Bill Totten's Weblog

Sunday, January 14, 2007


by Garret Keizer

Harper's Magazine Notebook (December 2006)

"That rifle hanging on the wall of the working-class flat or labourer's cottage is the symbol of democracy. It is our job to see that it stays there."
-- George Orwell

England was not engaged in a war against Islamo-fascists when Orwell penned the words above, only a war against Nazi fascists - or, as one now feels obliged to say, fascist fascists - and the rifle he referred to was in use by the British Home Guard. Still, his reasons for wanting the rifle to stay on the wall obviously had to do with a different sort of homeland security than the War Office had in mind. Otherwise, why specify the gun owner's class?

In fact, Orwell was anticipating a time when the rifle might have a revolutionary purpose. His hopes were not altogether in vain, though supporting examples tend to be about as well known as the quotation itself, and for much the same reason.

Here is one from 1947, three years before Orwell's death. In Monroe, North Carolina, a motorcade of Ku Klux Klansmen pulled up to a funeral home to "claim" the body of Bennie Montgomery, a black sharecropper recently tried and executed for killing his white boss. With the help of a skilled mediator and a regimen of trust-building exercises, the night riders might have been persuaded to settle for a limb or a chunk of Bennie's torso, but instead they were met by forty African Americans armed with rifles and shotguns. Among them was a former Army private named Robert Williams (1925-96), whose career as a rogue civil rights activist and NAACP officer, a story he tells in his 1962 book, Negroes with Guns, seems to have begun with that (ultimately bloodless) incident.

Although the rifle club he formed in his community had an NRA charter, there is as far as I'm aware no "Rob Williams Armed Citizen Award" offered by that organization, no essay contest bearing his name sponsored in the public schools. Nor does Williams appear in the official narrative of the civil rights movement, where Negroes with guns are seldom permitted to upstage folk singers with guitars.

To talk about guns in America is inevitably to talk about race. Both sides of the so-called gun debate have strange fruit in their family trees. The Second Amendment speaks of the importance of "a well regulated militia", and although framers like James Madison saw the local militia and the right "to keep and bear arms" as a check to the tyranny of standing armies, some historians have noted that one probable function of a well regulated militia was to keep slaves in their place.

Likewise one of the regulatory questions of Colonial times was what, if any, access slaves ought to have to guns; what, if any, role free blacks ought to have in the militias. Neither slavery nor the militias lasted as long as that dilemma. When Robert Williams aimed his gun at a racist mob during a campaign - to integrate a public swimming pool, an old white man burst into tears and cried, "What is this God damn country coming to that the niggers have got guns?" From the beginning, gun control in America has had much to do with that question.

With antecedents like these, one might suppose that adversaries in the ongoing gun debate would have a harder time maintaining their stridency. I happen not to suppose anything of the kind, but then, my suppositions in regard to the limits of human reasonableness are one reason I own a gun.

As with its sister issue abortion, the debate over guns amounts to a clash of absolutes: the right of bodily self-determination versus the right to be born, the right of self-defense versus the right to walk down the street without being shot. In both cases the debate is frequently conducted by pretending that the opponents concerns hardly deserve mention and by an inevitable transference of opprobrium from the adversary's position to his or her cultural "type". I wonder, for instance, as I read the various pro- and anti-gun polemics, who the actual enemy is supposed to be: the marauding outlaws who might be deterred by an "armed citizen", or the execrable Clintons, who, according to an editorial in the American Rifleman, attacked the Second Amendment every day. Are we supposed to be more incensed by the shady dealer who sells guns to Murder Incorporated or by the straight-arrow collector who thinks Charlton Heston could act? Issue-driven politics in red-and-blue America are like a man whose appetite for a steak is greatly enhanced by his contempt for vegetarians.

The gun issue is further complicated by a good deal of silliness, and in this it differs noticeably from the politics of the womb. Guns are either objects of superstition (they will just about make you commit suicide, according to some accounts) or pieces of pornographic paraphernalia, the things that get whipped out at the climax of a thousand socially smutty plots, on TV, in our heads, and then, insanely, in an actual event in which real people die. We all know what the Terminator said and the Taxi Driver said, but who recalls, much less ponders, what Thoreau said in his Plea for Captain John Brown (1853): "I speak for the slave when I say that I prefer the philanthropy of Captain John Brown to that philanthropy which neither shoots me nor liberates me ... I do not wish to kill nor to be killed, but I can foresee circumstances in which both these things would be by me unavoidable".

