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Guns in AmericaDaniel Johnson Salem-News.com
America is a gun culture sui generis; but also a culture based on several false interpretations or presentations of history.
(CALGARY, Alberta) - Every few years I find a book that changes my entire paradigm about the world—sometimes just a significant part of my world; sometimes my total worldview. The last such book was The User Illusion Tors Nørretranders which I found (by accident) in a book store in May, 1998.
The current book is A Necessary Evil: A history of American distrust of government by Northwestern University historian, Garry Wills, which was suggested to me by my friend and colleague, Henry Clay Ruark.
Wills has written more than 35 books and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America (1993). I respect his credentials and recognize him as an authority. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes herein are from Wills’s book. I include page numbers from the hardcover edition so you can, if you wish, verify both the context of a quote and ensure for yourself that I am not misrepresenting what Wills has said.
One thing his book has made clear to me is how the people of America are carrying false mythologies around in their heads and that, as a result, these false ideas have distorted their political and social worlds, and reduced their freedom to act in the world at large. Knowledge is power, said Francis Bacon, the philosophical founder of modern science. My intention in this series of articles, based on what I’ve learned from Wills, is to try to counter those harmful ideas and publicize Wills’s book which I believe every forward-thinking American should read.
For those who might jump to the conclusion that I am just a Canadian sniping at America, let me make clear that this piece is based 100% on Wills and if you have any disputes or complaints, phone him or send him an email at Northwestern University. Attempting to shoot the messenger is counter-productive.
In the American beginning
Despite having put men on the moon, America is still stuck in the eighteenth century with its conformity and intellectual tyranny by the majority. The French writer Alexis de Tocqueville is famous for his travels across America which resulted in his book On Democracy in America. He wrote that:
“I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America…the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases but woe to him if he goes beyond them. The majority live in the perpetual utterance of self-applause.”
Little has changed since the two volumes were published in 1835 and 1840. I am writing outside those bounds which certainly raises some hackles among the more culturally and intellectually insecure.
America is a gun culture sui generis; but also a culture based on several false interpretations or presentations of history. The first is the role of guns in the Revolutionary War; second is the false belief of the role of guns in expanding into the West; and third is the belief in the contradiction that widespread gun ownership makes America safer. Stemming from these is the most egregious of mythologies, that the Second Amendment gives citizens the right to privately own and carry guns. This last will be exposed in a subsequent article.
The Seventeenth Century
America was not actually founded on guns. The first thing to note is that in Revolutionary times “there was a drastic shortage of guns. This goes against everything we have assumed about our pioneer forebears—that they vindicated their own liberties with their own arms. But there is overwhelming evidence that a majority of males did not own usable guns. The colonies repeatedly legislated that all men should get or be given guns, and just as repeatedly complained that this had not been accomplished. In the French and Indian War, a contingent of two hundred Virginia militiamen went to the front bearing only eighty muskets, and British officers in Massachusetts, amazed that so few colonials possessed muskets, were even more surprised to find that many had not even fired one.” (p. 27-8)
“Guns for both militias and the Continental Army were so scarce that George Washington fills page after page with laments for his inability to get them—and he meant muskets as well as the even scarcer cannon and artillery. If guns were not omnipresent, then obviously the skill in their use was not widespread either.” (p. 29)
Militias were established by the states, which generally resisted federal attempts to control them. “What was truly feared was not so much going off on other states’ business as having others come into one’s own state. Some locales would rather deal with Indians or smugglers or internal dissent in their own way, without federal oversight or scrutiny. And the greatest fear was felt in the South, where the militia’s one constant use, one that was considered crucial, was to patrol, intimidate, and keep down the slave population.
