FREE Youth Meet to Defend Civil Rights

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Firearm Rights Endorsed through Education:

FREE Youth Meet to Defend Civil Rights

by Ari Armstrong, January 10, 1999 (updated on the 11th)

Over twenty youth from around Colorado gathered January 10 at the State Capitol to discuss the importance of the right to bear arms. About the same number of parents and other interested adults also participated.

During the first part of the meeting, three students from Lakewood High School described their personal experiences with firearms and explained why they believe the right to bear arms is fundamental. Jeff McKay reviewed research showing that honest citizens use guns to defend themselves against violent criminals much more often than guns are used to commit crime or are used in careless injuries. Chris Fritts talked about his experiences shooting with his father. Dan Honaker explained that firearms training helps build strong character. Honaker also said he didn't want to see laws pass that punish honest people for the behavior of criminals.


From left, Cary Smallegan, an instructor for the Youth Hunter Education Challenge, Lakewood students Dan Honaker, Jeff McKay, Chris Fritts, and Jeff Martin, along with Representative Scott McKay, consider the points made by other speakers.


Honaker helped write a letter with fellow student Ian McCollum and eight other Lakewood students which was published in The Rocky Mountain News on June 2, 1999. The conclusion of that letter states, "When a drunken driver kills an innocent pedestrian, we do not respond by restricting the availability of alcohol or cars; we respond by punishing the drunken driver. Likewise, we should not react to the tragedy at Columbine by passing yet more restrictive gun-control laws, but by punishing the people responsible for it."

Cary Smallegan is a firearms instructor with the Youth Hunter Education Challenge. He has trained around 2,000 youth in the safe use of firearms. He described his program and told a story about how he was recently surrounded by a couple hundred heavily armed youth -- at a Y.H.E.C. meet. He said everyone was having a fun, safe time as they learned about firearm safety. Smallegan expressed hope that even more youth will join his educational programs in the Denver area -- his number is (303) 693 - 8149.

The FREE Youth meeting was the result of the efforts of a broad coalition of interested students and adults. Carol Geltemeyer helped coordinate a group from the Colorado Springs area. She is active in the Libertarian Party.

Linn Armstrong, a leader of the Pro Second Amendment Committee, drove a car load of people from Grand Junction. Near the close of the meeting, Eddie Schmidt, a homeschooled student in Grand Junction, gave a rousing speech in support of the individual's right to bear arms. In an essay, Constitution: Proving That Individuals Have the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, Schmidt cites such sources as Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and David Kopel. Several older participants commented that the youth in the civil gun rights movement are frequently better educated on the issue than most adults on the opposing side.

Dudley Brown of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners shoots regularly with several young people, whom he accompanied to the FREE meeting. Ironically, before the meeting started Aimee Rathburn of the Colorado State Shooting Association had accused Brown on the radio (710 KNUS) of having an inability to work with others, yet at the FREE meeting RMGO members, NRA members, Libertarian Party members, and people unaffiliated with any broader group sat down to share friendly conversation about the rights all participants hold dear. Brown takes a "no compromise" position on gun issues which frequently raises the ire of Rathburn and her friend in the legislature Doug Dean. Brown and other RMGO members protested the SAFE anti-gun rally outside the capitol for several minutes, activities which were not part of the FREE meeting.


FREE youth and adults discuss civil gun rights in a meeting room in the Capitol.


State Legislators

Several state legislators shared their thoughts on the right to bear arms. Representatives Scott McKay and Mark Paschall and Senators Mark Hillman and Marilyn Musgrave swung by during their lunch breaks to speak to FREE. All four expressed concerns about Governor Bill Owens' gun-control package and said they would oppose it.

Hillman said that when he went to high school, students regularly brought guns to school. Yet, because parents taught their children firearm safety, he never heard of a school shooting or threats of such when he was growing up.

(Larry Pratt of Gun Owners of America and others argue that one reason for recent violence in the schools is the so-called "Gun-Free School Zones Act," a federal law which prohibits honest citizens to carry a gun for defensive uses in a school.)

