The wisdom of the Founding Fathers' decision to include the right to bear arms in our constitution has been demonstrated again in the wake of last week's terrorist attack. This nation's founders saw the second amendment as a way for the common people to resist a tyrannical government and also as a way for besieged ethnic or religious minorities to defend themselves.
At the moment, the principal beneficiaries of the right to bear arms are American Muslims, who have come under attack by those who somehow hold them responsible for last week's horrific events. Over the past week Muslims have been the victims of dozens of despicable hate-crimes. Gas station attendants have been shot at, punched, and attacked with machetes. Mosques, temples, and Islamic centers have been fired upon, vandalized, firebombed, and attacked with Molotov cocktails. Businesses have been burned down and fire-bombed. Muslim girls have been beaten, a Pakistani woman was almost run over by a car, and a Sudanese man was attacked with a knife. At least two victims of these hate-crimes are dead. Muslim-owned businesses have closed and many parents have held their children out of school because they fear harassment and violence. Small groups of Muslims in isolated, rural areas have been threatened and fear assaults upon their communities.
There are many instances in American history of besieged ethnic or religious groups successfully using the second amendment right of armed self-defense. During the 1992 Los Angeles riots, for example, armed Korean merchants and residents brandished weapons to defend their homes and businesses from the angry mobs who had specifically targeted them.
In the late 1950s, Civil Rights leader Robert F. Williams led the black community of Monroe, North Carolina in its struggle to defend itself against the Ku Klux Klan and other racist groups. Inspired by armed Native Americans who had recently repelled a white supremacist attack on their reservation, Williams organized armed self-defense patrols which successfully defended the black community against marauding racist vigilantes.
One hundred and fifty years ago this month besieged free blacks, escaped slaves, and abolitionists also made good use of the right of armed self-defense. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, which gave Southerners the right to send slave catchers into the North to capture and re-enslave escaped slaves, the legendary abolitionist Frederick Douglass recommended that fugitive slaves and their allies organize armed self-defense. There followed many instances, including the famous Battle of Christiana, Pennsylvania in September of 1851, where white abolitionists, free blacks, and escaped slaves united, took up arms, and fought off slave catchers.
Of course, the last thing anyone wants to see is more violence, and these examples are a little distant from our present time. However, in the coming weeks, months, or even years, as the US takes military action abroad and terrorists possibly strike again on our shores, they may become very relevant.
What opponents of the second amendment have never understood is that the
prime benefit of the right to bear arms is now and always has been reaped without a shot being fired. The main benefit does not lie in the occasional person who shoots an attacker in self-defense. It doesn't lie in the many attacks that are stopped by warning shots or the brandishing of a weapon. The main value of the second amendment is that anybody who considers attacking a home, a business, or a community, has to fear one thing above all--the people there may be armed.
And in the post-September 11 era it is again true: every sham "patriot" who seeks to vent his frustration on the Muslim owner of the local market, the Muslim community a few miles away, or the Muslim mosque across town, has to keep one thing in mind above all--his intended victims may be armed.
This column first appeared in the Pasadena Star-News & Affiliated Papers (9/19/01).