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Res Publica

Drums Along The Potomac

Should the left arm itself?

Getty (x2)
Charlton Heston with two of his favorite things.

Some years ago, a woman friend of mine and I journeyed to a rustic hotel in Wyoming. The hotel offered various outdoor activities for guests. One of them involved going to a shooting range with a professional marksman for target practice and, more to the point for us, to learn the basics of shooting guns. Our guide drove us to the range, unpacked the weapons, then turned to us. “If someone broke into your house with a gun and you had one available,” he asked, “would you defend yourself?” A series of thoughts ran through my mind in response to this question, to wit: This guy, indubitably an NRA fanatic, has read us as liberals, and he believes that all liberals are gutless loonies intent on abolishing the Second Amendment. Feigning astonishment, I responded, “Of course we would. Are you kidding?”

Looking skeptical, he went and placed the guns on a long table in front of the firing range. It was a whole panoply of weapons, ranging from small pistols to long rifles to AR-15s. Handling and shooting them was a lot of fun. My companion, who had not expected to, loved it. At the end, the instructor strung a long wire between two trees. The wire had little pieces of tin dangling from it, and he invited me to try my luck at shooting them. Here I will inject parenthetically that, when I was a little boy, I spent a lot of time in those small shooting galleries they have at county fairs and became quite skilled at hitting their targets. In this moment, it seemed, my childhood skills returned to me, and using the AR-15 I hit every last one of those metal targets. I looked over at our guide and saw that his face had turned bright red. He was furious. He had planned for me to miss most of my shots, and that then he would go up and achieve a clean sweep of the targets to show off his expertise. As he drove us back to the hotel, I sensed how dangerous a person he might actually be.

I have another story. When I was a teenager, also because of my very good hand-eye coordination, I was a competitive tennis player. The father of a friend owned an indoor tennis court, where we would practice in the winter and sometimes play doubles against his father and his father’s close friend, Charlton Heston. We would always lose, and Heston would always console us in an avuncular manner and give us tips on how to do better next time. He seemed an exceptionally kind man. Years later, when I saw the infamous clip of him up onstage as head of the NRA, proclaiming (in a deep, menacing voice), “I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands,” I was shocked. What had happened to the kindly man I knew as a child and looked up to?

Recently I participated in a webinar that was part of a series called In This Moment. The guest speaker was Miles Taylor, who, as a government official in the Trump administration, wrote an exposé book titled A Warning under the name Anonymous, an expanded version of which was issued under the title Blowback: A Warning to Save American Democracy From the Next Trump after Taylor revealed his identity. He was interviewed by the political consultant Paul Begala, to whom he described the harassment and intimidation he had experienced since going public. He said a wealthy friend had kindly offered to pay for expensive security to help keep him safe. He noted that Mitt Romney had reportedly been spending $5,000 a day for security for himself and his family (almost $2 million a year).

In the question-and-answer period, I said to Miles: “For about a year now, I’ve been debating with myself and a few friends whether I should write a column advocating for American liberals to take up arms. The crazies on the right have guns, and we on the whole don’t. Most of us don’t even know how to shoot a gun. We’re sitting ducks. Do you think I should write that column?” Miles answered: “You should write that column! If only as a provocation. It would be an interesting debate, and we need to have that kind of debate. Why is it important? Because it is so jarring. Fifteen years ago, the subject would have been shouted down, it would have sounded so hyperbolic. In this moment, though, people are thinking exactly what you are thinking. Write the column!”

An article in The New York Times, dated November 26, 2022, brought to light the burgeoning alliance between right-wing Republican politicians and right-wing militias as it had developed from 2000 up to that point. The headline read, “PROTESTERS TURN TO GUNS TO SHOUT OVER THEIR RIVALS” and “A TOOL TO INTIMIDATE,” with a subhead stating, “OPEN-CARRY LAWS WARP DISCOURSE IN NATION’S PUBLIC SQUARES.” Many of the Republican political figures attending the rallies worked to legalize open-carry in their states. Sometimes they toted weapons themselves. Some form of open-carry without a permit is legal in 38 states, and that number is likely to increase. Local election officials in several states have requested bulletproofing for their offices, a particularly worrisome development. The Proud Boys and Oath Keepers were involved in the January attack on the Capitol, and the latter had a substantial cache of weapons across the Potomac in Virginia. The potential for violence surrounding the coming elections strikes me as considerable—in fact, much more likely than not.

The way I see it, if Trump loses, he will stage an attempted coup, and if he wins, his followers will be out for revenge. We would not shoot first. But either way, shouldn’t we be prepared for self-defense?