Courtesy Hartford Courant, Josiah H. Brown

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Monday, August 23, 1999










Josiah H. Brown, a native of Hampton, is chief of staff to the president of the New School in New York.









Dissed by a former secretary of the Treasury, the vice president killed him with a handgun. As shocking as it sounds, that was the reality 195 years ago when Aaron Burr fatally shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Himself a critic of the practice that would take his life at age 49, Hamilton had reluctantly engaged in the duel, with borrowed pistols, only as a matter of honor and purposely missed Burr when it came time to fire.

This historical oddity takes on special resonance in a year when the rampage of Buford O. Furrow and the Columbine High School shootings have focused attention on gun violence. Hamilton's death reminds us that such violence has a long history in America. Still, the tendency of gang members or otherwise angry (or deranged) people to resort to firearms has increased over recent decades. Even if that dangerous trend may be slowing, as the widespread abatement of crime during the last few years would suggest, the pervasiveness of handguns, combined with the extreme insecurities or delusions of troubled individuals, should make us wary.

Fortunately, if the availability of guns and the impulse to defend one's honor violently have persisted through the centuries, so has the ability of the American people and government to address such challenges. The manipulation of historical actors to serve contemporary political purposes is inherently speculative and therefore limited in its application. That said, if Hamilton would have chosen to become a martyr for anything, it would have been to fortify the pragmatic federal system of government that he helped to create.

He would not have viewed the Second Amendment as a serious impediment to the reasonable control of guns. Whether via the ``necessary and proper'' clause or by virtue of its basic thrust, Hamilton would have recognized in the Constitution the power of the federal government to counter evident problems such as gun violence. He would have frowned on the protests of the National Rifle Association, just as he (a military veteran of the Revolution) advocated a firm response to the Whiskey Rebellion of anti-tax insurgents.

Hamilton died because he agreed to participate in a ritual of honor, the duel, which went against his better judgment. He deplored dueling, which had taken the life of his son Philip and, he believed, contravened ``the principle of natural justice, that no man shall be the avenger of his own wrongs, especially by a deed, alike interdicted by the laws of God and of man.''

Nearly 200 years later, Alexander Hamilton (not to mention his widow, Elizabeth) would have lamented the modern parallels to dueling, whether common murders of vengeance or the escalation of petty disputes -- over traffic collisions, perceived disrespect or competition for women or drug-dealing corners -- which, too often, end with a blaze of bullets.

He would have advocated strengthening the hand of authorities, both through federal law and local police, to defuse such disorder -- if necessary, by significantly restricting access to guns.

Given the chance to return to Congress or the Cabinet, he would have considered measures such as a three-day waiting period at gun shows or a one-gun-a-month limit, the minimum steps a government should take to protect its citizens.

Hamilton would have understood that enacting such measures over the opposition of the NRA would bring honor to lawmakers, and save lives.