First Freedom: A Ride Through America’s Enduring History with the Gun by David Harsanyi (Threshold Editions, 2018); 321 pages.
In David Harsanyi’s First Freedom, an entertaining jaunt through the gun’s important place in American history, the nationally syndicated columnist notes that the first real attempt to institute gun control was New York’s Sullivan Act. The impetus for the 1911 law, which required licenses for people who wanted to carry a concealed firearm, came from a man who worked in New York City’s coroner’s office. In January 1911, George Petit le Brun performed autopsies on Fitzhugh Coyle Goldsborough and David Graham Phillips. Goldsborough, an unstable Harvard graduate, murdered Graham, a novelist, for slandering his sister and then turned the gun upon himself on East 21st Street in Manhattan.
In his 1960 autobiography, le Brun said the murder-suicide moved him to action. “I reasoned that the time had come to have legislation passed that would prevent the sale of pistols to irresponsible persons,” he wrote. “In the vernacular of the day, ‘There oughta be a law.’” The result was the Sullivan Act — named after its sponsor, the corrupt Tammany Hall boss and state senator Timothy “Big Tim” Sullivan — which made it a felony to carry an unlicensed concealed firearm. The law, which the New York Times in 2011 described as “a model for gun-control legislation enacted throughout the country,” is still on the books and is routinely criticized for allowing only certain people — ex-police officers and the city’s wealthy and connected elite — the privilege of receiving concealed-carry licenses doled out by the New York Police Department.
By the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, the feds were getting in on the gun-control act too. In response to the organized crime unleashed by government prohibition of the sale of alcohol and the violence it spawned, Congress passed the National Firearms Acts of 1934 and 1938. Combined, the two laws taxed the manufacture and sale of machine guns and sawed-off shotguns, required gun manufacturers and dealers to be licensed, and prohibited gun dealers from selling guns to people under indictment or convicted of violent crimes.
Though the public argument for these laws was to fight back against gangsters such as Al Capone, Attorney General Homer Cummings told it like it was. The regulations were aimed not at criminals but law-abiding citizens. “We certainly don’t expect gangsters to come forward to register their weapons and be fingerprinted, and a $200 tax is frankly prohibitive to private citizens,” he said. (If only today’s gun prohibitionists were as forthright.)
In 1939, the Supreme Court issued its first gun-rights ruling in United States v. Miller, which concluded that the National Firearms Act of 1934 was constitutional. But until the Court’s Heller decision in 2008, gun-control advocates misused Miller to argue that the founding generation believed that the Second Amendment established a collective theory of gun rights connected to militia service rather than an individual right to keep and bear arms. Harsanyi’s book should disabuse anyone of that erroneous notion and exposes the intellectual ignorance or dishonesty of anyone who traffics in it.
It is no surprise that Harsanyi’s book opens on European, particularly English, colonization of the territory that would become the United States, because of the new arrivals’ relationship with the gun. For Christian nonconformists, such as the Pilgrims, fleeing religious persecution in England, the gun was already an unquestioned feature of everyday life in the Old World. “In early fifteenth-century England, most male citizens were already trained to serve in a military reserve and knew how to use a musket,” writes Harsanyi. “From the ages of sixteen to sixty, reservists gathered in town squares across England four or five times each year and local military leaders inspected their weaponry and equipment —which they most often personally owned. The Pilgrims reproduced this tradition in their own towns.”
Civil defense took on such importance in the New World that some colonial municipalities fined men for not owning and carrying firearms. “By the end of the seventeenth century,” Harsanyi notes, “nearly every colonial town featured some kind of requirement impelling white inhabitants to bear arms (slaves, free slaves, indentured servants, and Catholics were typically prohibited from owning them) to protect their communities from external threats — and, on occasion, from internal perils.” Aside from defense, the gun was essential to preserving one’s life in another way: eating. “Hunting, not war, was the main use of the gun in early America,” Harsanyi explains.
That changed during the last third of the 18th century as the English Crown and Parliament tried to control its increasingly restive subjects across the pond. In September 1774, British redcoats seized the gunpowder stores from the Provincial Powder House in what’s now Somerville, Massachusetts, for fear that colonial militias would take it first. The event was evidence that the Crown meant to disarm the people of Boston and set off the “powder alarm,” in which the colonized and the colonizers each tried to get their hands on the precious material. “There was … no way to defend your beliefs in natural law, the right to self-defense, or personal liberty without the ability to pour powder into your musket,” observes Harsanyi.
