Before Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings turned into a deep dive into his teenage social calendar, many of the questions senators directed at him concerned the law. Dealing with the right protected by the Second Amendment, in particular, Senator Dianne Feinstein took Judge Kavanaugh to task for his interpretation of the Supreme Court’s precedent in D.C. v. Heller, the landmark gun-rights case decided in 2008. In a 2011 follow-up case, known as Heller II, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on whether the right affirmed in Heller I — an individual right to keep a pistol in one’s home — extended to other weapons, including semi-automatic rifles.
The D.C. Circuit held that it did not. Kavanaugh dissented, citing the language of Heller I that “handguns — the vast majority of which today are semi-automatic — are constitutionally protected because they have not traditionally been banned and are in common use by law-abiding citizens.” Semi-automatic rifles in Kavanaugh’s analysis are no different, and they meet the definition the Supreme Court laid down three years earlier. Feinstein took issue with his analysis and claimed that even though millions of semi-automatic rifles are owned by millions of American citizens, they are not in “common use” in this country.
“You’re saying the numbers determine common use?” Feinstein asked. “Common use is an activity. It’s not common storage or possession, it’s use. So what you said is that these weapons are commonly used. They’re not.” In the senior senator from California’s telling, millions of people own these weapons, but none of them ever use them.
David Harsanyi’s latest book, First Freedom: A Ride Through America’s Enduring History with the Gun, shows just how faulty Feinstein’s analysis is. In a briskly paced journey through four centuries of history, Harsanyi explains how American culture and civilization are, and always have been, inextricably linked to the ownership and use of firearms. Moreover, Americans have always owned and operated the most modern and practical versions of those arms available to them. For more than a hundred years, that has included semi-automatic pistols and rifles.
First Freedom begins with the important point that the American colonies were, from their inception, different from the European mother countries. The early colonies were precarious, perched on the edge of a continent filled with indigenous peoples and the inhabitants of rival nations’ colonies. Unlike long-settled Europe, this was a land where danger from one’s fellow man lurked around every corner and all of the peoples there craved protection. With no real government to speak of other than that which they created themselves, protection meant self-protection. Self-protection meant firearms.
America was a new land, free of many of the restrictions of the old. That meant that firearm ownership was not only possible but also desirable, even necessary. Hunting, the preserve of aristocrats in Europe, was the American everyman’s way of providing his family’s sustenance in the game-rich wilderness. Likewise, the near absence of regular army units in the British colonies meant that the responsibility of protecting the community fell on militiamen who supplied their own weapons. At a time when the late Stuart monarchs were degrading the militia in England in favor of a professional army loyal to the king, militias nevertheless remained essential on the other side of the Atlantic.
Harsanyi’s recounting of America’s history with guns is a tale of American ingenuity and innovation. Beginning with the famous Kentucky rifle, Americans sought the latest technology in dealing with the rigors of their still-wild countryside. That weapon’s development (in Pennsylvania, not Kentucky) in the early 18th century would create for Americans, as the author writes, “a weapon of their own, specifically designed for their unique lives.”
It would also create generations of marksmen, who used their skill to devastating effect in the American Revolution. Although most regiments still used older-style muskets, even they had the benefit of years of daily experience with guns, a valuable advantage against the professional soldiers sent from Britain to subdue them. (The Continental Army’s insistence on smoothbore muskets, also, is the first evidence of a theme found throughout the book: The military has until very recently been reluctant to adopt new technology.)
Among the first acts of the British occupiers of Boston was an attempt to disarm the populace. Widespread gun ownership made this task difficult, if not impossible. Not long after American freedom was secured at Yorktown, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights ensured that the American government would never be able to do the same. The well-armed populace of the New World would never descend into the state of the oppressed peasantry of the Old.
The story continues through the tales of the men whose inventions — and marketing thereof — remade the gun industry. Samuel Colt was one businessman who possessed both of those talents, and his development of the first practical, mass-produced revolver revolutionized the industry. After several failed attempts to sell his revolvers to the Army, Colt finally found economic salvation in Captain Samuel Walker of the Texas Rangers, who loved the new weapon and convinced the federal government to buy a thousand of them for use in the Mexican War. From there, Colt’s fame spread like wildfire. He died a wealthy man, and the guns he produced became an iconic symbol of the American West.
That symbolism was useful to his marketing, but even more important were the mass-production methods Colt pioneered that made his handguns affordable and ubiquitous. Later, especially after Colt’s patents expired, other innovators further improved the weapons available to the average American. Horace Smith, Daniel Wesson, Oliver Winchester, and John Browning added their skills — and their names — to inventions that made firearms more practical and reliable. Richard Gatling and Hiram Maxim did the same for the military weapons that would transform the battlefield from a venue for individual glory to a killing field where survival was as much a matter of luck as of skill.
Technological progress was swift, but the American people kept up with it easily. That is not altogether unpredictable; it is no different from how we have kept up with developments in cars, phones, and computers. Firearms are, in this respect, the same as any other field of technology. It should not surprise us that the AR-15 is in common use, just as the iPhone X is. Technology changes and people adapt, choosing the tool that best suits their needs, budget, and lifestyle.
Widespread gun ownership, Harsanyi notes, is consistent across American history. Despite efforts in the academy to claim otherwise — most notably Michael A. Bellesiles’s discredited Arming America — the facts are the facts. Although the lack of national gun registries prevent us from knowing the exact number of arms Americans own, opinion polling since the 1960s has shown that roughly half of all households contain at least one gun. The total number of guns continues to climb. Americans have not forgotten their freedoms, nor how those freedoms were won. If anyone, including Senator Feinstein, should need education on that subject, this book is a welcome lesson on how guns and America have shaped each other for 400 years.