GUN CONTROL, PATRIOTISM, AND CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE
By JACOB G. HORNBERGER
The State of California recently enacted a law which requires
owners of semiautomatic weapons to register their guns with
the state. But when the law went into effect, thousands of
California gun owners, although risking a felony conviction,
refused to comply with its requirements.
The gun owners were immediately showered with harsh criticism,
not only from their public officials but from many of their
fellow citizens as well. The critics implied, among other
things, that since the law had been passed by the duly elected
representatives of the people, the gun owners, as members of
society, had a duty to comply with its terms.
The controversy raises important issues concerning liberty,
property, government, patriotism, and civil disobedience.
As I have repeatedly emphasized, by adopting the welfare-
state, planned-economy way of life, the American people of our
time have rejected and abandoned the principles of individual
freedom and limited government on which our nation was
founded. But they have also rejected and abandoned something
of equal importance: the concept of patriotism which
characterized America's Founding Fathers.
There have been two different notions of patriotism in
American history. The one which characterizes the American
people of the 20th century--the one which is taught in our
public schools--is this: patriotism means the support of one's
own government and the actions which the government takes on
behalf of the citizenry. The idea is that since we live in a
democratic society, the majority should have the political
power to take any action it desires. And although those in the
minority may not like the laws, they are duty-bound, as "good"
citizens, to obey and support them.
The distinguishing characteristic of this type of patriotism
is that the citizen does not make an independent, personal
judgment of the rightness or wrongness of a law. Instead, he
does what he has been taught to do since the first grade in
his government schools: he places unwavering faith and trust
in the judgment of his popularly elected public officials.
The other concept of patriotism was the type which
characterized the British colonists during the late 1700s.
These individuals believed that patriotism meant a devotion to
certain principles of rightness and morality. They believed
that the good citizen had the duty to make an independent
judgment as to whether his own government's laws violated
these principles. And so, unlike their counterparts in America
today, these individuals refused to automatically accept the
legitimacy of the actions of their public officials.
Let us examine how "real-world" applications of these two
concepts of patriotism differ dramatically.
In the late 1700s, the British colonists were suffering under
the same type of oppressive regulatory and tax system under
which present-day Americans are suffering. What was the
reaction of the colonists to this regulatory and tax tyranny?
They deliberately chose to ignore and disobey their
government's regulations and tax acts. Smuggling and tax
evasion were the order of the day! And the more that their
government tried to enforce the restrictions, the more it met
with disregard and disobedience from the citizenry.
Sometimes smugglers or tax evaders would be caught and brought
to trial. The result? Despite conclusive evidence of guilt and
the judges' instructions to convict, the defendants' fellow
citizens on the juries regularly voted verdicts of acquittal.
And civil disobedience was not limited to economic regulations
and taxation. There was also widespread resistance to
conscription, especially during the French and Indian War.
Those who were conscripted deserted the army in large numbers.
And those who had not been conscripted hid the deserters in
This was what it once meant to be a patriot--the devotion to a
certain set of principles regarding rightness, morality,
individualism, liberty, and property; and it meant a firm
stand against one's own government when it violated these
If an American of today were magically transported back to
colonial America of the late 1700s, he would immediately find
himself at odds with the colonists who were resisting the
tyranny of their government. How do we know this? By the way
which Americans of today respond to what is a much more
oppressive and tyrannical economic system: with either
meekness or, even worse, with ardent, "flag-waving" support
for the actions of their rulers.
And what is their attitude toward their fellow citizens who
are caught violating the rules and regulations? Again, either
meekness or fervent support of their rulers. After all, what
was the reaction to the conviction of Michael Milken for
violating such ridiculous economic regulations that even King
George would have been embarrassed? "He got what's coming to
him--he shouldn't have made so much money anyway!" And to
Leona Helmsley's conviction for having taken improper
deductions on her income tax return? "She's obnoxious--she
should go to jail." The thought of rising to the defense of
these victims of political tyranny is an anathema to the
present-day American "patriot."
And what about jury trials involving economic crimes? Like the
good, little citizens they have been taught to be, especially
in their public schools, American "patriots" dutifully comply
with the judge's instructions to convict their fellow citizens
of violating this regulatory and tax tyranny. Although they
have the same power as their ancestors to disregard the
judge's instructions and to acquit their fellow citizens, the
thought of doing so is repugnant to present-day "patriots."
They choose instead to do their "duty" and thereby become
"patriotic" agents of their own government's tyranny.
Therefore, there is no doubt that the American of today would
feel very uncomfortable if, all of a sudden, he found himself
in the British colonies in 1775--in the midst of smugglers,
tax evaders, draft resisters, and other patriots of that time.
This brings us back to the individuals in California who are
refusing to register their guns.
As our American ancestors understood so well, the bedrock of a
free society is private ownership of property. And there are
fewer more important rights of private ownership than the
unfettered right to own weapons.
Why is ownership of weapons so vitally important? Not for
hunting. And not even to resist aggression by domestic
criminals or foreign invaders. No, as history has repeatedly
shown, the vital importance of the fundamental right to own
arms is to resist tyranny by one's own government, should such
tyranny ever become unendurably evil and oppressive.
The lesson which Americans of today have forgotten or have
never learned--the lesson which our ancestors tried so hard to
teach us--is that the greatest threat to our lives, liberty,
property, and security lies not with some foreign government,
as our rulers so often tell us; instead, the greatest threat
to the well-being of all of us lies with our own government!
Of course, there are those who suggest that democratically
elected public officials would never do anything seriously
harmful to the American people. But let's look at just a few
twentieth-century examples. They confiscated people's gold.
They repudiated gold clauses in government debts. They
provoked the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor and then
acted like they were surprised. They incarcerated Japanese-
Americans for no crime at all. They injected dangerous, mind-
altering drugs into American servicemen without their
knowledge. They radiated the American people in the Northwest
and then deliberately hid it from them. They have
surreptitiously confiscated and plundered people's income and
savings through the Federal Reserve System. They have
terrorized the citizenry through the IRS. And, most recently,
they have sent our fellow citizens to their deaths thousands
of miles away in the pursuit of a relatively insignificant
Those who believe that democratically elected rulers lack the
potential and inclination for destructive conduct against
their citizenry are living in la-la land.
Of course, the proponents of political tyranny are usually
well motivated. Those who enacted the gun-registration law in
California point to those who have used semiautomatic weapons
to commit horrible, murderous acts. But the illusion--the
pipe-dream--is that bad acts can be prevented through the
deprivation of liberty. They cannot be! Life is insecure--
whether under liberty or enslavement. The only choice is
between liberty and insecurity, on the one hand, and
insecurity and enslavement on the other.
The true patriot scrutinizes the actions of his own government
with unceasing vigilance. And when his government violates the
morality and rightness associated with principles of
individual freedom and private property, he immediately rises
in opposition to his government. This is why the gun owners of
California might ultimately go down in history as among the
greatest and most courageous patriots of our time.
Mr. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of
From the May 1991 issue of FREEDOM DAILY,
Copyright (c) 1991, The Future of Freedom Foundation,
PO Box 9752, Denver, Colorado 80209, 303-777-3588.
Permission granted to reprint; please give appropriate credit
and send one copy of reprinted material to the Foundation.