Paschall said the Republican Party could pass a Vermont-style concealed carry bill in Colorado if the Party would take the right to bear arms more seriously. He holds the right to bear arms to be a fundamental liberty central to American government. He counseled against using "utilitarian" arguments to buttress the right to bear arms, preferring instead a principled stand.

(UN)SAFE

At the same time as the FREE meeting, a disarmament lobby called SAFE -- Sane Alternatives to the Firearms Epidemic (as if gun ownership were some sort of disease rather than a Constitutionally guaranteed right) -- met outside the Capitol to advocate new laws that would further infringe the rights of honest citizens to keep and bear arms.

A handout at the FREE meeting quoted Benjamin Franklin, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Franklin wrote, "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary SAFEty deserve neither liberty nor safety" (emphasis added in the handout).

As Ken Hamblin pointed out in the January 11 Denver Post, SAFE leaders bought a full-page ad in a Sunday Post in order to promote their rally at a cost of multiple thousands of dollars. Given this expensive advertising campaign, the SAFE rally drew a meager crowd. SAFE also footed the bill to fly dozens of students to Washington, D.C. in 1999 to oppose the rights of gun owners. FREE, on the other hand, has made a successful showing with a budget of under $100. In addition, the SAFE rally was trying to draw a huge crowd, whereas the FREE meeting was intentionally limited so as to permit a personal, educational event.

Hamblin took SAFE to task in his article. He wrote, "What we need to do is convict and execute people who kill other people whether with guns, knives or brute force.... [One] brazen lie SAFE feels free to publish is that the majority support them and their point of view and radical hidden agenda. On that point, they are truly mistaken."

Ironically, the laws advocated by SAFE would actually cause more innocent deaths. Mandatory storage laws would prevent honest gun owners from reaching their firearms for use in self-defense against violent rapists, burglars, and other criminals. (Brown calls such laws "lock up your safety" requirements.) Preventing lawful adults ages 18-21 from purchasing firearms would leave some such adults unable to defend themselves and their families. Expanded honest-citizen background checks would price guns out of reach for some poorer families without doing much (if anything) to prevent crime.

Tom Mauser said at the SAFE rally, "Let's not forget the victims of gun shots." Yet Mauser has never even considered all the lives saved by the lawful use of firearms. As Jeff McKay noted, honest citizens use firearms around 2.5 million times per year to defend themselves against criminals. That amounts to 7,000 defensive uses of guns every day, or about one every 15 seconds.

In general, members of the civil gun rights movement consider both the costs and the benefits of firearm ownership, while the anti-civil gun rights movement is blinded to everything but the costs. Some drivers use cars to kill, others use them to save lives. Some use knives and other tools in crime, most use them for useful purposes. Firearms are used to stop crime much more often than they are used to commit crime. So perhaps an appropriate rejoinder to Mauser would be, "Let's not forget the victims of disarmament laws."

Dave Kopel

Internationally recognized legal scholar Dave Kopel spoke from about 1:00 to 1:45. He said the 2000 elections may be the most important in decades for civil gun rights. Advocates for the right to bear arms, then, must be particularly diligent in the coming months. This is true especially for Colorado, which is widely regarded as a trend-setting state.


Dave Kopel talks strategy as a group from Colorado Springs looks on. From left: Sean Glidewell, Carol Geltemeyer, and Desiree and Liam Hickson.


Concerning "preemption" bills, Kopel explained that the state is the fundamental unit of government in America. The states created the federal government, and they also establish the primary law for localities. In other words, city and county governments are bound by the provisions of the Colorado Constitution. And the Constitution states, "The right of no person to keep and bear arms in defense of his home, person and property... shall be called in question..."

The problem, Kopel said, is that sometimes courts will permit latitude for local governments not intended by the original law. Thus, it is appropriate for the state legislature to reinforce Constitutional law against the disarmament laws of localities.

