My last post was about the verbal rubbish that stands in the way of simply making guns illegal, much of it clustered around the infected, suppurating appendix attached to our US body-politic, the infamous second amendment to the Constitution: an obsolete relic of the slave-owning, genocidal past of our country in an age before mass production of munitions.
You have to turn your mind back in history to understand the real sense of the second amendment.
The year is, say, 1770. Fast transportation is by horse: nearly a century later, a tag-team of Pony Express riders will be able to travel 180 miles in a 24-hour day, changing horses every ten miles: that’s an average of 7.5 miles per hour. A carriage with two horses can manage 30 miles in an eight-hour day, just under 4 miles per hour. You can walk at 2-3 miles per hour. From Philadelphia to New York is a three-day journey for someone with a fast, light carriage, and six days on foot.
Roughly 95% of the European population in the Colonies is rural: the 1790 census will count about 200,000 citizens living in towns or cities, and nearly four million living rurally.
The land had once been occupied by indigenous peoples, now all but wiped out by European diseases (one reference puts the overall death toll on the American continents at 90%). The surviving indigenes, demoralized and largely broken by the catastrophic collapse of their numbers and the incomprehensible greed and violence of the new invaders, nonetheless resent being continually pushed off their traditional lands, and often fight back with deadly force. Given the indigenes, new and potentially dangerous plants, reptiles, insects, and large predators, plus the inflexible annual deadlines of planting and harvesting, founding new settlements or living on “the frontier” is terrifically dangerous.
In the southern states, the economy rides on the backs of black slaves and white indentured servants. The European elites in every slaveholding community live in constant, low-level fear of a violent uprising of their own servants: many such uprisings have occurred within the past two centuries, more than a few within living memory, and all tales have grown more gruesome in the telling. Villages and towns are roughly a day’s journey apart. If there is an uprising, it will take a day for news to reach the nearest town, and another day for any help to come, assuming they have any help to give. The nearest true force — a contingent of British soldiers — may be weeks away; in winter, months away. You are on your own.
Guns are hand-made, and precious. Interchangeable parts won’t be introduced until 1840, and full mass-production even later. In 1770, the flintlock barrel is still drilled down the length of a solid piece of metal, precision metalworking of the highest order. While gunsmithing is a prosperous trade, guns are expensive and passed from father to son as heirlooms. Firing a single shot is an arcane and complex art; black powder is fickle and dangerous; musket balls generally kill anything as large as a man by means of gangrene.
The slaveowning communities have armed citizen militias, with service required of every able-bodied white man (with exceptions for politicians, clergy, and others), for the purpose of keeping the slaves under control. The militias are informally known as Slave Patrols. Lynchings and other cruel acts of “vigilante rough justice” are common, but seen as necessary to keep the slaves terrorized and under control.
This is the world of 1770.
Eight years later, George Washington’s war is over, and it’s time to ratify this new Constitution.
The slave trade has been dying for nearly a century, though that might not be common knowledge to anyone but slavers. What you do know is that prices are rising, while quality of the slaves falls. There’s too much competition for your goods, and profits are declining. The War has turned everything upside-down, and the British peacekeepers have withdrawn. Now there’s all this talk of “freedom” in the air — freedom from the British, mind you, but it makes the slaves restive. You need those slave patrols more than ever.
Now there’s this Continental Army being proposed….
An army needs flintlocks. An army needs people who know how to use a flintlock. We’ve got both, and they’re going to want them for their Continental Army.
Half those damned Northerners are Abolitionists. Slaves run North, and good luck getting them back.
Dammit! They’re going to use this Continental Army as an excuse to break up our militias. Let all of our slaves run North, to work in their damn factories and harbors and farms for cut-rate wages. Our slaves will cut our throats in our sleep when they run. If we survive at all, we’ll be ruined.
Hell, no! We’re not signing this Constitution. Not unless we have an explicit assurance that we have the right to keep our militias, and our slaves, and our way of life. We demand the right to bear our own arms, independent of whatever these Northern fools want to do with their Continental Army.
Got a good feel for the times?
