The young man in the statue at Concord Bridge sports a tri-cornered hat. In one hand rests the musket. In the other, the plough. Every good American would rather farm than fight. But, every good American also knows there is a time to fight, a time to defend, a time to make good what has been given to us.
Way back in my high school years (1982-1986), I took Student Congress (an event sponsored by the National Forensics League) very seriously. I took it as seriously as anything in my life up to that point, and I am rather serious about most things. Heck, I am even serious about trivial things. Well, you get the point.
At the end of my sophomore year, I found myself rather seriously involved in a Student Congress debate on gun control. I was in the middle of a competition, so I wanted to do my best. I never thought I could do my best, however, without being honest and smart. That is, I could never advocate something or any thing merely to win. Even then, I had more of a belief (however ill understood and manifested) in the Roman understanding of virtue rather than the Homeric notion of arête. To win this competition, I needed to advocate something I really and fully accepted and embraced. I couldn’t be just a mouthpiece.
Admittedly, I did not have to think hard about being anti-gun control. Growing up in Kansas, the bearing of arms seemed about as normal as breathing air or looking at vast horizons or feeling the never-ending wind on my face. As far as I was concerned, only Nazis and Communists would oppose such a thing as the right to own and bear and use weapons. I even used to fantasize about being a Polish Jew, well-armed and ready to stop the Fascists and their socialist-pig allies from conquering the Ghetto. Granted, I’d already read a lot of Leon Uris.
As I sat in the Student Congress session, though, I knew that I needed to defend the proposal on something more solid than my own upbringing among respectable gun owners and my anti-Nazi and anti-Communist fantasies (Wolverines!). Looking closely at the United State Constitution, I came to the conclusion that the Bill of Rights amounted not to a series of rights but to a continuity of rights. Granted, this is neither an original nor a profound idea in the big scheme of things. To a sixteen-year old intent upon changing the world, however, it came as a revelation that made me understand the Constitution not as a construct of compromises, but as a holistic vision. I knew that the Federalists and Anti-Federalists had disagreed, to be sure, and that the Bill of Rights was a political compromise. In the big scheme of things, however, it seemed that the two non-ideological sides had come together as one (see the rather excellent work of Bruce Frohnen on this, especially his introduction to The Anti-Federalists). That is, in a pre-ideological way, they made prudent political decisions, creating a unity where there had been merely disagreement. They had taken a potentially bad thing and made it quite good.
I had also been heavily influenced by my ninth-grade civics teacher, the incredible Mr. Thompson (part-time preacher, and part-time evangelist in Africa). After I had read Robert J. Ringer’s Restoring the American Dream, I had told Mr. Thompson all about it. He wisely and knowingly laughed: “Yes, the libertarians have some great things about them, but I believe in arming to the teeth. Personally and as a country.” I will admit that I loved and admired Mr. Thompson. The fact that he took my own ideas and reading seriously made me love him even more. Sadly, he didn’t stay long in our little Kansas town. Our loss.
As mentioned above, I knew of no one in Kansas who seriously advocated the control of all weapons. It came rather naturally to us. And, yet, Kansas was also very peaceful, idyllic, and irenic. We used weapons to shoot things (like model airplanes), to hunt, and to protect ourselves. Not much to question.
In the national Student Congress, though, I encountered a number of students from urban areas, and they seemed—much to my shock—more suspicious about weapons, especially when owned by individuals.
Reading through the Bill of Rights—way back in 1984—it struck me that the ordering of the Bill of Rights mattered, but so did the layers it contained. That is, it could not be proof texted. One could not pick and choose as though at a salad bar. I think I like this lettuce but not this type, for instance. Instead, the Bill of Rights had to be taken as a complex—but with nothing hidden—whole. That is, while the First Amendment was first and the Second, well… second… it was better to think of the Second as an intimate part of the whole, just as is the First, Third, Fourth, etc. If one part of the Bill of Rights fell, so did the rest. Perhaps not immediately, but some day. It would be like taking the siding off of a house. The whole thing might not fall apart immediately, but it would soon. While the denial of gun ownership might not result in immediate tyranny, it would becoming increasingly difficult to protect rights to speech, assembly, and petition. After all, if the government can’t trust its citizens with guns, whom can it trust?
Even thirty-one years later, I still find those who stand against gun ownership on a personal level as almost utterly perplexing. Almost anyone who has grown up in a rural or quasi-rural area finds absolutely nothing to question when it comes to ownership. Most folks, whatever their politics, who life in urban and suburban areas find the notion of ownership equally appalling. What a conundrum.
Recently, while attending a colloquium near Case Western University in Cleveland, I spotted a Protestant church with huge banners reading, “Pray especially for the victims of gun violence.” What an odd thing to pray for, I thought. With all of the problems in the world, shouldn’t this be the least of a Christian’s worries?
And, yet, I can’t just dismiss the argument, no matter how wrong headed it might be. And, yet….
Let me take this a step further: Should it be proven absolutely that gun ownership leads to an increase of violence within a society rather than to a retardation of it (which I believe is the case), I would still advocate private gun ownership, just on principle.
I will make this argument on two lines of reasoning. First, I trust the Founding Fathers (both the Federalists and Anti-Federalists). I trust their fears, and I trust their instincts. One thing that is certain about the Founding is that the Second Amendment was not simply placed into the Bill of Rights as a means to protect farmers so that they could shoot their animals. I have heard this argument too many times: that the need of the Second Amendment was clear in 1791, but no more so. I do firmly believe that we ignore any single aspect of the Bill of Rights only at the peril of the entirety as well as at the peril of the specifics of the rest.
Second, I rest my case on the same case that the Founders used: that is, that a free person is an armed person, and that an armed person is a free person. While Western history clearly includes the use of slaves as soldiers, it also reveals that slaves make the worst sort of soldiers. Imagine the Spartans against the Persians at Thermopylae. Xerxes found out very quickly that though he had excellent soldiers, he had, as Herodotus reminded us, so few men.
Even Jefferson Davis, in the last days of the Civil War, realized the Southern cause could not be won without the help and ultimate liberation of black slaves. When the Confederate Congress passed an act to recruit 300,000 black men without emancipation, Davis issued an executive order. “No slave will be accespted as a recruit without his own consent,” he declared. Further, once armed, he will be given “the rights of a freedman.”
And, finally, let’s examine the statue found at Concord Bridge: the young man, sporting the tri-cornered hat. In one hand rests the musket. In the other, the plough. Every good American would rather farm than fight. But every good American also knows there is a time to fight, a time to defend, a time to make good what has been given to us. Blood and treasure. Blood and treasure. Yes, blood and treasure.
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The featured image is “The Minute Man,” statue by Daniel Chester French, at the Old North Bridge, Concord, Massachusetts. It is in the public domain and appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.