When New York Times columnist Bret Stephens stunningly told a panel on Monday’s “Morning Joe” broadcast on MSNBC that “You won’t find a single instance” when Americans used guns to protect their liberties, he flunked U.S. history, perhaps depending upon one’s perspective.
When NewsBusters took him to task for it, the conservative counter to liberal media bias also pulled a D-minus by ignoring a moment in history when Americans did exactly that. It is an incident that many have tried to erase from the American memory because it may have defined the purpose of the Second Amendment better than, say, the battles of Lexington and Concord.
It is known as “The Battle of Athens.” Not Greece, Tennessee. Look it up on your favorite search engine.
Long story short, in August 1946, after years of being dominated by the E.H. Crump political machine, returning veterans in McMinn County became fed up with political corruption. They ran a candidate to replace the sheriff, whose department largely operated on a percentage of fines they collected. Even the Justice Department had launched investigations, but – does this sound familiar? – had taken no action.
There was an election for sheriff and state senate in August 1946. War veterans decided to run their own slate of candidates. Poll watchers were physically assaulted and ballot boxes were seized by sheriff’s deputies and taken to the jail.
Veterans armed themselves with guns from two local armories. Inside the jail, deputies were also armed. The fight was on. Through much of the night there was sporadic gunfire and early on the morning of Aug. 2, somebody tossed explosives at the jail, at which point the besieged deputies surrendered, the ballot boxes were recovered and the veteran-backed candidate for sheriff turned out to be the winner. Citizen patrols were organized and peace settled in.
Surprisingly, nobody was killed on either side, but some people were badly beaten. A few people had been wounded. The incident inspired a made-for-television movie and there was a good account of the events in American Heritage.
Firearms have been used countless times by individual citizens to defend themselves and their neighbors and friends, their homes and businesses. There were armed people defending their businesses during the Los Angeles riots. An armed citizen prevented a mass church shooting in Colorado Springs in 2007. And then came Sutherland Springs, when an armed private citizen stopped a mass shooter from continuing a rampage that had already claimed more than two dozen lives.
The veterans who waged the Battle of Athens probably had come home from the war hoping to never again hear the sounds of gunshots in anger. Some have portrayed the Athens incident as anarchy, others as vigilantism. Those who recovered the ballot boxes might have a different take.