Friday, January 18, 2013

Minutemen, Cowboys, and American Gun Policy

The current debate about “gun control” in America isn’t really about controlling guns. On the surface, we use the language of control, sure, but the discussion is finally moving beyond merely limiting the sale of certain rounds of ammunition or certain types of weapons and moving on to wrestle with a definition for gun ownership in 21st Century – post revolutionary – America. Like every other challenge we face, finding that definition requires us to let go of the past and face the future – a future that looks very uncertain and very scary. And that’s the problem. America is afraid.
In the 1700s, the United States had no standing army. Armies were raised on an “as needed” basis, mostly from volunteers who were expected to supply their own weapons. True citizen soldiers, men who responded for military service fought until the issues were settled, then returned home to plow or feed the chickens or tend their store. They served our forebears well.
Before the American Civil War, an American farmer with a good hunting rifle was as well-equipped as any regular troop from any army in the world. Together they formed that “well-armed militia” referenced in the Second Amendment and they were the nation’s only source of security against unrest from within and armed attack from without. That’s why the Second Amendment was added to the Constitution, to protect the right of citizens to “keep and bear arms” – because the nation depended on well-armed individual citizens for its defense. They were the army.
Today, that is no longer the case. Now we have a standing, well-trained, full-time army. Defense of the nation no longer rests on a “well-armed” citizen militia. But the myth of the American Minuteman lives on and the notion of unlimited individual gun ownership has morphed into a principle seen by many as the “bedrock of all liberties,” the foundation upon which all freedom stands – suggesting that so long as we own our own weapons we will one day have the means of leading an armed defense against terrorists from abroad, or an armed revolt against the tyranny of politicians in Washington, DC. One look inside a Stryker vehicle or an M1 tank would quickly disabuse you of that notion. The citizen soldier is no longer our primary means of defense. It’s time for our national firearms policy to leave the past and catch up with the age in which we live – a highly mobile, exceedingly urban, media-influenced, violence-prone age.
Think about this for perspective – there was a day when those who worked on cattle ranches needed to perfect the skill of breaking and training horses. Horses were their means of transportation and a vital tool for the cowboy trade. Over time, certain cowboys developed a knack for riding rank unbroken stallions. Today, ranching has changed and horses aren’t used much. Traditional cowboys are all but gone from the West. Horsemanship has become a hobby. But the art of riding unbroken stallions lives on in rodeos held all across the country. What once was a vital work skill has now become sport.
The same thing happened with hunting. Killing wild game was once essential for survival. In centuries past, it was the settler’s primary, and many times only, source of animal protein. Now, except in remote areas like Alaska and northern Canada, hunting is no long essential for survival. Yet the practice lives on as a sport. And so it is with the citizen soldier – long since eliminated as a factor in national defense policy, but lingering now in the American gun owner.
This argument we’re having about gun ownership isn’t about the need for a “well-armed militia,” or the notion that our freedom rests on access to the means of armed rebellion. And it’s not about taking away all firearms – no one wants to take away hunting rifles and shotguns, and not many want to limit the use of handguns. The argument is about something far scarier than that. It’s about coping with life in a rapidly changing world and grappling with a future – a very uncertain future – that’s rushing toward us at an incredible speed. We no longer live in the Minuteman age. We live in the age of Now and it’s time we addressed the real problems we face rather than struggling to hold on to the past.