Talk of reviving an assault weapons ban and creating a national gun registry in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school massacre is touching a deep nerve in America, epitomized this week by debate over a stern open letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) from a former marine.
After Adam Lanza used a semiautomatic assault-style rifle to kill 20 students and six school staff Dec. 14, Senator Feinstein of California has said she will try to revive the 1994 assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004. She would also push for Americans to be required to register "grandfathered" weapons.
But the open letter from Joshua Boston, which has caused a raucous online debate after being posted on CNN's iReport website Dec. 27, is a reminder of the huge stakes involved. Namely, many of America's 80 million gun owners are liable to balk at having to register their weapons, raising the potential for confrontations with federal authorities.
"I am not your subject," he continues. "I am the man who keeps you free. I am not your servant. I am the person whom you serve. I am not your peasant."
As Democrats, led by President Obama, have pushed to expand the purview of the federal government in recent years, a recoil has ensued – on display in the rise of the tea party, a massive run on guns, and an explosion in the number of concealed-weapons permits. At times, the recoil has taken on tones of warning and alarm. Many in this camp, especially in the wake of several mass shootings last year, fear that America is entering a postconstitutional era where basic precepts like the Second Amendment are curtailed by a central authority.
"If you take out the heat and the emotion of this [Connecticut] tragedy, the reaction is an interesting case study in public versus individual rights," says James Wright, a sociologist at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. "It puts the issue on a knife point in a way that a lot of other issues don't. It's hard to deny the public interest in gun crimes, but at the same time there's that old Second Amendment, and it's hard to deny what it seems to imply."
Indeed, what it implies for some Americans, including many in the so-called warrior class – hundreds of thousands of retired soldiers – is that an armed population is an essential guarantee against centralized tyranny. The lobbying of the National Rifle Association and the expansion of gun rights by federal courts have tended to further the idea that the Second Amendment is a safeguard against tyranny, as well as a key to personally protecting oneself against crime.
Feinstein's office replied to Boston's letter this past week, pointing out that there's another side to the argument – the millions of Americans who worry about US society becoming militarized through the expansion of weaponry. What's more, Feinstein says, the law won't affect Americans’ basic right to purchase and use weapons.
"Senator Feinstein respects Cpl. Boston's service. She has heard from thousands of people – including many gun owners – who support her plan to stop the sale, transfer, importation and manufacturing of assault weapons and large capacity magazines, strips and drums that hold more than 10 rounds,” the statement from Feinstein’s office read. “As Senator Feinstein has said, the legislation will be carefully focused to protect the rights of existing gun owners by exempting hundreds of weapons used for hunting and sporting purposes."
In response to Boston's letter, a commenter on the iReport website suggested that the former marine, by refusing to comply with a law, would be going against the Constitution.
"Ms. Feinstein is an elected official who was selected by voters to represent their interests in a governing body," YankCT wrote. "She has the authority and responsibility to do just that until the people whom she represents decide otherwise through their votes. This gentleman believes that he is above the law. This is untrue; in fact, my guess is that he swore to defend the country and respect its laws when he entered the Marines."
One point Boston makes in his letter is that many of the 120 guns that would be banned under Feinstein's bill are cosmetic variations of standard semiautomatic hunting rifles. Boston says he's angered by "the fact that I'm supposed to be punished for doing nothing more than owning a rifle that looks scary because its stock isn't made out of wood," he said.
Feinstein contends that America should "put weapons under some kind of appropriate authority," as she recently told Fox News. Yet many gun owners believe there is already an authority in place – the Constitution.
"With everything that has happened these last four years under President Obama and with the fresh attacks on the Second Amendment by gun grabbers like Dianne Feinstein (and David Gregory and Piers Morgan and Nanny Bloomberg, plus dozens more) I can safely [say that] yes we do live in a post constitutional Republic, and that is very troubling," writes Ulysses Arn on the RedState blog.