In 1450, a large body of armed men from the county of Kent descended upon the city of London, England. Hoping to have their grievances with local government resolved by the king, they were met with force by royal troops. But the Kentish men, under the leadership of Jack Cade, for whom this rebellion is named, defeated the king’s men and were only turned away a few days later when reinforcements from the city militia and the Tower of London managed to finally defeat them.
This was not a mere mob, marching on the city in a fury. Many supplied their own arms, and some had military experience. In fact, the men were mustered in the same way they would have been in the case of war. The rebels were effectively the Kentish militia in arms. England, at that time, had no standing army, and so it relied on county militias for its defense. This is why some of Cade’s men had their own weapons; militias were required by law to keep arms for the defense of the realm, and some English townsmen were armed to the teeth as a result.
But at the same time, the right to “bear arms” was technically an aristocratic privilege, not a general right. In that society, wielding weapons was deeply associated with the right to have a say in the governance of the realm. Cade’s Rebellion was, therefore, a political act: by assembling themselves as a county militia, in an orderly manner, the Kentish men were staking a claim to have a say in the political life of the realm.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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This was not an isolated incident either. Across Europe, in the medieval and early modern periods, cities formed sworn associations for defense of the city against the encroachment of growing, national monarchies. In Italy during the Renaissance and Germany during the Reformation, such defense was seen as part of republican liberty and made its way into the writings of Machiavelli and others. The most republican polity in Europe was that of the Swiss cantons, and it was no accident the Swiss were known for their fierceness and therefore prized as mercenaries.
A similar situation obtained in the early American colonies. The lack of a native nobility in British colonies meant more participation in government for more people; at the same time, in the early modern period, absolute monarchies were disarming their populations so they could not rebel against them. In England, after the Revolution of 1688, the Bill of Rights gave English Protestants a right to arms for self-defense; this did not extend to Catholics, who were considered suspect.
This background helps us make sense of the Second Amendment and its place in American life. The Founders’ republican ideals put a premium on personal independence, and having a population that could defend itself was part of that tradition. Moreover, it was also considered a check against tyrannical governments.
The idea that governing and defense are intertwined goes back at least to Aristotle, as does the idea of defense against tyranny. He wrote in his Politics that tyrants “mistrust the multitude” and therefore “deprive them of weapons.” Similar ideas can be found in Cicero and other ancient and early modern authors well known to the crafters of the Second Amendment. In other words, in America, the “right to bear arms” is intertwined with democracy itself, and being responsible enough to bear arms is equated with the right to participate in political life.
The subject of firearms has come up yet again for discussion because an eighteen-year-old boy murdered nineteen people, most of them young children, in Uvalde, Texas. The wave of mass shootings, especially school shootings, has been more or less continuous since the 1990s. The appalling nature of these crimes leads time and again to advocacy for a logical, simple solution to preventing them: get rid of the guns.
This solution, as it has been argued before, runs up against a series of problems, some practical (the difficulty, if not impossibility of removing hundreds of millions of guns from a country of this size); others political, as the gun rights lobby is loath to see any restrictions on its ability to sell weapons; and some legal (the Second Amendment). But more than this, it runs up against what people horrified by these mass shootings consider as their fellow Americans’ irrational obsession or attachment to guns, its “gun culture” as it is sometimes called.
The founders of the Republic wanted their citizens armed because they distrusted mercenaries and foreigners; but today Americans distrust each other probably more than anything else. The causes are somewhat obscure, but pretty much everyone agrees that, besides access to guns, a social breakdown of some sort—call it atomization—has led to people becoming so alienated that they are willing to kill others and often themselves.
Certainly, a loss of social trust must lie at the root of mass shootings. Guns have been available in large numbers for a very long time in the United States, and yet these shootings did not occur with any frequency until the end of the twentieth century. I grew up in Florida, and many high schools in that state had gun ranges where students could practice and even bring their own rifles to school for that purpose. Some still exist, as do gun clubs. A quick Google search will make this clear.