[Law professor] Carl Bogus has argued very plausibly that uneasiness about the militia’s use against slaves underlay many of the objections raised to federal control of the militia. Patrick Henry was especially touchy on this point. When he had gone to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, he learned how ardent could be the feelings of outsiders about slaves. He carried letters of commendation from Virginia Baptists, whose religious freedom he had defended, for delivery to the famous Quaker philanthropist Anthony Benezet. Henry was asked how he could defend some men’s freedom of religion while denying freedom in its entirety to masses of black slaves. He did not want people who thought like that interfering with Virginia’s slave policies.” (p. 117)
Cognitive dissonance is a psychological trait where a person or group can believe in contradictory ideas with no conscious conflict. It was not only Patrick Henry, but influential Americans from Henry’s time to the present day who do it. It’s a growing battle for the Second Amendment. Carl Bogus poses the issue in an article titled: “Do we place our faith in law or guns”. It’s a dichotomy in society that the American people are going to have to resolve one way or the other—and live with the results.
During the War of 1812, “when Madison tried to federalize New England’s militias for the invasion of Canada, the governors refused to hand them over. Governor Caleb Strong of Massachusetts said that since invasion was not imminent, the militia was not being called, as the Constitution put it, ‘to repel invasion,’ so the law federalizing the militias was null. Connecticut, Vermont, and Rhode Island agreed.” (p. 159)
(I had never heard of this historical detail but, as a Canadian, I am deeply grateful to the memory of Caleb Strong and the other governors.)
The Nineteenth Century and early gun control
The muskets and breech loaders of the eighteenth century were awkward, cumbersome and unreliable. The nineteenth century revolver was an improvement, but still an imperfect weapon. Cowboys carried two guns, because often the first didn’t work. Some carried three or four. They were not worn in holsters because they could not be drawn very quickly and were not very accurate beyond a few yards. Wyatt Earp, for example, mainly used his revolver as a club when arresting people.
“Given all these obstacles to pistol use, why was the handgun so popular in the West? Men clearly found it comforting to have a gun they could wear without carrying it or thinking about it. Rifles have to be put down if you are going to do a chore, have a drink, or simply move about. But having the gun always there at one’s waist was also an obstacle, so far as community peace was concerned. It was there for instant use by drunks, hotheads or panicky people. That is why handguns were banned in the cattle towns. The ‘Wild West’ was the birthplace of strict gun control laws. Far from the gun being the tamer of the West, the West had to tame the gun in order to be civilized [my emphasis added]. Kansas, after its bloody experience in the John Brown days, had made it a state law that no vagrants, drunks or former Confederate soldiers could carry ‘a pistol, bowie knife, dirk or other deadly weapon.’ The cattle towns made the restriction much tougher, collecting guns from cowboys and drovers when they came inside the city limits. (Wyatt Earp and his men went to the O.K. corral because they heard the Clantons had not given up their guns in town.) (p. 248)
Famous ‘gun cities’ like Dodge had a year or two of violence when the herds were first driven to them in the early 1870s, but they quickly imposed the gun laws that cut the homicide rates spectacularly. In 1877 and 1882, there were no killings in Dodge City during the cattle season. In other years, the average was one and a half killings, some of those accidental or unconnected with cowboys or marshals.” (p. 248)
“In general, the settlement of the West was not a matter of individuals going off into the wilds. The modern frontier was marked by the advance of a technologically more sophisticated culture into a backward one. The technology of the western settlers—in mining and drilling equipment and expertise, railroad expansion, cavalry intelligence and manoeuvre, coordination of market information by telegraph, and a steady influx of manufactured goods—was at the core of settlement.” (p. 249)
“Although raw settlements did have unstable conditions at the outset, especially when in conflict with Indian, Mexican or renegade groups, there was a massive social effort to quell those conditions as rapidly as possible. That is why Prohibition, gun control and women’s suffrage were pioneered in the West. The mot successful settlements were the most regimented (the Mormons were outstanding in this regard). Social institutions—churches, schools, newspapers, libraries, theatres, and ‘opera houses’—were introduced and supported by business interests and communal discipline. The federal government supported the whole enterprise with land grants, subsidies to the railroads, and maintenance of the army’s logistical trains. Fiction is full of violent struggles when tracts of territory were thrown open to settlers making a run to stake their claims. When fifteen thousand people made the run into Oklahoma Territory, on the day when it was declared open in 1889, newspaper stories told of shootings, claim jumping, and bloodshed around Guthrie, the ‘instant town’ where claims were recorded. But no one was killed or even wounded.” (p. 249) [my emphasis added]
