Charlton Heston on the Second Amendment
February 11, 1997
National Press Club
Today I want to talk to you about guns: Why we have them, why the Bill of Rights guarantees that we can have them, and why my right to have a gun is more important than your right to rail against it in the press.
I believe every good journalist needs to know why the Second Amendment must be considered more essential than the First Amendment. This may be a bitter pill to swallow, but the right to keep and bear arms is not archaic. It's not an outdated, dusty idea some old dead white guys dreamed up in fear of the Redcoats. No, it is just as essential to liberty today as it was in 1776. These words may not play well at the Press Club, but it's still the gospel down at the corner bar and grill.
And your efforts to undermine the Second Amendment, to deride it and degrade it, to readily accept diluting it and eagerly promote redefining it, threaten not only the physical well-being of millions of Americans but also the core concept of individual liberty our founding fathers struggled to perfect and protect.
So now you know what doubtless does not surprise you. I believe strongly in the right of every law-abiding citizen to keep and bear arms, for what I think are good reasons.
The original amendments we refer to as the Bill of Rights contain 10 of what the constitutional framers termed unalienable rights. These rights are ranked in random order and are linked by their essential equality. The Bill of Rights came to us with blinders on. It doesn't recognize color, or class or wealth. It protects not just the rights of actors, or editors, or reporters, but extends even to those we love to hate. That's why the most heinous criminals have rights until they are convicted of a crime.
The beauty of the Constitution can be found in the way it takes human nature into consideration. We are not a docile species capable of co-existing within a perfect society under everlasting benevolent rule.
We are what we are. Egotistical, corruptible, vengeful, sometimes even a bit power-mad. The Bill of Rights recognizes this and builds the barricades that need to be in place to protect the individual.
You, of course, remain zealous in your belief that a free nation must have a free press and free speech to battle injustice, unmask corruption and provide a voice for those in need of a fair and impartial forum.
I agree wholeheartedly -- a free press is vital to a free society. But I wonder: How many of you will agree with me that the right to keep and bear arms is not just equally vital, but the most vital to protect all the other rights we enjoy?
I say that the Second Amendment is, in order of importance, the first amendment. It is America's First Freedom, the one right that protects all the others. Among freedom of speech, of the press, of religion, of assembly, of redress of grievances, it is the first among equals. It alone offers the absolute capacity to live without fear. The right to keep and bear arms is the one right that allows 'rights' to exist at all.
Either you believe that, or you don't, and you must decide.
Because there is no such thing as a free nation where police and military are allowed the force of arms but individual citizens are not. That's a 'big brother knows best' theater of the absurd that has never bode well for the peasant class, the working class or even for reporters.
Yes, our Constitution provides the doorway for your news and commentary to pass through free and unfettered. But that doorway to freedom is framed by the muskets that stood between a vision of liberty and absolute anarchy at a place called Concord Bridge. Our revolution began when the British sent Redcoats door to door to confiscate the people's guns. They didn't succeed: The muskets went out the back door with their owners.
Emerson said it best:
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April's breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.
King George called us "rabble in arms." But with God's grace, George Washington and many brave men gave us our country. Soon after, God's grace and a few great men gave us our Constitution. It's been said that the creation of the United States is the greatest political act in history. I'll sign that.
In the next two centuries, though, freedom did not flourish. The next revolution, the French, collapsed in bloody Terror, then Napoleon's tyranny. There's been no shortage of dictators since, in many countries. Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao, Idi Amin, Castro, Pol Pot. All these monsters began by confiscating private arms, then literally soaking the earth with the blood of ten and tens of millions of their people. Ah, the joys of gun control.
Now, I doubt any of you would prefer a rolled up newspaper as a weapon against a dictator or a criminal intruder. Yet in essence that is what you have asked our loved ones to do, through the ill-contrived and totally naive campaign against the Second Amendment.
Besides, how can we entrust to you the Second Amendment when you are so stingy with your own First Amendment?
I say this because of the way, in recent days, you have treated your own -- those journalists you consider the least among you. How quick you've been to finger the paparazzi with blame and to eye the tabloids with disdain. How eager you've been to draw a line where there is none, to demand some distinction within the First Amendment that sneers 'they are not one of us.' How readily you let your lesser brethren take the fall, as if their rights were not as worthy, and their purpose not as pure, and their freedom not as sacred as yours.
So now, as politicians consider new laws to shackle and gag paprazzi, who among you will speak up? Who here will stand and defend them? If you won't, I will. Because you do not define the First Amendment. It defines you. And it is bigger than you -- big enough to embrace all of you, plus all those you would exclude. That's how freedom works.