Unsurprisingly, support for and opposition to gun control maps onto differences in residential patterns. Those who live in cities suffer from gun violence the most, so they naturally want guns banned; those who live in rural areas and are law abiding don’t see why their rights should be curtailed because of the criminal actions of others.
Those who support stricter gun laws often point to the vast differences in modern society as a reason gun ownership is no longer necessary: republican theories of self-defense, not to mention the Constitution, posited a collective right to self-defense, not an individual one (though the Supreme Court has defined it as such); or that modern weapons would be ineffective against modern governments anyway, since they are vastly more powerful than early modern predecessors. But many also seem to see gun owners as being irrationally selfish. After all, if everyone simply turned in their guns, the problem would go away.
I admit to being sympathetic with some of these criticisms. But aside from the question of whether or not this would solve the problem (criminals aren’t going to turn their guns in voluntarily, after all), there is something else at work here. It is no secret that those who live in the major cities of the United States have very different views of the country than those who live outside of them. Perhaps because these cities are often the engines of economic growth in a globalized world, they tend to see their fellow citizens in a different light. At the heart of the critiques of gun ownership in America often seems to be the insinuation that there is something wrong per se with gun ownership, and that it reveals something not quite right about the people who own them.
I am thinking of Barack Obama’s famous line about working class people who “cling to their guns or religion” in the face of economic decline, that their fervor for gun ownership was a compensation for declining social status. While writing this essay, I came across an article on the Second Amendment and the history behind it, which, while informative, was written by a gun control advocate. At the end of it, he makes a comment about how to rid the country of its guns that is worth quoting in full:
The first step in breaking the cycle of violence is to address social alienation that causes Americans to hold on to this particular atavism. It also suggests a more viable strategy for gun control: Taking a page from our medical-insurance system, firearms control in the United States is more likely to be instituted through private means than through public policy. If the public pressures credit card companies to not do business with arms manufacturers and sellers, if insurers refuse to insure those who own firearms, or charge hefty premiums for those with guns in their homes, the bottom line will win out. Our society is ultimately rooted in freedom of enterprise, and sometimes the most efficient way to accomplish anything is via the non-democratic means of a cost-benefit analysis. (emphasis added)
By now, we are all familiar with the idea of “cancellation,” of people being fired or silenced for unpopular opinions. The implication that people should have their economic well-being threatened for lawfully owning guns (“nice health insurance you have there, it would be a shame if something were to happen to it”) is sinister enough. But the truly disturbing implication in this passage is that because people who own guns are socially retrograde (“atavism” means holding to outdated, ancestral beliefs), they are unfit to share in the governance of a democratic society, and therefore it is legitimate to undermine their constitutional rights by non-constitutional means.
I should make clear, if it wasn’t already, that I am a gun owner. I also teach college history and have a Ph.D. in that subject. I do not hunt and have never used my firearms in self-defense. Guns have always been for me a sort of recreation, and I do not share the same passion for them as some enthusiasts do. I have lived in urban, suburban, and rural areas throughout my life but have never been subjected to gun violence. Many friends of mine, some of whom have lost loved ones to armed assailants, favor gun control. I do not know what the solution is to solve the problem of mass killings, but I would be willing to have my right to gun ownership restricted further.
But that depends on gun control advocates being able to accept that some people do not share their beliefs about guns. Most do not share the attitude of the writer cited above, but such attitudes are by no means uncommon, especially in elite precincts. Too many people are eager to declare their opponents to be beyond the pale of social and legal protection when they have serious disagreements.
We cannot live together in this country if we cannot accept that people whose ideas may be fundamentally contrary to our own have a right to share in political life with us. Those who want to convince gun owners to willingly sacrifice their right to own firearms should make clear they still view them as fellow citizens and not as wards whom they can arbitrarily dispossess of that right by “non-democratic” means.
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