[Note: This is one of the short stories that can be found in my Kindle collection, The Best Congress Money Can Buy: Stories of Political Possibility. Given recent events and the political debates that have accompanied them, I figured it would be appropriate to revisit this story. Let me know what you think!]
Beth had scarcely come home from the massage clinic where she worked when her smart phone beeped at her, with the news that Handgun Defense, Inc., was lobbying for more changes to gun-ownership laws. This time, they wanted to weaken the exemptions for pepper-spray.
“Ridiculous,” Beth snapped to her friend Donna, who had come by with a satchel of tomatoes from her garden. “Why should they force me to carry a gun if I don’t want to? What’s wrong with pepper spray?”
“It says here that they don’t think it does a good enough job against criminals,” Donna said with a sniff, reading from her own phone. “I think they just want to end up with everyone owning a gun, whether we want it or not.”
It was a reasonable suspicion. Modern gun-ownership laws were consciously modeled on the older law that the town of Kennesaw, Georgia, had passed in 1982. Responding to the gun ban instituted in Morton Grove, Illinois, earlier that year, the city council had decreed that all citizens of the town must own a firearm—no exceptions. At first the law was something of a curiosity, an example of Georgia orneriness set against the forces of gun control. But then something unexpected happened: the crime rate in the town went down sharply. No surprise that people adopted the law as a model for the rest of the country.
Beth turned on a news video feed, where a spokesman for HDI stood behind a podium facing a knot of reporters. “…We just don’t think that our opponents are arguing in good faith here,” he was saying. “It’s one thing to claim a religious exemption from owning a defensive firearm; that we can respect. But to say that you want a non-lethal alternative, and then to use pepper spray instead of more effective options like tasers—well, we think that it’s just not the right tool for the job.”
“But don’t you think that pepper spray is effective?” a reporter asked. “After all, police officers use it in their work.”
“Sure, as a supplement to their other tools,” the spokesman retorted. “And besides, how many police officers are hitting the streets these days? Frankly, with so few cops on the beat, we need to have effective tools in the hands of the men and women of America, and pepper spray simply isn’t enough to scare off criminals. If you want pepper spray along with your main weapon, that’s fine; but if that’s your only line of defense, you’re putting yourself and your children at risk. And after all, if it saves the life of one child, our new bill will be worth it.”
Donna snorted. “Here comes the old ‘save a single child’ routine. They pull that out every time.”
“Right!” Beth agreed, scowling in disgust as she poured herself a glass of cold lemonade from a pitcher. “How do they know that making us use tasers will save children? I don’t feel comfortable with a taser; do you?”
“Not a chance,” Donna said. “It wouldn’t feel right to me either. Those things can really hurt people, you know?”
At the press conference, one reporter pressed the spokesman. “A lot of people simply don’t see the need for this new law,” she said. “The last expansion of the gun-ownership laws had no impact that we can tell on crime rates. Wouldn’t you agree that the original law already got all the low-hanging fruit?”
“It’s true that the largest decrease in crime occurred after the Defend Our Neighborhoods law was passed,” the spokesman conceded. “But what we’re seeing is that some jurisdictions, which obviously care more about America’s criminals than America’s children, were taking advantage of the ‘nerf-gun loophole’ to restrict the ability of their citizens to protect themselves. At a time when state and local governments are having to cut back on their police forces, we view this sort of loophole abuse as simply unacceptable.”
“So why don’t you have them hire more cops?” Beth complained, although she knew the answer. The old practice of having large, well-paid police forces had simply become too expensive, between the salaries and (more importantly) the ballooning pension obligations. While governments had put off the day of reckoning as long as they could, the wave of municipal bankruptcies that began in 2012 drove home the message: there was no more time left. Choices had to be made.
At last, a consensus emerged: victims needed to be dangerous. When the police were minutes or hours away, private citizens needed to be their own first line of defense. And so the Defend Our Neighborhoods law was born.
