Heston targets right to speak

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 September, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 September, 1997, 12:00am

It's official: the right to carry a gun is more important than an American's right to say what he likes in the press. And if you don't believe us, ask Moses.

Charlton Heston, the man chosen by God to play his favourite prophet in the film The Ten Commandments, nowadays has amendments rather than commandments on his mind.

Namely, the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which reads: 'The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.' A large number of historians and social commentators regard this amendment, written in 1791, as an anachronism out of step with modern-day America.

Heston, whose aggressively conservative approach to life often seems to mirror the simplistic heroes he used to play for the Hollywood studios, is having nothing to do with that school of thought.

He has found a new role as vice-president of the National Rifle Association, one of the richest, most influential and aggressive lobbying organisations in the US. The NRA's role is to protect Americans' Second Amendment right. Its desire to see a gun in every good law-abiding family's home is such that it has opposed every single effort to impose gun control, even if it means allowing AK-47s to stay in the hands of rapists and drug dealers.

The NRA has been having a tough time under the Clinton administration, failing for the first time to derail anti-gun legislation and finding itself seized by an internal power struggle between the pragmatists and the crazed right-wingers who only ever leave their Wyoming bunkers to go shopping for more ammunition.

But Heston has brought a sense of purpose to his new job, and clearly sees the media as the gun movement's most heavily armed enemy.

In a speech at the National Press Club last week, he promised to help get a 'pro-second amendment president' elected, raise buckets of money for the NRA and reverse its decline.

But his sharpest words were reserved for the journalists present. He made the blunt assertion that the Second Amendment was a more important freedom than the First - the constitutional right to freedom of expression.

'My right to have a gun is more important than your right to rail about it in the press,' he claimed.

But the arch anti-socialist has not only laid himself open to suggestions that he should take his personal arsenal and go to live in North Korea. He plays a risky game assaulting the sanctity of the First Amendment, which - despite some of the absurdities which take place in its name - is probably the one constitutional right the average American knows and cherishes above all else.

Americans disagree about whether they need a gun in their home to protect themselves against intruders - but not one can be found who will suggest they do not need the freedom to say what they like.

Heston is correct in suggesting the liberal media has been biased against the NRA's activities. But the organisation does not depend on good publicity to get what it wants - only the ear of a congressman in search of campaign contributions.

'This is going to be the toughest acting job of his career: selling the extremist agenda of the NRA to the American public with a straight face,' one gun-control activist said.

What can be closer to heaven for the confirmed drinkers among us than to be told our libations can help us from getting heart disease? Since medical researchers suspected there must be something in a good Bordeaux which stops the cholesterol-chomping French from all dropping dead of heart attacks, that dream has been almost realised.

But while research does suggest that wine, especially the red variety, has a beneficial anti-oxidant effect on heart-destroying free radicals in the blood, it has plunged American regulators into something of a quandary.

Wine growers in the US desire to cash in on the research, just as aspirin producers like to boast the drug can prevent heart attacks as well as cure the common headache.

They have been putting pressure on the US Government to allow labels on bottles touting the health benefits of a little tipple. Such labels will be fairly innocuous, carrying messages urging consumers to 'consult your family doctor about the health effects of wine enjoyment'.

Wine-makers are already obliged to put labels on each bottle warning pregnant women that alcohol can damage their health. So they argue that if wine can also be a healthy drink, they have a right to say so.

The request has, predictably, put the Government in a bind, not unlike the issue of whether marijuana should be prescribed for health reasons. The American Medical Association has joined a growing chorus of opposition, claiming the device will encourage excessive drinking and that the wine-makers are merely trying to boost their sales under the pretext of medical research.

However, the Government's own medical guidelines do acknowledge the potential beneficial effect of moderate alcohol consumption, and it is usually liberal-minded towards allowing food and drug manufacturers to boast (in moderation) about heath benefits.

Will Washington take the politically awkward step the vintners want? We wouldn't raise our glasses to it just yet.