Freedom vs Governance and Why Benjamin Franklin Was Wrong!

By: B.W. Ellis

“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” –Benjamin Franklin

From the first time I read this quote, it has remained a favorite of mine. The subtle wit, the play with words, even the timeless vocabulary choices lend weight and gravitas to the structure and cadence of the expression.  That said, it really is bullshit.

Yes, I did it, I said that one of our great “Founding Fathers” was wrong about something and will spend the next few moments explaining how he was wrong both then and now.  While I do hold the man’s life and contributions to be some of the most profound of his age and agree with most every other expression and sliver of wit that reportedly came from his near-divine lips I think on this one he was having an off day.

We surrender our freedoms on a daily basis for security and when confronted with the reality of it, we happily continue on deserving both the liberty and security the surrender affords us.  In order to live in a civilized society, we simply must surrender them so that we can function and this truth was no less real then than it is now.  Despite the 250 years of growth and development our country has taken, the journey from young upstart colony to the greatest superpower on the planet, we still surrender ourselves each and every day for the promise of greater security.  The best part is, we now have that security because we forgot this quote for decades at a time.

There has not been nor every shall there be a time when I am free to murder another.  Why?  Simply put, I don’t want to get murdered and I don’t want to live in a society that randomly suffers murder on a daily basis.  Accepting that we do in a limited way suffer that exact situation today, the homicide rate in this country now is so far lesser than it has been in the past that the difference makes the comparative argument valid. We do not live in a murder filled environment, that fact is due to the giving up of essential liberties, and we do deserve to live in a secure and free place because of this sacrifice.

Is it not a sacrifice of my personal liberty to prohibit me from killing people who annoy me?  Is not the government forcing me to “give up” an “essential liberty” in order to ensure the general security of the people who I would otherwise kill?  Are we less free for the laws prohibiting murder?

Why yes we are and we are all the happier for it!  This extreme example sets a foundation for our civilization that has been enforced to varying degrees since the dawn of man.  What we know now is that the prohibitions that “We the People” put upon each other are intended to maintain a balance, a civilized society where in it you follow laws, pay taxes and enjoy the maximum amount of freedom while ensuring both security and tranquility on the home front.

So what’s the problem?

The problem comes when people read the quote and infuse it with almost holy or divine origin without understanding either the context of the comment, revolting against a tyrannical king or the undeniable fact that most of the time the quote is just dead wrong.

The current reiteration of this quote adorns the signs and manifestos of the ultra-conservative who seek to coopt it for their pet cause. The most pernicious and obviously abusive stretching of the bounds of reality comes at the hands of pro-gun activists.

The claim goes something like this: If you take away the guns, any guns, the people are being forced to give up an essential liberty.  Arguably a fair charge when discussing weapons designed for civilian uses including self-defense, sporting, hunting and other recreational activities.

In this I am in total agreement that prohibiting these weapons completely is an undue limitation of the freedoms of the individual, however that does not mean I would not seek to regulate those very same weapons with the same dedication and obligation that we do with cars, motorcycles, or any other large machines used in public spaces.

The freedoms advocated with the signs ignorantly using this incorrect quotation do not seek anything so tame.  They advocate for the continued lifting of all limitations on firearms, even the background checks that seek to keep the weapons out of the hands of criminals and the mentally unstable.  Why? Because they choose to believe the holy scripture of Franklin as inviolate rather than think about it, and apply some logic.

When I present this argument I ask, “Why do you need military style weapons?”.  Operating under the accepted idea that hunting and home defense with a semi-automatic weapon just don’t work, it’s the wrong tool for the job.  Quickly they reply “It’s not about hunting, sporting, or home defense. It’s about defending against the government and the freedoms they wanna take away.”

The sheer ignorance of this statement always floors me, despite all the times I’ve heard it. It’s an argument that usually ends with a recitation of the Franklin quote and an “amen” as if Franklin and Jesus were best buddies. When I disassemble the argument and lay bare its ignorance the response is akin to telling a 5-year old that Santa isn’t real. I then use the quote “There’s simply no polite way to tell people they’ve dedicated their lives to an illusion,” by Daniel Dennett.  He refers to religion when using the quote but Tea Party enthusiasts treat the Franklin quote with the same misplaced reverence as scripture, and for many of the same reasons.

First off, while the idea of a citizen militia rising up against a superpower was possible in the 1780’s, our nation’s birth being evidence of that, but it is simply not possible now. In order to arm yourself against the American Military, you would have to have countermeasures for tanks, fighter planes, Apache Helicopters (they are pretty badass) and thermonuclear weapons! I don’t care how many AR-15s or AK-47s you bought at the local WalMart you will never have enough to be an effective deterrent against the US armed forces.

Secondly, and by far much more realistic is this question, Who are you going to kill?  If an FBI or ATF agent knocks on your door are you going to murder them for trying to confiscate your weapon? If a local Sheriff, whose son or daughter goes to school with your son or daughter, was to come knocking with a search warrant and authorization to take your guns would you be the one to put two in his or her head?

The sheer bravado and belligerent macho devil may care attitude of the Franklin quote becomes a model for the behavior of these weekend warriors who are determined to ride this ideology to a bloody end, but who is going to get killed?

Meanwhile, this country falls prey to massacre after massacre using these same weapons.  Why is America so much more violent than other developed nations?  Why is it so difficult for the US to wrangle the guns out of the hands of the people who collect them waiting for “the day” to come when they are called upon to defend this nation?

The very same mentality that places the Franklin quote into almost biblical territory also renders the entirety of the constitution into a realm of “perfect truth” without scrutiny for the context it was written.  How can we accept that the “arms” written into the 2nd amendment were anything like the weapons we have today?

Yes, firearms of the past and of the present are both guns.  They both use gunpowder and a barrel and a trigger and they both hurl a piece of metal.  That is where the similarity ends.  The most “advanced” firearm of the 18th century was a musket that fired 4 or 5 shot a minute and had an effective range of 50ft.

Modern weapons are quite simply a completely different animal than that of the colonial era, but since we put the words of the founding fathers on a religious plateau we assume that they knew that weaponry would evolve to the killing machines we have now and that they also factored that reasoning into the language that became the 2nd amendment.

It’s the literal reading, not the nuanced one. It’s the elevation of founding father to that of deity, assuming that they knew what the future would hold making the 2nd amendment perfect. It’s reading the Franklin quote and thinking it applies to everyone when the absolute opposite is true, it doesn’t apply to anyone. Not then and certainly not now.