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Often lost when we talk about the right to keep and bear arms is its prophylactic effect on freedom and our Republic. This is also a sensitive topic, as nothing else seems to bring out the extremists on both sides of the gun debate more than talking about how the right to arms ensures freedom. However, the right to arms to resist tyranny isn’t just something last utilized in 1775 and whose effects are historical anachronism. I want to highlight two often-overlooked modern incidents that remind us why the right to keep and bear arms protects our Republic.

First is the story of the Battle of Athens, Tennessee. On first impression, one might think that the Battle of Athens would be dated sometime in the 1860’s, but it in fact occurred in August 1946. Returning GI’s were being harassed by the sheriff, who had a practice of falsely arresting folks as a money-making scheme. In classic Tammany Hall style political fashion, a single family controlled the office of the sheriff and the office of state senator from McMinn County. The US Department of Justice had been called on multiple occasions to investigate claims of voter fraud in McMinn County but appeared to ignore the problems. In 1946 a group of fed up Gl’s who had just returned home from fighting for freedom in Europe and the Pacific decided to run for sheriff and other offices in McMinn County to clean up the system.

The incumbent sheriff and his deputies then systemically perpetrated voter fraud on Election Day through physical intimidation, violence, and by seizing the Gl’s poll watchers. The election day shenanigans by the sheriff devolved to the point that the GI’s ended up laying armed siege to the county jail to attempt to preserve the ballots that the sheriff’s forces had stolen away with. After the actual battle for the jail was over with many rounds fired on both sides, and the votes were counted, the GI’s had won the vote handily. Congressman John Jennings, Jr. whose district included Athens reflected, ” … at long last, decency and honesty, liberty and law have returned to the fine county of McMinn ….”

Second is the rise and success of the Deacons for Defense and Justice. The Deacons were an armed civil rights group founded by African American veterans of World War II and Korea who were deacons of their church in Jonesboro, Alabama in 1964. The Deacons organized to provide armed protection to civil rights workers from CORE, SNCC, and NAACP as well as protecting black neighborhoods from nighttime drive-by shootings. The underlying issue animating the Deacons was that the members of the police force tended to strongly overlap the membership of the local chapter of the Klu Klux Klan. During the late 1960’s, the Deacons ended up spreading to 21 chapters throughout Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi.

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The Deacons’ armed defensive resistance led to successful voter drives, integration of high schools, and boycotts of segregated downtown shops in the shadow of the KKK. In one famous incident, a small group of Deacons deterred the local fire department and sheriff from using high-pressure hoses on black high school kids to stop integration of the school by showing up armed to their first day of class. Lance Hill, in his scholarly book on the Deacons, wrote, “[i]n Jonesboro, the Deacons made history when they compelled Louisiana governor John McKeithen to intervene in the city’s civil rights crisis and require a compromise with city leaders-the first capitulation to the civil rights movement by a Deep South governor.” The Deacons armed defensive posture also put pressure on President Johnson to have the U.S. Department of Justice intervene, as Johnson had to contend with a potential re-ignition of armed hostilities in the South if the federal government continued its policy of doing nothing.

The Ninth Circuit Federal Judiciary understands the value that the defensive and deterrent use of firearms provides to our Republic. Judge Kozinski in his dissent to the denial to rehearing Silveira v. Lockyer said:

But the simple truth-born of experience- is that tyranny thrives best where government need not fear the wrath of an armed people. Our own sorry history bears this out: Disarmament was the tool of choice for subjugating both slaves and free blacks in the South.

Judge Gould, concurring in the currently withdrawn Nordyke v. King decision, opined:

[T]he right to bear arms is a protection against the possibility that even our own government could degenerate into tyranny, and though this may seem unlikely, this possibility should be guarded against with individual diligence.

As we await oral argument March 2, in McDonald v. Chicago and a decision in late June, it is important to not lose sight of the fact that the deterrent effect of firearms ownership remains a vibrant and important part of modern America. Gun owners should take pride in supporting the Republic through deterrence while cognizant that firearms ownership and skill in their use protects us not just from crime, but also from far worse insults to everyone’s liberty.

For more information:

The Battle of Athens

Deacons For Defense and Justice

Silveira v. Lockyer order denying en-bane rehearing

About the author: Gene Hoffman is the Chairman of the Calguns Foundation, the co-inventor of the Bullet Button, a life member of the NRA, and a CRPA board member. When he’s not using his C&R FFL, punching holes in paper, or punching holes in unconstitutional laws, he amuses two darling daughters and can sometimes be found shopping for his next boat.

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