Unfortunately, a progressive, as someone with my politics has come to be called, does not like to ponder such mortal circumstances. Notice the telling grammatical shift by which the adjective "progressive" becomes a titular noun - comparable to a godly person who begins to speak of himself as a god. As the living embodiment of progress itself, a progressive is beyond rage, beyond "the politics of yesterday", and certainly beyond anything as retro as a gun. More than I fear fundamentalists who wish to teach religious myths in place of evolution I fear progressives who wish to teach evolution in place of political science. Or, rather, who forget a central principle of evolutionary thought: that no species completely outgrows its origins.

Like democracy, for example. What is that creature, if not the offspring of literacy and ballistics? Once a peasant can shoot down a knight, the writing is on the wall, including the writing that says, "We hold these truths to be self-evident". Self-evident because Sir Galahad doesn't appear to be moving. Guns, Germs, and Steel is a good title for a book about European imperialism; Guns, Fonts, and Ballots would serve for a book about the rise of the European democratic state.

There are those who will insist, and many do, that what might have been true in the days of James Madison and Henry David Thoreau - and even in the days of Robert Williams - is no longer true in the days of neo-Nazis and Guantanamo Bay. But that questionable premise gives rise to an even more interesting question: If the Second Amendment is a dispensable anachronism in the era of school shootings, might not the First, Fourth, and Fifth amendments be dispensable anachronisms during a "war on terror"? Small wonder if some of those who readily make the first concession were equally ready to queue up behind the Republican right in ratifying the second.

Historians of weaponry tell us that one effect of the gun was to change the ideal of courage on the battlefield from a willingness to engage in hand-to-hand combat to an ability to stand firm under fire. At this point in our history, I'll take any form of courage I can get, but had Congress the smallest measure of the gunner's kind, the Patriot Act might still be a doodle on Dick Cheney's cocktail napkin.

I grew up with guns and I live in a region where many people have them. They have guns because they hunt for meat, and they have guns for the same reason that many of them also have ponds dug close to their barns and houses. In a community with no fire hydrants, you want water for the fire engine. And in an area where a handful of state police and part-time sheriffs patrol a vast web of back roads spread across three counties, you might want the means to defend yourself. I own a fire extinguisher, a first-aid kit, and a shotgun. Not to own any of these would strike me as an affectation.

I hope that I shall never have to confront anyone with my gun, but owning a gun has forced me to confront myself. Anyone who owns firearms for reasons other than hunting and sport shooting (neither of which I do) has admitted that he or she. is willing to kill another human being - as opposed to the more civilized course of allowing human beings to be killed by paid functionaries on his or her behalf. Owning a gun does not enhance my sense of power; it enhances my sense of compromise and contingency - a feeling curiously like that of holding down a job. In other words, it is one more glaring proof that I am not Mahatma Gandhi or even Che Guevara, just another soft-bellied schlimazel trying to keep the lawn mowed and the psychopaths off the lawn.

If the authorities attempted to confiscate my gun in a house-to-house search, I believe I would offer resistance. What I would not offer is a justifying argument; the argument is implicit in the ramifications of a house-to-house search. But all of this is so much fantasy, another example of the disingenuousness that tends to color our discussion of guns. The Day When All the Guns Are Gathered Up - what the paranoids regard as the end of the world and the Pollyannas as the Rapture - it's never going to happen. There are nearly 1.4 million active troops in the US armed forces; there are an estimated 200 million guns in private hands. The war over the proper interpretation of the Second Amendment is effectively over. The most reasonable and decent thing that gun groups could do at this point is to declare victory and negotiate terms with the generosity that is so becoming in a victor. Five-day waiting periods? Agreed, but our sense of honor compels us to insist on ten. (Oh, to have been born in a time of so many guns and so little gallantry! Perhaps we ought not to have shot Sir Galahad after all.) No assault rifles owned by civilians - also agreed, so long as, no assault rifles are used on civilians.

Of course, none of this is going to happen either. It would require a confidence that scarcely exists. One need only peruse the ads and articles in gun magazines to see the evidence of its rarity - to see that poignant, ironic, and insatiable obsession with overwhelming force. That cry of impotence. The American Rifleman I recall from my boyhood was closer to Field & Stream than to Soldier of Fortune, more like Popular Mechanics than National Review. My father and my uncles were do-it-yourself guys; their guns were just something else to lube. When I was a kid, I thought a liberal was a person who couldn't fix a car. But the cars aren't so easy to take apart anymore; the "check engine" light comes on and only the dealership has all the codes. As in Detroit, so in Washington: the engineering works the same. I am not the first to point out the sleight of hand that bedevils us: the illusion of power and choice perpetuated to disguise a diminishing sphere of action, A person dry-fires his Ruger in the same reverie of preparedness as another aims her cursor at her favorite blog. What precision, what access, what an array of options! Something's going to happen one of these days, and when it does, man, I'm going to be ready. In the meantime, just listen to that awesome sterile click.

