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Along Came Sarah

Monday, July 15, 2013

15-year-old Sarah Merkle never intended to become a celebrity—she just wanted to stop Maryland lawmakers from dashing both the Second Amendment and her dreams for the future. Still, today she's one of the most visible and vocal advocates of the right to keep and bear arms.

Sarah Merkle finished her homework near midnight, but something was keeping her up. There was something about this moment she couldn’t let pass. She may be only 15 years old, but something was telling her to speak out, to try to correct a momentous wrong that state leaders were on the cusp of establishing as law.

 The state legislature was considering a gun control bill that most likely would ban her Bushmaster AR-15. The majority of legislators seemed focused not on stopping criminals, but on curbing the rights of law-abiding gun owners. She had heard there was a public hearing on the bill in Annapolis, Md., the next day, so she checked online to see if there was an age limit for speakers; she didn’t see one. Any person, at any age, who signed up could get three minutes at the podium.

Sarah had been shooting since she was eight years old. She started with a shotgun. At 11 years old she graduated to an AR-15. To do that she had to prove to her dad she could properly hold it. She’d been competing with the rifle ever since, calling it a “girl-friendly gun” because of its light recoil.

Now rated an “expert” with the rifle and a member of the Maryland Rifle Team, her next goal would be to reach the “master” level, but this legislation might stop her from continuing to progress as a marksman and competitor.

It might also hurt her in other ways. She’d heard about shooting scholarships at some colleges. The state might literally and ignorantly ban her dream. She had to speak out. She started to write.

She finished around 2 a.m. and fell asleep. A few hours later her alarm woke her for school. During breakfast she told her dad, Mike, she wanted to speak at the public hearing. She said, “It’s today. Can we go? I’ve written a speech and everything.”

Her father knew better than to doubt her. When she was 13 years old he put her name forward as a good fit to be the secretary of the Maryland Rifle Club, a 500-plus-member club that has 100- and 200-yard rifle ranges, handgun ranges and more. It’s one of those stalwart clubs that quietly trains people to be safe and responsible gun owners.

The Maryland Rifle Club was founded in 1933. The official mission of the club is to encourage “organized rifle and pistol shooting among members of our community, with a view toward a better knowledge of the safe handling and proper care of firearms, as well as improved marksmanship.” The club also decided its mantra should be to develop “honesty, good fellowship, self-discipline, team play and self-reliance, which are the essentials of good sportsmanship, and the foundation of true patriotism.”

At first, the club leadership was skeptical about letting a 13-year-old be its secretary, but those who knew Merkle said they were sure she could handle the responsibility.

"I'm really organized," she said. “I keep everything sorted in separate folders on my computer. It’s just easier when you know where everything is.”

She had convinced them, but then they found that the club’s bylaws said a person must be 16 years old or older to fill the post. They changed the rule just for her. She’s been re-elected since, and no one doubts her now. She handles all the applications that come in, checks and responds to incoming emails, keeps the minutes of the club’s meetings and a lot more.

She makes it look easy.

“I love doing it,” she says, “but maybe I’ll be too busy to keep it up later in high school or when I go to college or something. We’ll see.”

Bill Perry, the club president, knew Merkle could handle the job. “A number of years ago, I think when she was 11, I heard this girl screaming during a competition, ‘Close the range! Close the range!’” Perry says. “We shut down the range and then I see this little blonde girl running out onto the 200-yard range. She stops next to one of the targets and picks up this little box turtle and moves it off the field. She saw the little thing and couldn’t bear that it might get shot. She’s quite the girl.”

Yes, she’s quite the girl. The whole country was about to find that out. Her father agreed to take her to the hearing. He’d have to take the day off work. Her mother, Karen, was also coming. They decided to leave right away.

The Speech Heard Round the Country

Merkle and her family arrived at 7:30 a.m. and had to wait until 8 a.m. for the doors to open. They were still waiting at 9 a.m. when the sign-up sheet to speak was brought out.

"I was the second person in line, and by the time I left there was already quite a crowd behind me,” says Merkle. “We had never been there before, so we weren’t sure how much time we really had. By then we were all hungry, so we headed down the street to find something to eat."

When they got back, a pro-gun rally at Lawyer’s Mall was beginning to form around 11 a.m. They found out that the hearing in the Miller Senate House wouldn’t begin until 1 p.m., so they decided to attend the rally.

Merkle began talking to people and before she knew it she was being introduced to Maryland Republican state Delegate Kathy Szeliga.

“Szeliga liked what I had to say so she put me up on the podium at the rally in front of what I was told to be a crowd of 4,000 people,” says Merkle.

Merkle spoke for a minute and finished by saying, “Martin O’Malley, you can’t take my guns, you can’t take my rights.”

She left to the sound of cheers and weaved through the crowd to her parents. She still had to wait all afternoon and into the evening before she’d get her three minutes at the podium.

That evening she and her parents made their way to the Maryland State House, the oldest state capitol that’s still in continuous legislative use. It’s also the only state house that served as the U.S. capitol. The Continental Congress met in the Old Senate Chamber from Nov. 26, 1783, to

Aug. 13, 1784. Today, the Maryland State House is where the Maryland General Assembly convenes for three months each year.

