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A Modest Proposal: The Right to Bear Poison

The other day, as I heard about yet another fight over Americans' right to keep and bear arms, I mused about how odd our fascination with guns is. We're a nation obsessed with a tool whose express purpose is to kill someone else.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course. It's in the Constitution so it must be okay. So what if a few people every year -- well, a few hundred thousand people -- seem intent on using firearms for something other than keeping British soldiers at bay? We Americans will still want our poison to be legal and accessible.

Wait, did I say "poison"? Yes, for that's what I was musing upon. What if the Second Amendment had been written this way: "the right of the people to keep and bear Poisons, shall not be infringed."

You might think poisons aren't as fun as guns. You can't shoot tin cans with a vial of weed killer. But at the height of their popularity -- in Renaissance Italy -- poisons were kind of cool, the murder weapon of choice among the nobility. Having access to a skilled poisoner was as important then as knowing a crooked gun dealer is today.

And just as we fetishize various guns today -- the .44 Magnum of Dirty Harry, the MAC-10 of Colombian drug lords -- so the deadly tinctures of poisoners were obsessed over. Which was better: arsenic or cyanide? Where best to slip the poison: in food, wine or an unsuspecting relative's ear? Where to store it: in a flask hanging from a cord around your neck, in a cleverly-constructed ring or (my favorite) on one side of a carving knife as you cut a piece of chicken for a dinner guest you're hoping to see less of?

A bullet-proof vest was no good against poison, of course, but if you were a monarch afraid of someone slipping something toxic in your cherries jubilee you could protect yourself by taking a little bit of a lot of poisons, thus building up an immunity. Just think of Mithridates, the Persian king who was so unsuccessful at killing himself with poison that he had to order a slave to run him through with a sword.

If our Founding Fathers had loved poison as much as they loved guns, things would be a lot different today. School shootings wouldn't be a problem. Instead, we'd have to worry about school cafeteria poisonings. (Don't think you can kill very many people very quickly with poison? Just look at Jonestown.)

Critics would point out that people are more likely to be poisoned by a loved one than by a stranger. Liberals and police chiefs would lobby for locks on poison drawers or, at a minimum, child-proof caps on poison bottles. Of course, the National Poison Association would fight any perceived effort to restrict an American's ability to get his hands on some cyanide, warfarin or cobra venom.

"When poisons are outlawed," they would say, "only outlaws will have poison." And really, who cares if you drive into a national park with big jugs of arsenic hanging from the poison rack in your pickup truck?

Some people might think America's morbid fascination with poison was a bit creepy. Members of the NPA -- their logo a bald eagle holding a fizzing ampule of some cloudy toxin -- would shout back: "It's poison that made this country great! You can have my poison when you pry it from my cold, dead hands."

Oh, by the way, the Maryland General Assembly's House Judiciary Committee is considering a bill that would require people suspected of domestic abuse to give up their firearms. According to Lisa Rein, author of today's story in The Post, the committee in the past "has resisted the firearms bills and other domestic violence legislation because of concern for the rights of suspects and gun owners."

So, tell me: What's your poison?

By John Kelly  |  February 20, 2009; 9:00 AM ET
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Excuse me punk many folks on guns for sport target shooting, trap, skeet and sporting clays. I use mine for that and for protection against predators for the herd bubba and sometimes sheep or WP columinst needs to be put down to end the suffering!!

Typical crap from a city dwelling leftist who doesnt live in the real world.

Try taking our guns away mr kelly. Round up your freinds who think the same as you do and we will a very violent but quick revolution and the Socialist States of America will once again become the United States of America.

Posted by: sheepherder | February 20, 2009 9:35 AM | Report abuse

You do realize that many people in rural areas use rifles and shotguns for hunting? I know people in those areas where game meat is an important part of their diets, even today. Or perhaps "especially today" given the economic situation.

Posted by: wiredog | February 20, 2009 10:12 AM | Report abuse

The Second Amendment does provide for the right to bear arms. And the Supreme Court recently determined that such right rests with the individual and not collectively. Fine. But that doesn't mean firearms (or in John's parallel universe, poison) are beyond regulation. The First Amendment, after all, may preclude the abridgement of free speech, but that is hardly an absolute protection against government intrusion into that area. The same holds for the Second Amendment.

Posted by: f-street | February 20, 2009 3:10 PM | Report abuse

Well....I ususally say no comment to something like this, but this article, I have to make an acception. Yes it's true that the Constitution states that we have the right to bare arms, but the writer may think that we may take the right a little too far. Sometimes we kill people just because we have to defend ourselves, for sport,or other personal reasons....but poison....thats more gruesome(sp?)than shooting people in the head or blown somebody's brains out. If he thinks that poison is a better alternative than guns, then that's his opinion.

Posted by: chaniquafrazier | February 21, 2009 11:50 PM | Report abuse

I am glad to see that satire still can draw out nasty vitriol from the masses, but seriously threatening to kill people? Do you really think that is acceptable? Guns are tools with one purpose alone, to kill, and should be treated with the respect due as such. And I have to ask just as John has, is it so wrong to step back and think about how we treat guns in our society? Does that really require threatening his, mine and others life? My right to live is as equally if not more protected by the constitution as your right to arms.

Posted by: ThatGuy1 | February 23, 2009 11:28 AM | Report abuse

This is the most bizarre article of Kelly's that I have read. I hope he is doing well. I know the Post staff have been under a lot of pressure with threats of layoffs in recent times. After suffering through this column, I am really worried about him.

Posted by: k_romulus | February 23, 2009 11:33 AM | Report abuse

Right on, gun rights advocates. And while we're at it, why should we have all these laws that try to keep children and teens from predators on the internet? Just give the kids guns to protect themslves. Speaking of poisons, why bother with horrid child-proof caps and locks on cabinets to keep kids out of poisons? Just give guns to the babysitters, and they can blast the kids whenever they come near something dangerous.
That eleven year old who is in jail for shooting his pregnant stepmother--the warden wants to get him out of the adult facility for his own safety. Instead, give him back his gun (it was his OWN gun he used to shoot his stepmother) so he can protect himself and maybe save the taxpayers some money by taking out a few deadbeats who won't need to be tried.

Posted by: virginiaroark2 | February 23, 2009 11:39 AM | Report abuse

hey Sheepherder: I hate to break the news to you, but more people live in urban areas than rural ones, so which is the 'real world'?

Posted by: joshuaostevens | February 23, 2009 12:38 PM | Report abuse

The difference is that guns can be used to defend your home or hometown from tyrannical governments and invading armies - real dangers in 1789. Poisons aren't so good for that.

Posted by: MikeM_inColumbia | February 23, 2009 8:16 PM | Report abuse

Sorry John, you stretched this one too far. Doesn't work as humor, doesn't work as satire, doesn't work as serious.

Pure cyanide.


Posted by: DLDx | February 24, 2009 8:47 AM | Report abuse

Although there are still some people out there who use guns to hunt for food, most people seeking guns and access to them today don't--they use them for "sport" and they have them to kill, whether for defense or bad stuff. Unfortunately, only 3% of gun deaths are considered justifiable homocide (i.e. someone is hurting me or you killed my kid) by the courts from the 30,000 or more who get killed every year. And yet you have gun advocates fight so hard to have something so deadly unregulated. You'l find more laws in some places against pitbulls than guns.

Posted by: lidiworks1 | February 27, 2009 8:02 AM | Report abuse

I'm 59 years old, got my first gun when I was 9 years old. (a 22).
My guns have killed less people than Ted Kennedy's car.


Quincy, Ma.

Posted by: Dockgsp | February 27, 2009 12:07 PM | Report abuse

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