Recreational purposes aside, the problem with guns is that their only conscionable private use is defensive. Even Robert Williams was insistent on this point. Hannah Arendt says as much when, in her book On Violence, she writes that "Rage and violence turn irrational only when they are directed against substitutes". Who are you likely to shoot in a modern uprising if not a substitute?

The other trouble with guns is their reductive effect on the question of violent versus nonviolent resistance. They predispose us to think of violence exclusively as gun violence. Arendt herself seems close to this assumption when she defines violence as the forceful use of "implements". Her definition makes sense to me only if the human body also counts as an implement.

In that regard it may be instructive to look at the political history of violent confrontations in America. None has been pretty; perhaps a few led to reform. But of the latter, not all or even many have involved guns. Shootouts always follow a predictable script. They are like bullfights: the matador may get gored but the bull always dies. Red flags wave and perhaps a white flag after that, but with a few exceptions, like Harpers Ferry and Matewan, one finds very little to salute.

The prospect changes when we consider certain mostly unarmed, often spontaneous engagements. They include the worst instances of mass behavior and, if not also the best, at least some of the most defining for their times. One thinks of the Boston Massacre, Haymarket Square, Kent State, Stonewall, Watts. Some of the participants carried signs and some did not, but in retrospect they all seem to be massing under the same banner; "If you are so afraid of 'the mob' that you would deny us our place at the table, then we will remind you what a real mob looks like". Aeschylus put the Furies under the hill of the Areopagus; that is, under the taming influence of rational persuasion. Under the pretext of taming them further, overweening governments only manage to let them loose.

This is the lesson our leaders seem to have forgotten and that the more comfortable among us would just as soon forget: that when the rules of participatory government are broken, the governed have a tendency, a right, and an obligation to become unruly.

Saul Alinsky liked to say that a liberal is someone who leaves the room when an argument is about to turn into a fight. We are currently in need of a liberalism that goes back into the room and starts the fight. We are possibly in need of some civil unrest. This is not a conclusion I come to lightly. 1 have always believed in the superiority of nonviolent non-cooperation. The Hindu sage Sri Ramakrishna is supposed to have said that if a person could weep for a single day because he had not seen God, he would behold his heart's desire; I continue to believe that if the mass of Americans refused to earn or spend a dollar for a single day following a fishy election - no matter whose guy won - by the dawn's early light we would behold our country. But the likelihood of achieving that kind of solidarity brings us back to the subject of weeping.

The harvest is great but the laborers are few. Still, if asked to choose between an urban guerrilla armed with an AK-47 and a protester armed with a song sheet and a map showing how to get to the designated "free speech zone", I would decline on the grounds of insufficient faith and negligible inspiration. Rather, give me some people with very fanatical ideas about the sanctity of habeas corpus and the length of time an African American or any other American ought to have to wait on line to vote. Give me some people who are not so evolved that they have forgotten what it is to stand firm under fire or even to squat near the fire in a cave. Give me an accountant who can still throw a rock.


Garret Keizer is a Contributing Editor of Harper's Magazine. His last essay for the magazine, "Crap Shoot", appeared in the February 2006 issue. He is currently at work on a book about noise.

Bill Totten


  • As does Harper's fall to deaf ears and blind eyes, except for a few, so to, this article. Be it guns or rocks, a citizenry which desires to be free to pursue the life they desire, are obligated to stand and defend. That citizenry today, in the United States, is rudderless and floundering.

    By Blogger Unknown, at 1:58 PM, February 05, 2007  

  • Yes, Dusty, stand and defend itself. Not march and attack others.

    By Blogger Bill Totten, at 3:17 PM, February 05, 2007  

  • Years later, this is more true than ever. In his words, “Even when pity is in short supply, we will never run out of truth.”

    By Blogger Marek, at 5:55 AM, July 09, 2010  

  • Quite useful data, thank you for this article.

    By Anonymous, at 3:59 PM, October 07, 2011  

  • I want everyone to be clear that I do not support violence. This is about the prevention of violence. Here is two articles, same country, Australia. The first is about the implementation of gun control and how it was reported to be a success. The second is another report about the increase in violence in the same country after gun control was enforced. You cannot stop violence by forcing gun control. Our society has not matured to that point yet.

    Article about implementing gun control:

    Article about post-implementation of gun control and the increase of violence:

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:27 PM, January 16, 2013  

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