it is my duty to study, more than all other sciences; the arts of legislation and administration and negotiation ought to take the place of, indeed exclude, in a manner, all other arts. I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”

Ladies and gentlemen, the debate is not about guns. It is about freedom. And the wheel has come full circle. Our generation must study politics that we may restore the liberty that our parents and grandparents expect us to pass on to our children and grandchildren.

If we fail, what history will demand of our children and grandchildren, in a society where their only right is to their own thoughts, is simply unthinkable. And be assured, history will find it unforgivable. A generation that is handed the most precious gift in all the universe – freedom – and throws it away — deserves to be reviled by every generation that follows – and will be, even though the only right left to them is their own thoughts.

But if we succeed in this struggle, we will know the greatest joy of all – the joy of watching our grandchildren secure with the blessings of liberty, studying arts and literature in a free nation and under God’s grace, once again.

Ladies and Gentlemen, isn’t that worth devoting the rest of our lives to achieve?

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