Fast-forward to 2018.
Less than 20% of the population is rural, and only 5% are involved with agriculture. The 95% are completely in thrall to a complex, interdependent system of petrofuel, electrical power, trucks, trains, and airplanes. Slavery was abolished well over a century ago. The original indigenous peoples in the US have been effectively destroyed. Guns are now mass-produced, mass-marketed, and available for less than the cost of a bag of groceries. While they do require skill to use at peak marksmanship levels that would have been considered unthinkable in 1770, at close range a curious child can shoot a grown man dead between one heartbeat and the next.
But the change with the biggest practical consequence is transportation. Many people can and do have breakfast in Philadelphia, drive to New York City and do business before lunch, take a client to dinner and a Broadway play, and drive back to Philadelphia to sleep in their own bed: a round-trip that was considered a week’s journey for an affluent gentleman in 1770. You can fly from Los Angeles to New York City in six hours. You can go entirely around the world in the time it took a Pony Express rider to go 300 miles. You can buy anything, from anywhere, and have it delivered to your door within forty-eight hours.
That Continental Army can reach any place in the US, in force, within a day, perhaps within hours.
Today’s world is nothing like the world of 1770, and the second amendment has become a matter of purely historical interest, much like the third amendment.
The second amendment has become embedded at the center of a cultic belief system.
It’s a belief system that has been romanticized in The Western. One of the more iconic expressions of this belief system is the novel, Shane, initially published in serial form in 1946. It is the classic hero-story, the man who defies social custom and breaks the law to serve a higher good. It has deep roots: the legend of Robin Hood follows this theme, as does the ancient story of Samson in the Bible. One of the distinguishing twists in the Western is that the hero is always nameless, anonymous. Indeed, the original title of Shane was Rider From Nowhere. The hero of the Western rides into town, saves the day, and then rides off into the sunset. He is not Samson, or Robin Hood, or King Arthur. He is not famous — he is a nobody. He is Everyman.
Near the center of every Western is the six-gun, the six-shot revolver patented in 1836 by Samuel Colt. The Everyman of the Western does not organize a community march, or write letters to the editor, or even run for political office. He loads up, saddles up, and does what a man’s gotta do.
The six-gun is his talisman and source of power. It is Samson’s hair. It is Robin Hood’s unerring aim with the bow. It is King Arthur’s Excalibur. It is the means by which he rises above being a nobody, an Everyman, to right what is wrong.
The second amendment to the Constitution has become enshrined as protecting the sacred right of Everyman to rise up and right wrongs. To load up, saddle up, and do what a man’s gotta do.
It’s the same belief system that fuels the Libertarian movement in the US.
I loved Shane. I liked the so-called Spaghetti Westerns I grew up with, and now they’re tinged with a deeper appreciation of the form, and a nostalgia for my youth. I even used the images of Everyman with a gun to frame my Saint Jake story.
But there’s a little-remarked feature of the Everyman of the Western: he is always right.
It’s the old Black Hat/White Hat trope. The hero of the Western always wears the White Hat. The villain always wears the Black Hat. The villain usually has the law on his side, if he isn’t, himself, The Law. He is corrupt, the Law is corrupt, the System is corrupt, and that is why the Everyman in the White Hat, the man with the six-gun, has to appear and destroy the man in the Black Hat. Because the system has failed.
This is, I believe, at the core of every shooter’s beliefs when he picks up an AK-47 and mows down school children, or pedestrians, or churchgoers. He is the hero. He is the man in the White Hat: he has loaded up, saddled up, and done what a man’s gotta do.
He is Everyman in the cult of the Power of the Gun.
Glowing at the center of the Rightness of his Cause is the Second Amendment, enshrined in the Holy Constitution. The Second Amendment is the Divine Right of Everyman to take up The Power and blow away Evil.
It’s grand fiction. It’s SHITTY in real life.
In real life, Batman is just another psychopath out for a thrill in a dark alley. Or worse, he’s just a low-level enforcer for the mob: a common thug with a penchant for tights.
This is the real problem with the second amendment. It’s why it needs to go.