As W. Eugene Hollon wrote in Frontier Violence: Another Look (1974): “Within thirty-six hours after everyone had arrived at the ‘Magic City’ on the Prairie, this heterogeneous mob had elected a mayor and a council of five members, adopted a city charter, and authorized the collection of a head tax. Within a week, Baptists and Methodists, and Presbyterians were holding church service in tents and planning the construction of permanent church buildings….Six months passed before Oklahoma Territory recorded its first homicide.” (p. 250 in Wills)
“The myth of frontier individualism—of the man whose gun made him his own master, free and untrammelled—dies hard. What is excitement for the movies is ideology for the National Rifle Association, which thinks gun control would destroy the spirit that made America great. But the gun did not tame the West. The West had to tame the gun.” (p. 251) [my emphasis added]
There, in a nutshell, is an overview of the last 250 years of guns in America. The American gun culture itself is a new phenomenon, basically since the Second World War and it has evolved along with the increasing militarization of American society. This is part and parcel of the average American’s manufactured fear of government—every man his own private militia—one of the false mythologies many Americans carry around in their heads. There’s a saying that an armed society is a polite society. But such a society is based on fear, with artificial walls erected between people. Under such conditions, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to have a civilized society.
An example of such a culture is Robert A. Heinlein’s science fiction novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress which is the social equivalent of the Wild West on the moon. All men are armed and because women are in such a minority, any man who insults or abuses a woman is subject to reprimand up to and including summary execution by other men in the society.
American culture, as a whole, requires a massive paradigm shift if it is to survive the twenty-first century as a world power. American culture is highly dysfunctional and living on past glories—usually mythological.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has been active over past decades in supporting and, in the process, changing developing societies. The IMF imposes conditions on loans. They would, for example, specify internal economic policies that would have to be followed by the borrowing country before loans are granted or monies advanced.
I mention this only because America is getting close to the point where China may become America’s IMF. America has put itself in a position where a large lender like China could say to America: Do this and that and we will loan you more or not call in some or all of the outstanding loans. America has two choices; First, lose some of its vaunted sovereignty to a foreign power as a result of its own decades-long, short-sighted and irresponsible profligacy; or, second, fire up the ICBMs.
A note on comments
Salem-News encourages readers to comment on stories. I regard comments to be an extension of an article where a dialogue is established between me and you, the reader. I write, you read; you comment, I listen. Because I am a Canadian and some Americans who read my stuff are hyper-sensitive to the point of incoherence, I am instituting the same posting rules as you will find at The New York Times and many other online sites. We are not The New York Times, but it gives you an idea what online commenting is about.
The main points for which I moderate are:
§ Civility: politeness and respect. I endeavour to respect the reader’s intelligence and sensitivities. I ask for the same in return.
§ I encourage you to use your real name, or at least your real first name. I don’t hide behind a mask.
§ I do not censor comments. They are either approved or not approved.
§ Comments will be posted if they are on-topic and constructive. If your comment is not approved, you will be so informed.
§ I won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence or SHOUTING.
§ I appreciate comments that help to move the topic along—by adding to or confirming the argument or, equally important, refute (but not kneejerk denials) the argument or an important part of the argument.
§ I reserve the right to comment on the comments.
Daniel Johnson was born near the midpoint of the twentieth century in Calgary, Alberta. In his teens he knew he was going to be a writer, which is why he was one of only a handful of boys in his high school typing class—a skill he knew was going to be necessary. He defines himself as a social reformer, not a left winger, the latter being an ideological label which, he says, is why he is not an ideologue. From 1975 to 1981 he was reporter, photographer, then editor of the weekly Airdrie Echo. For more than ten years after that he worked with Peter C. Newman, Canada’s top business writer (notably a series of books, The Canadian Establishment). Through this period Daniel also did some national radio and TV broadcasting. He gave up journalism in the early 1980s because he had no interest in being a hack writer for the mainstream media and became a software developer and programmer. He retired from computers last year and is now back to doing what he loves—writing and trying to make the world a better place
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