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What would Rosa Parks do?
In the wake of the Cuomo law, a dramatic attack on the Second Amendment and the freedom of New Yorkers, what is a principled citizen to do?
Is the first duty to obey the law, or to obey the Constitution the lawmakers have disregarded? Does a God-given and Constitution-certified right trump the pact of citizenship?
Should tens of thousands of New Yorkers whose lives have been lived in obedience to law and service to the community simply opt out? Has their government pushed them, on principle, into lawlessness?
Is this the line in the sand?
Specifically, should New Yorkers who own magazines that hold more than seven rounds secretly keep them, in violation of the governor’s ban? And should those who own guns labeled “assault weapons” avoid the obligation to register them with the state?
As part of a quiet personal rebellion, or a widespread public demonstration, should gun owners simply ignore the law?
It’s a question a great many law-abiding people will ask themselves in coming days. Enraged by a secret law passed without public disclosure, and a governor and government that mock their concerns and values, most will, for the first time in their lives, consider stepping outside the law.
Considering themselves forced into lawlessness by an oppressive and uncaring governor, do they ultimately resolve to comply or do they give him the metaphorical finger?
American history offers conflicting advice.
When the government came for the guns in 1775, the men of town formed up at the Concord Bridge and fought for their freedom.
When Abraham Lincoln spoke to the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, he said that obedience to law must be our national religion, and that it is, in fact, the law that makes us free.
Later, Lincoln wrote about the Dred Scott decision and said that, though the ruling was immoral and wrong, it was the duty of a citizen to obey it, while working furiously to legally change it. We must obey the law, Lincoln said, even the bad law.
Then there was Rosa Parks.
She, and others in the civil rights movement, chose a different path. Inspired by people like Thoreau and Ghandi, they chose civil disobedience. They chose, after serious consideration, to disobey unjust law. They accepted the consequence of such disobedience – remember, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a famous letter from the Birmingham jail – but believed that the principles of God-given liberty and Constitution-certified rights must prevail above immoral law.
Black people and their supporters in the civil rights movement decided that taking a stand for constitutional rights was more important than obeying unjust law. They believed, and proved, that standing up to wrong was a way to overturn it.
In the context of the Cuomo gun ban, it is worth noting that when Rosa Parks got on the bus, she didn’t sit in the white section. She walked to the divider between white and black and sat in the first row of the black section.
She obeyed the law in the first instance.
But when more white people got on, and filled up the white seats in the front of the bus, the bus driver came back and moved the divider.
He made Rosa Parks' black seat a white seat.
He changed the rules on her.
And he ordered her to move.
She had done right, she had obeyed the law, she was being a good and obedient citizen, and they changed the rules on her.
They criminalized her conduct by an ad hoc, unfair rule. She didn’t change, they did.
And she said, “No.”
She kept her seat. She chose to disobey.
And now we can’t fathom that they once had white seats and black seats.
Because the driver pushed too far and the lady took a stand.
New York gun owners will have to decide which example of historical freedom to follow. And if they choose to reject an unjust law, they must decide whether to do so quietly and privately, acting as individuals, or whether to do so loudly and publicly, as part of a broad-based public protest.
Such a protest, if it involved thousands of individuals and the support of some elected, police and judicial officers, would be a significant social force. But it would be a united-we-stand-divided-we-fall situation, and failure to get a significant number of participants would lead to failure.
Disobedience to law also carries consequence. The state would push back, and it would push back hard, and the impact on the lives of disobedient individuals could be great.
People could lose their guns, they could lose their pistol permits, they could lose their freedom. They could be fined and jailed. They could be convicted as felons and lose the right to vote, hold state professional licenses and hold public office. They could foreseeably lose their jobs and, consequently, their homes.
So people will have to weigh how much those extra ten rounds in the magazine mean to them. How important having a service rifle truly is. Or, as they are more likely to see it, how important standing for freedom is.
We will also have to see if a public resistance effort develops. If so, people may flock to it. If not, the whole thing may go underground, or opposition may simply fade into angry obedience.
But this is the season of decision. The rage at the governor’s attack on freedom will either continue or subside, it will either coalesce into resistance or molder into the background frustration innate to New York.
The governor has presumed aggrieved citizens will, like a horse forced to take a bit, learn to be servile. And he must be hoping that they don’t ask themselves a particular historical question.
What would Rosa Parks do?