Gun control is culture change. That’s the first thought I had after reading David Harsanyi’s excellent and meticulously researched new book, First Freedom: A Ride through America’s Enduring History with the Gun. In one volume, he not only charts the development of firearms in American history, but he does the immensely more important task of showing how the firearm has been integral to the development of the American nation and the American culture.
In other words, from a historical perspective, the phrase “gun culture” is misleading, implying that the American use of guns and respect for gun rights represent a niche aspect of our history, that gun culture is distinct or independent from American culture writ large — something that can be read out of the American story without doing damage to the broader narrative.
Instead, Harsanyi shows how the privately owned firearm was indispensable to the creation of the nation and so deeply embedded in the American lifestyle that if you took Americans not just from the colonial period, not just from the founding generation, but also from more than a century of generations that followed and had them eavesdrop on the modern American gun debate, they’d be utterly mystified.
There are people who actually believe an American citizen shouldn’t possess an individual right to own a firearm?
There are people who argue that an armed citizenry isn’t a bulwark against tyranny?
There are people who actually argue that gun ownership was uncommon in the American past?
Harsanyi starts with the beginning of European interventions on the American continent and then ties developments in firearms into each of the major twists and turns of American history. His book simultaneously serves as a technical, legal, and cultural history — an ambitious effort that could easily bog down in any given American period. But Harsanyi smartly balances detail and overview.
The book isn’t intended to serve as the last word in American gun history — you’d need volumes for that kind of project — but rather as the kind of single-volume overview that enlightens the uninformed and provides a starting point for further study for those of a more scholarly (or curious) bent.
For the gun-owning history buff, the more technical aspects of the book are fascinating. Why wasn’t the far more accurate Kentucky rifle a game-changer for the American revolutionaries? Why did the musket still do the lion’s share of the work for American armies? Why was the Union slow to embrace the repeating rifle, and was the delay defensible in military terms? How did the cost and inaccuracy (thanks to “muzzle lift”) of submachine guns limit their utility and lethality even for criminals? Why was the M16 such a bust when it was first distributed to American troops in Vietnam?
Moreover, Harsanyi makes the underappreciated point that British efforts (including efforts to seize scarce supplies of gunpowder) to deprive the colonists of their right to self-defense were a key factor increasing public anger against the Crown. And the sheer ubiquity of gun ownership in the colonies made British efforts to quell the uprising incalculably more difficult. Harsanyi reminds readers of estate studies showing that men were more apt to own guns than books, Bibles, curtains, chamber pots, or even chairs.
And while weapons were certainly used for hunting the ample game on the American continent, the colonists had fully imbibed William Blackstone’s declaration that there existed a “natural right of resistance and self-preservation, when the sanctions of society and laws are found insufficient to restrain the violence of repression.” Harsanyi presents an avalanche of evidence to support his assertion that “in late eighteenth-century America, there was no debate” over what the words of the Second Amendment meant. “They were so self-evident that the only question was whether they were even necessary.” As Harsanyi notes, “nearly every intellectual, political, and military leader of the founding generation stressed the importance of self-defense and the individual right to bear arms.”
Harsanyi’s description of the role of guns in the American West is particularly illuminating. He describes the allure of outlaw culture — and the way in which that culture was communicated to the rest of the country — without overdramatizing the reality. Men owned guns in the West, but the West wasn’t nearly as “wild” as legend would have it. The Wild West was a creation more of fiction and marketing than of actual gunplay. Widespread, open gun ownership was entirely consistent with murder rates that would be the envy of modern American cities.
And that brings us to gun control. By amply documenting centuries of American gun ownership and its intimate connection to American culture, Harsanyi is able to argue convincingly that the American crime explosion of the 1960s through the early 1990s was far more the product of larger cultural and social forces than it was of widespread gun ownership. Indeed, crime has sharply decreased from its peak even as gun laws have relaxed and Americans have purchased weapons at an unprecedented rate.
This trip through history also helps answer the questions that critics at home and abroad so frequently ask: Why are so many Americans so attached to their gun rights? Why are Americans so different from their close cousins in Australia or even Britain? After all, wasn’t the codification of the rights of Protestant citizens in the English Bill of Rights part of why the colonists insisted on their own gun rights?
Harsanyi answers these questions succinctly and powerfully. “The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights lists the most vital freedoms of man,” he writes. “The second lists the only way to attain them and preserve them. Without the second there is no first.”
Privately owned firearms were indispensable to the American founding. They were indispensable through nearly three centuries of expansion as the United States grew from a group of tiny colonies clinging to the edge of a continent to a mighty nation extending from sea to shining sea. A nation built over a process that long, contentious, and adventurous develops a specific culture — one that is different from those of nations abroad that were built in different ways.
David Harsanyi has shown the truth at the heart of our modern gun debate better than any other current author. American culture was built with the gun. It could not exist without the gun. So the argument against gun rights in contemporary America is first and foremost an argument for culture change, an argument that a nation that once depended on firearms now should put them aside. It’s an argument for a new era.
Indeed, the most honest of the gun controllers recognize this. They drop the pretense of arguing that the Second Amendment was meant only to protect a collective right. They scoff at the notion that such “commonsense” gun-control measures as waiting periods or more-extensive background checks will make a dime’s worth of difference. Instead, they argue for repealing the Second Amendment, an act that would require wholesale culture change. It’s an argument for a transformed nation composed of a different kind of people. It’s an argument that will fail — as long as Americans covet the rights the Second Amendment secures.