Kopel said a few words about the debate between gun civil rights groups. He expressed support for strategies of both the NRA and GOA. The NRA tends to be more open to compromise, while GOA is not. He said a tactical retreat is sometimes necessary to win the war. Brown, though, reiterated his attachment to a "no compromise" strategy, even while making the point that in a general educational meeting like FREE those kinds of debates aren't relevant.

Media Coverage

9 News in Denver aired FREE speakers at 6:00. While the station gave the opposing side more air-time, it also covered the FREE event. It included three quotes by Dan Honaker, the Lakewood student. 9 News quoted Honaker, "I really believe that firearms can be a beneficial part of young adult life.... The responsibility and skills a child receives while learning to use a firearm are invaluable to every-day life."

"We don't have to ask permission before we start a religion; why should we have to ask permission before we can exercise one of our inalienable rights?" Honaker continued.

The 9 News commentator added, "They passed out a letter to lawmakers stressing their opposition to any more gun control."

While coverage was brief, it was basically fair and accurate. Unfortunately, 7 News (at 10:00) showed no video of the FREE meeting (though it showed three speakers who opposed civil gun rights), and it flagrantly mis-represented the point of the FREE meeting. The commentator said, "There were also about 15 students at the state capitol protesting the proposed [Owens gun-control] legislation. They say it threatens their safe use of weapons for hunting." Of course several people discussed hunting, but that was certainly not the focus. One of the youth speakers even made the point explicitly that the Second Amendment is about self-defense and Constitutional government, not hunting!

Of the major newspaper coverage, Carla Crowder's story from The Rocky Mountain News was far and away the most fair-minded and accurate. Crowder gave a low estimate for the number of participants, as reporters stayed around for less than half an hour, and both the Grand Junction and Colorado Springs groups ran a little late.

Given his obvious bias on the issue, Denver Post reporter Mike Soraghan did a pretty good job at presenting both sides of the debate. Unfortunately, Soraghan didn't even mention the FREE meeting, but instead only wrote about the debates that took place on the front steps of the capitol. Soraghan knew about the FREE meeting -- he was seen walking around outside the meeting room -- yet he chose to simply ignore it.

Two Boulder papers did a terrible job of covering the event. Amanda Hill from Colorado Daily covered the SAFE rally but didn't even mention FREE. Her story, which ran on the front page, was little more than an unpaid advertisement for SAFE. Sandra Fish from The Daily Camera at least mentioned the existence of those who support the right to bear arms, but she completely mischaracterized the FREE meeting.

This author sent the Camera a letter which reads:

Dear Editor,

Sandra Fish has her facts all wrong in her 1/11 coverage of the FREE Youth Civil Rights Meet. FREE stands for Firearm Rights Endorsed through Education. The FREE meeting was scheduled before the SAFE rally was announced. Fish claims the event was organized by Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, which is false. Dudley Brown of RMGO participated in the event, but so did members of the NRA and the Libertarian Party, as well as independent advocates of the right to bear arms. Over 20 youth from around Colorado and about as many adults participated.

True, some RMGO members protested the SAFE rally, but this was separate from the proceedings of the FREE meeting, which took place inside the Capitol. FREE heard from numerous youths and adults who support the civil rights of gun owners, including students from Lakewood High and Grand Junction High, and legal scholar Dave Kopel. The meeting ran from noon till 2:30; it's a pity Fish chose to report only a few minutes of sensationalist confrontation outside the Capitol that wasn't even part of the official proceedings.

By the way, RMGO's signs Fish mentions that say Hitler favored gun-control are credited to Aaron Zelman, Director of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership.

The Libertarin Party of El Paso County also issued a press-release about the event, quoting two of the youth who attended.

But media coverage was only one of the goals of the FREE meeting. The more important purposes were to provide an educational experience for youth and adult supporters of the right to bear arms, and to serve as a meeting ground for like-minded people from across the state. On those points, participants generally declared the meeting a huge success.

The Colorado Freedom Report--www.FreeColorado.com