On guns and gun ownership and citizenship in a republic.
It was a youthful indiscretion. Papa had trained me well, put safety before fun, explained firing lines and pointing where you meant to. I still remember Nana warning him off about using high-velocity rounds on their ranch—the neighbors didn’t like the noise—and him ignoring her and explaining that we could shoot this particular direction because even if I went high the lead would still come down on family property. But this was not .22 Long Rifle on the ranch. It was the Crosman variable-pump BB and pellet air rifle, in the suburbs.
I and the neighbor kid had shot every day that summer. Were we 12? He only had a little Daisy, but was still pretty good with it. We’d gotten bored with standard targets and moved to medicine cups and plastic army men, but still found ourselves itching for a challenge. I liked making paper airplanes, too. They could do tricks. If you do what you love you’ll never work a day in your life; let’s shoot planes, I thought. A toss, a swoop, a staggering spin, two shots, and the back window of the minivan was on the ground, shattered. It was a mix between a miracle and height differentials that my younger siblings hadn’t been hit. I didn’t shoot much the rest of the summer.
But my mother had been, till then, right to let us shoot unsupervised in the yard. We knew what we were supposed to do and the firearms were scaled appropriately to something you could mow in a couple hours. Ours were dangerous toys, others are dangerous tools, but either way there is little more American than knowing how to use one responsibly. My mother had grown up shooting with Papa. Dad had shot while briefly in ROTC. Hunting rifles in pickup trucks, and even lockers, in rural high schools were not uncommon even just a few decades ago.
The issue today is not guns near schools, or even in them. The guns haven’t changed since the last century; the schools have, and the kids have. But along with many other obvious reforms of education and social media, here is something we can do about guns and schools: Firearms safety and use should be incorporated into our curricula. Grade kids on marksmanship. Not everyone has a Papa to teach them.
“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed,” was enshrined as an amendment to our Constitution for a reason—was, in the Bill of Rights, a part of ensuring the incorporation of those states wary of a stronger federal government. From the Second Amendment to Sergeant York, from Black Panthers to Roof Koreans, gun ownership is as American as apple pie. There are at least ten guns per American in America right now. Whether you like it or not, there cannot be a United States in any meaningful continuity with either the American Revolution or even the decrepit regime of today if the personal ownership of firearms were substantially changed. So with public shooting courses, let American gun use become well regulated, ruled by shared skill and custom.
Laws must be enforced by arms. Civil War and Civil Rights, the story of American political development has been one of equality at the end of a gun. For much of that history those guns have been held by feds, but before then, and more fundamentally, political equality was built on the cooperation of armed fathers and armed sons, and, sometimes, armed mothers and armed daughters. Republican government as we know it traces itself through the rule of armed feudal lords back to the self-rule of citizen soldiers in classical democracy. It is a compact to hold arms not in common, but for the common good. Scripture being specific about murder and unspecific about weapons, it is to this tradition, and our own, that we must look as we consider what prudence suggests about the lawful ownership and use of firearms.
The Constitution and Second Amendment have not been entirely abrogated as such yet, and I leave the minutiae of case law to the lawyers. But we can also look to our Declaration of Independence, by which our forefathers entered violent rebellion invoking the laws of nature and nature’s God, to see the causes for which Americans have kept and resorted to arms. We often read only the soaring promises of the second paragraph and skip the indictment of King George, but let us recall two here.
First: “He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.” A professional army, an occupying external military force, turned against a citizenry, this the Founders associated with barbarism. And second: “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” To leave the persons and property of the citizens undefended, to make no distinctions between combatants and noncombatants, this was associated with savagery. But this barbarism and this savagery can reemerge at any time, indeed do reemerge in tyranny and lawlessness, and thus our Second Amendment.
Much is made by proponents of stricter gun control of Europe and Japan; to which I say, America is a nation of pilgrims and pioneers, a frontier country, and not a defeated people long occupied by foreign powers. Much is also made of the military style of popular firearms; a recent political cartoon for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution depicts Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky saying, “We want America to provide Ukraine with powerful military weapons like the ones U.S. 18-year-olds can buy.” To this I say, never mind the inanity of the apparent point about AR-15s, let the right of the people to keep and bear Javelins not be infringed. Much is made of the vast inequality in fire power between the U.S. federal government and American citizens, to suggest that since the armed preservation of rights would be impracticable it need not be countenanced; to that I say look at Afghanistan and asymmetric warfare everywhere. But I also say look back to the hoplites, and the origin of self-government in the alliance of armed citizens, and back to the breaking of martial aristocratic orders on the equalizing barrels of the gun, and hope for some new instrument of leveling the battlefield. Power armor, perhaps.