Beth sighed and killed the video stream. “I don’t know,” she said, shaking her head. “I don’t like the thought of hurting people. It’s bad enough carrying pepper spray around; is the government about to make me switch to a taser? I don’t like it.”
“Well, don’t worry about it,” Donna said decisively. “This new law is ridiculous, it will never get passed. It’s too much of an infringement on our freedoms. No congressman would dare vote for it.”
Six months later, Beth was driving to the weapons store to buy a taser. The pepper-spray she carried was enough to satisfy the law, but only for a few days more. The new law would come into effect that Wednesday, which was the only reason Beth was even thinking about tasers in the first place.
“I can’t believe that nobody’s sued this thing in court,” Beth grumbled into her phone headset as she merged into the offramp. “Where the heck is the ACLU on this one?”
“Well, you heard what they said,” Donna said grimly from the other side of the connection. “They were ‘pleased to have made a common-sense compromise that balances our need for protection with our fundamental rights not to hurt others.’ What a bunch of wimps.”
“Let me tell you,” Beth said, “I’m not a big one for politics—you know me—but if someone was around who could work against these bills, I’d give them cold hard cash! I don’t see why the government can make me buy a weapon if I don’t want one.”
The store she was headed to was named “The Polite Society.” It was one of the new breed of weapons stores that had sprung up in the wake of the mandatory gun-ownership laws, less enthusiastic than the old-style gun shops and more geared to the causal weapon owner. This one in particular had developed a unique niche of trendy buyers, and Beth could almost feel comfortable here when she went shopping for new pepper spray.
As she pushed open the door, Beth was struck once again by the pleasant decor of the place: warm wood paneling, fancy chandeliers, a sitting room that looked like something out of a Victorian novel. Off in the corner of the main display room stood a series of mannequins that modeled a new line of cravats, silk vests, and bespoke hats. Nearby was a display cabinet filled with fine brandies and ports. In the next section of the room, ladies’ hats and silk scarves were arranged artistically around a cosmetics display.
“Welcome to the Polite Society, where we help you enjoy and protect the finer things in life,” said a pleasant young woman who stood near the doorway, wearing a classy ruffled dress with a beige name-tag reading “Kimberly.” “Would you like some latté or chai from our fresh brew?” Beth demurred, and Kimberly smiled back at her. “All right; are you here because of the taser law? Then come right with me and I’ll show you the displays.”
Beth was not the only person to have the idea, apparently. Nervous-looking customers milled about in the main display area. Most of them were clustered around the taser displays, but a few customers were examining real pistols with the help of the shop’s owner, a stout-looking fellow with an elegantly sculpted white moustache. The thought of peace-loving people carrying guns made Beth’s stomach knot up within her. “Look at that,” she murmured to herself. “Such a shame.”
“Actually,” Kimberly said brightly, “most firearms owners will never have to discharge their weapons in anger. So even if you don’t want to hurt people, that doesn’t need to stop you from considering a pistol, if you like.”
“That’s all right,” Beth said in a chilly tone. “I’ll just see the tasers.”
Kimberly gave another high-wattage smile and handed her a slim booklet. “That’s fine. I’ll have one of our sales associates right over, and in the meanwhile you can read this brochure for more information about our instructional classes.”
“Thanks,” Beth said absently, as the girl breezed off to her next customer. She flipped open the brochure and started to read. Most of the classes were the usual fare for a weapons shop: introductory classes for new purchasers to get familiar with their weapons, or more advanced classes for those wanting to become truly proficient. But The Polite Society had some unusual classes as well, fitting their theme. One was on the proper etiquette for wearing weapons at social occasions; other classes focused on table arrangements, or how to pair wines with fish, or how to tie a cravat. One class that looked interesting was how to deescalate arguments and handle sensitive issues with your partner, titled “Handling Crucial Conversations.” Beth made a surprised noise; she might have to check that one out.
“Can I help you make your selection, miss?” Appearing on the other side of the counter was a young man dressed in sharply-pressed black slacks and a maroon silk vest over a ruffled shirt. A spiffy bow tie completed the ensemble.