Lawmakers had been debating all afternoon whether to ban citizens’ guns in the very place George Washington resigned his commission as commander of the Continental Army. As a member of the Maryland Rifle Team, Merkle knew the proposed gun control law might prevent her and other competitors from competing out of state, as the then-proposed legislation said that if a state resident brings a banned so-called “assault rifle” (such as Merkle’s Bushmaster ar-15) out of the state, they couldn’t legally bring it back in. The rifle team members regularly compete in Delaware, Pennsylvania and in other states. This restriction would end that. Moreover, the legislation as written would have banned all possession of ammunition by persons under 21—so even if she could keep her rifle, she couldn’t use it.

So Feb. 6 of last year, this determined 15-year-old was ready to give the speech she’d written the night before.

“You only get three minutes, so you have to stay on message and be careful with your words,” she says. “If you get off topic at all you won’t have a chance to say what you came to say. So I made sure I could say what had to be said in three minutes.”

Of course, she didn’t know her speech would go viral—that it would get 2.9 million views on YouTube (and counting) after it was posted in March. She simply wanted to use her First Amendment rights to defend her Second Amendment rights.

The room hushed as she read her speech:

“I’m 15 years old and I’ve been shooting for almost eight years,” she began. “I’ve also been a part of the Maryland Rifle Club and Maryland State Rifle Team since I was 11. Because of this, I have become eligible for various shooting scholarships around the country to a wide array of even the most prestigious colleges that have shooting teams. Achieving stricter gun control laws would obliterate any opportunity I could’ve had to attend a decent college on a shooting scholarship. Ever since I first learned how to shoot, the issue with gun violence around the nation became clear: guns are not the problem, people are. Purging our society of violence and murder cannot be done through gun control legislation. By signing this legislation you are not signing away gun violence, but instead confiscating American citizens of our constitutional rights.”

She was arguing for individual freedom in Maryland—a state so politically left the word “liberal” today has lost its original meaning.

Merkle was pointing out this contradiction.

“What really baffled the anti-gun legislators was that I’m not a middle-aged guy from rural America clinging to my guns,” Merkle says. “I’m a 15-year-old high school student from suburban Maryland with an ar-15. I get their point of view. Most of my teachers and friends are ignorant of guns and the Second Amendment. They don’t know why our nation’s Founders insisted that these individual rights be included in the U.S. Constitution. In fact, I’ve lost friends because I compete with a rifle. What they don’t get is my point of view, the freedom-loving perspective of so many Americans. I wish they’d try harder to understand and teach why so many law-abiding Americans cherish their Second Amendment rights.”

To tell the legislators, she continued:

“You are not eliminating guns from society but eliminating our ability to protect our lives, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Chicago, Ill., has had some of the strictest gun control laws in America enacted for the past few years, and it is currently more than twice as likely for you to be killed in Chicago as in the Afghani War. For the past 11 years and four months in the Afghani War, 2,166 people have been killed. Now, in only eight years in Chicago, 4,265 people have been killed, and 3,371 of them were from being shot. Is that really something we want to model our state laws after?”

The reality this 15-year-old was dishing out resonated. She soon found herself on “Fox & Friends” being interviewed by Gretchen Carlson, and on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News talking about American freedom and her wish to compete with a rifle. After her speech, newspapers all over the country were calling, and millions were watching her on YouTube.

She had concluded her three-minute speech by saying:

“To abolish or severely limit the right of the Maryland residents as a whole to bear arms, which is the intent of the proposed legislation, is to essentially defeat the purpose of our own U.S. Constitution. The entire foundation of the United States was formed on the principle that the government—our government—is a government of the people, for the people, by the people, and taking away the people’s right to bear arms is taking away the people’s power in the government. The Second Amendment, which grants citizens the right to secure their natural rights, is the backbone of our democratic American society.”

Merkle was too focused on her speech to remember if the legislators were sneering or simply baffled by the politically incorrect truth she was dishing out. Whatever their reaction, the majority in the legislature was still determined to curb her freedom.

Gun Control Passes Anyway

On April 3, the Firearm Safety Act of 2013 (Senate Bill 281) received final approval in the House of Delegates by a 78-61 vote. On the House floor, the bill was made even worse as delegates stripped out a committee amendment that would have exempted active-duty military and veterans under the age of 21 from the handgun licensing and training requirements. Then, in a show of flagrant disregard for citizens’ rights, the Maryland Senate passed the bill with very little deliberation.

Democrat Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley signed the legislation on May 16. Though Senate Bill 281 doesn’t contain solutions that stop criminals or protect law-abiding residents, the governor and legislators who voted for it claim it will do just that. O’Malley said in a statement that the bill strikes “a balance between protecting the safety of law enforcement and our children, and respecting the traditions of hunters and law-abiding citizens to purchase handguns for self-protection.”

Republican Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin disagrees.

“The fact is the Firearm Safety Act of 2013 provides no safety,” Pipkin said. “It says, ‘if you own guns, we’re coming for you.’ That’s the message.”

What the legislation certainly does is ban the sale of 45 types of semi-automatic rifles (what the media calls “assault weapons”), requires citizens who follow the law to be fingerprinted and more before they can purchase handguns, limits magazine capacity to 10 rounds, requires gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms to police and empowers state police to audit gun dealers.

Opponents quickly vowed to petition the bill with a referendum, but soon decided a better path to freedom is to challenge the law’s constitutionality in court, with the NRA leading the way.

Meanwhile, Sarah Merkle is still working away at her dream. Her teachers look at her a little differently now, and her classmates, too.

She has become an iconic example of what an American can do—even a 15-year-old—who knows in her heart what is right. She says she’ll stay active and speak out as the NRA challenges the law in court.

Maryland Sarah Merkle Maryland
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