It also demands you do your homework. Again and again I hear gun owners say, how can we believe anything that anti-gun media says when they cannot even get the facts right? For too long you have swallowed manufactured statistics and fabricated technical support from anti-gun organizations that wouldn't know a semi-auto from a sharp stick. And it shows. You fall for it every time.
Thats why you have very little credibility among 70 million gun owners and 20 million hunters and millions of veterans who learned the hard way which end the bullet comes out. And while you attacked the amendment that defends your homes and protects your spouses and children, you have denied those of us who defend all the Bill of Rights a fair hearing or the courtesy of an honest debate.
If the NRA attempts to challenge your assertions, we are ignored. And if we try to buy advertising time or space to answer your charges, more often than not we are denied. How's that for First Amendment freedom?
Clearly, too many have used freedom of the press as a weapon not only to strangle our free speech, but to erode and ultimately destroy the right to keep and bear arms as well. In doing so you promoted your profession to that of constitutional judge and jury, more powerful even than our Supreme Court, more prejudiced than the Inquisition's tribunals. It is a frightening misuse of constitutional right, and I pray that you will come to your senses and see that these abuses are curbed.
As a veteran of World War II, as a freedom marcher who stood with Dr. Martin Luther King long before it was fashionable, and as a grandfather who wants the coming century to be free and full of promise for my grandchildren, I am troubled.
The right to keep and bear arms is threatened by political theatrics, piecemeal lawmaking, talk-show psychology, extreme bad taste in the entertainment industry, an ever-widening educational chasm in our schools and a conniving media, that all add up to cultural warfare against the idea that guns ever had, or should now have, an honorable and proud place in our society.
But all our rights must be delivered into the 21st century as pure and complete as they came to us at the beginning of this century. Traditionally the passing of that torch is from a gnarled old hand down to an eager young one. So now, at 72, I offer my gnarled old hand.
I have accepted a call from the National Rifle Association of America to help protect the Second Amendment. I feel it is my duty to do that. My mission and vision can be summarized in three simple parts.
First, before we enter the next century, I expect to see a pro-Second Amendment president in the White House.
Secondly, I expect to build an NRA with the political muscle and clout to keep a pro-Second Amendment congress in place.
Third is a promise to the next generation of free Americans. I hope to help raise a hundred million dollars for NRA programs and education before the year 2000. At least half of that sum will go to teach American kids what the right to keep and bear arms really means to their culture and country.
We have raised a generation of young people who think that the Bill of Rights comes with their cable TV. Leave them to their channel surfing and they'll remain oblivious to history and heritage that truly matter.
Think about it -- what else must young Americans think when the White House proclaims, as it did, that 'a firearm in the hands of youth is a crime or an accident waiting to happen'? No -- it is time they learned that firearm ownership is constitutional, not criminal. In fact, few pursuits can teach a young person more about responsibility, safety, conservation, their history and their heritage, all at once.
It is time they found out that the politically correct doctrine of today has misled them. And that when they reach legal age, if they do not break our laws, they have a right to choose to own a gun -- a handgun, a long gun, a small gun, a large gun, a black gun, a purple gun, a pretty gun, an ugly gun -- and to use that gun to defend themselves and their loved ones or to engage in any lawful purpose they desire without apology or explanation to anyone, ever.
This is their first freedom. If you say it's outdated, then you haven't read your own headlines. If you say guns create only carnage, I would answer that you know better. Declining morals, disintegrating families, vacillation political leadership, an eroding criminal justice system and social morals that blur right and wrong are more to blame -- certainly more than any legally owned firearm.
I want to rescue the Second Amendment from an opportunistic president, and from a press that apparently can't comprehend that attacks on the Second Amendment set the stage for assaults on the First.
I want to save the Second Amendment from all these nitpicking little wars af attrition -- fights over alleged Saturday night specials, plastic guns, cop killer bullets and so many other made-for-prime-time non-issues invented by some press agent over at gun control headquarters -- that you guys buy time and again.
I simply cannot stand by and watch a right guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States come under attack from those who either can't understand it, don't like the sound of it or find themselves too philosophically squeamish to see why it remains the first among equals: Because it is the right we turn to when all else fails.
That's why the Second Amendment is America's first freedom.
Please, go forth and tell the truth. There can be no free speech, no freedom of the press, no freedom to protest, no freedom to worship your god, no freedom to speak your mind, no freedom from fear, no freedom for your children and for theirs, for anybody, anywhere without the Second Amendment freedom to fight for it.
If you don't believe me, just turn on the news tonight. Civilizations veneer is wearing thinner all the time.