When these guys go with a gimmick, Beth thought to herself, they don’t play around! “Yes,” she said aloud, trying not to giggle. “I’d like a taser, please.”
“Absolutely,” the clerk answered, unlocking the display case. ”Now, are you here because of the new law?”
“Is it that obvious?”
“Well, I don’t know about that,” the clerk said, shrugging. “I just have to ask so that I can show you the right models. Do you see anything you like so far?”
Beth looked around at the display pieces, trying to suppress her disgust. “Ooh,” she said, brightening. “What about that cute one back there? The one in pink?”
The clerk followed her pointing finger; then his face fell and he winced. “Sorry,” he said, “but that’s what I was talking about. If this is your first taser, it has to be one of the compliant models.”
Beth frowned. “Compliant with what?”
“Well, it can only take disposable batteries, it can’t have a rechargeable one,” he said with an apologetic shrug. “It’s a safety issue—Congress was worried about the battery breaching and blowing up in your hand.”
“That’s ridiculous!” Beth snapped. “I’ve got a bigger battery on my cell phone!”
“Well yeah, but the cell phone wasn’t designed to discharge a lot of current all at once.” The clerk clearly didn’t agree with what he was saying, but he was going to enforce the law anyway.
Beth took a deep breath, trying to stay calm. “So if I’m not allowed to buy that taser, why is it in the display case at all?”
“Oh, those are the pre-law models,” the clerk said with an embarrassed laugh. “They got grandfathered in, just not if it’s going to be your first taser.”
“This is just—I mean—“ Red pulses flashed behind Beth’s eyes, and her hands clenched at her sides. “Look,” she finally spit out, “do you want my money or not?”
“I’m very sorry about this, and I’ll be happy to help you find something that works for you,” the clerk said, his smile turning just a bit glassy. “But we have to obey the government’s rules.”
“Well, I don’t see how the government gets off on telling me what I can do all the time!” Beth could feel blood rushing to her face. “I have to do this, I can’t do that, I have to get exactly this shade of paint on this model of toilet! I’m sick and tired of it!”
“You’re not the only one,” the clerk said soothingly, glancing around at the other patrons in the store, some of whom were shooting them dirty looks. “But look, I can help you find a compliant taser that you like, okay?”
Fuming, trying not to take it out on the poor clerk, Beth muttered and grumbled as he showed her several models similar to what she had picked out earlier. Finally she found one that looked good, and felt comfortable in her hand. The clerk disappeared into the back stockroom and returned with an innocuous-looking sealed blue box. Beth handed over her credit card and the clerk rang up the purchase. “Now remember,” he said, “you have to take a mandatory training class if this is your first taser. You can take the class anywhere you like, but we do offer some convenient times that fit most schedules.”
“I saw the brochure,” Beth snapped, still struggling to get her annoyance under control. “Thanks anyway.” The clerk muttered a relieved reply and scurried off to a safer location.
Beth stood there at the counter for a moment, staring at the box containing her new taser. I can’t believe it, she thought. They’re making me hurt people. I don’t want to do that!
Back in high school she had read about a psychology experiment where people were told to shock a victim over and over again—and they did it, just because they were told to. She had sworn that she’d never do anything like that. And now they were making her carry a taser, of all things! It wasn’t right. It wasn’t!
“Excuse me,” a voice said from behind her. Beth turned to see an elderly gentleman with thinning white hair standing behind her, holding a stack of printed pamphlets. He smiled apologetically and continued, “I couldn’t help overhearing what you had said just then—about the government forcing you to do things.”
“Yeah,” Beth grated. “I don’t see why it’s the government’s business how I choose to defend myself. It’s my life, after all!”
“That’s exactly what I think,” the man said, and extended his hand. “Paul Brinkler. I’m part of a little group of citizens in town. We believe the government has gone too far, and is encroaching on our freedoms. Here’s our story.” He held out one of the pamphlets to Beth and she took it uncertainly, glancing at the front.
“The Filburn Association?” she read aloud. “What is Filburn?”
“He’s not a what, he’s a who,” Brinkler said with a smile. “Just a simple farmer, back early in the last century, who thought that he should be able to do what he wanted by himself. The government didn’t agree. They ended up taking his case all the way to the Supreme Court, and they decided against him.” A light glinted in his eye. “We think he should have won, and we’re working to make sure that the next time, we the people do win.”
“What do you mean by that?” Beth asked.
Brinkler chuckled. “Basically, we’re a citizen’s group focused on limiting the scope of the Commerce Clause in the Constitution. It was meant to allow the Feds to regulate actual trade between the states, but over time its use was broadened to allow for any bit of tinpot tyranny the government feels like imposing—so long as it has some sort of tie-in to economic activity, however vague. We think it’s gone long enough; and this oppressive weapons law is just the latest example.” His voice became more impassioned. “Think about it: Congress actually had the nerve to say they could force you to carry a weapon, because that would stimulate interstate commerce!”
“Really?” Beth said. “That’s how they justified the law? That’s just ridiculous!”
“Precisely,” Brinkler said. “That’s why we’re here.”
“All right, fine,” Beth said. “I think we agree that this is a bad law. My question is, what do you folks want to do about it?”
“Well, it will be a long process,” the old man said, spreading his hands. “The gun law is awfully popular, and Commerce Clause law has a long and sordid history. But bad laws can be changed, even old ones. Look at segregation. Look at Prohibition. And all it takes is the courage of ordinary people like you.”
Beth felt her pulse speed up. “What do you mean?”
Brinkler glanced to the side, then lowered his voice. “We’re planning a little demonstration in a few weeks, and we need people like you to help. Go ahead and keep your taser, take all the classes, get all the paperwork you need to be legal—and then show up to the demonstration without any weapons at all. We’re going to stand up against the Feds. They can’t make us carry weapons if we don’t want to!”
“Um,” Beth said, feeling her heart lurch, “won’t you get arrested?”
Brinkler smiled. “We’re hoping for it. That way we can take the case to court, and we’re going to win.” He cocked his head. “So what do you say? Want to find out more?”
“Um, I don’t know—“ Beth’s mouth went dry at the thought of going to prison. And yet. A part of her was still furious that the government would dare make her shock people into submission if she didn’t want to. She glanced at the box in her hands, feeling a sudden urge to fling it away from her like rotten fruit.
Watching the play of emotions on her face, Brinkler shrugged and took out a business card. “Look, you think about it. I’m going to leave this right here for you—“ He set the card down onto the glass counter with a click. “—And you can do what you want with it. But we’re having a meeting next week to plan the demonstration, and I’d love to see you there. Besides,” he added with a wink, “we’ll have punch and pie.”
Beth quirked a smile. “Really.”
“Yep.” Brinkler put his hand out to shake again. “Well, I have to go see who else is interested in fighting the good fight. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.” Then he was walking back toward the center of the room, his ears cocked, trying to listen to people’s conversations.
Beth eyed the business card, catching her breath. It had the Filburn Association’s logo, a bundle of wheat standing up in a plowed field inside of a stylized circle. Handwritten on the face of the card in blue ink was the word “MEETING” and an address and time. No harm in picking the card up, was there? It wasn’t like she had to go to the meeting just because she picked up a business card, right?
Of course not. She didn’t have to do anything. But that was the point, wasn’t it? People telling her what to do. Making her hurt people. And these Filburn people were offering a chance to say no. But I’ll get arrested!
Beth squeezed her eyes shut, her hands clutching the sides of the taser box. Then her eyes snapped open. She cradled the box in one arm and picked up the business card. The light played off of the golden bundle of wheat. Not giving herself time to think, Beth jammed the card into her pants pocket, and suddenly felt a wave of relief wash over her. The knots in her stomach loosened. She was finally doing what she wanted to do, not what someone was making her do. She grinned and nearly laughed out loud in relief.
Saving the world came later. For now, Beth went to find another clerk. She still had to sign up for her mandatory training.