A month later, King George III banned the export of gun powder to the colonies. Half a year later, the first shots of the American Revolutionary War rang out on the Common in Lexington, Massachusetts. While it’s up for debate about what event made the Revolutionary War inevitable, writes Harsanyi, “it was the policy of gun and powder confiscation that sealed the deal.”
And as Harsanyi recounts, there was good reason that disarming the colonists helped induce rebellion and then revolution: It violated their rights as Englishmen under English common law. For example, the English Bill of Rights of 1689, an inspiration for our Bill of Rights, limited the power of the Crown to disarm the populace, anchoring the protection in “the true, ancient and indubitable rights and liberties” of the kingdom’s people. The Second Amendment would guarantee that same individual right a little more than a century later on another continent — no matter that the prohibitionists disingenuously argue otherwise.
As constitutional scholar and Pulitizer Prize-winning historian Leonard W. Levy put it in his Origins of the Bill of Rights, “Believing that the amendment does not authorize an individual’s right to keep and bear arms is wrong. The right to bear arms is an individual right.” Harsanyi explains why. “While it is convenient for contemporary advocates of gun control to claim that evidence for individual gun rights is still inconclusive, what we do know for certain is that not a single soul in the provisional government or at the Second Continental Congress or any delegate at the Constitutional Convention … ever argued against the idea of individuals owning a firearm,” writes Harsanyi. “Not a single militia leader asked his men to hand over their firearms after the town’s drills had ended.”
A gun culture from birth
People interested in a deep scholarly rebuttal of the collective right theory of gun ownership, however, should go elsewhere. Though Harsanyi does a fine job of debunking it for the interested average reader, most of First Freedom is about the men who made the gun a central pillar of American identity and culture, such as Samuel Colt, John Browning, and Eugene Stoner. But even then, Harsanyi’s exploration of the men and their times demonstrates that guns were ubiquitous and considered a critical and prized possession for defense of life, liberty, and property, repudiating the notion that guns weren’t a mainstay of American life since its founding.
During the colonial era, probate records show that guns were commonplace in American homes, contradicting the claims of some historians that America’s gun culture didn’t arise until the mid 19th century. Recent studies show that male estates usually had more guns than other mundane items, such as books, chairs, or even Bibles. The records also document that the guns were in good condition, demonstrating that the owner took good care of them. Harsanyni also notes that these records probably undercount the number of people who owned guns because the weapons were “handed from one relative, friend, or neighbor to another, without any record of the transfer.”
After the Revolution, American citizens and immigrants went west, eventually colonizing the entire continent through the force of their arms. “The peopling of the West gave birth to a new culture, disrupted the cultures of the American Indian, and ultimately created the most dynamic economy in world,” writes Harsanyi. “Guns would be a vital tool in this project, not only as a means of self-defense and war, but for hunting, trading, and exploration.”
When it comes to the American war with Indians, the progressive Left should pay special attention to the gun-control policies of the time. American governments regulated the gun trade with Indian tribes to ensure the settlers maintained the upper hand when it came to firepower. Harsanyi reports that in 1837, the U.S. Office of Indian Affairs restricted trade with tribes to “‘a pound of lead’ for ammunition to ‘not make less than forty-five, nor more than one hundred [shots], and must be of a length and weight corresponding properly with the size of the ball.’” And in December 1890, in an example Harsanyi doesn’t include in the book, the Seventh Calvary went into the Lakota camp to disarm the tribesmen. In the process, a gun went off and the U.S. soldiers proceeded to massacre the Lakotas in what became known as the Wounded Knee Massacre.
But for those today who still believe the gun is a unique tool of American oppression, consider the Sharps rifle of the mid 1800s. One of the nicknames given to the rifle was the “Beecher’s Bible” because of Henry Ward Beecher, an Abolitionist minister. In 1856 before the Civil War, Beecher told a New York newspaper that sending Sharps rifles to the militant anti-slavery “Free Staters” in Kansas “was a truly moral agency, and that there was more moral power in one of those instruments, so far as the slaveholders of Kansas were concerned, than in a hundred Bibles.”
Harsanyi also debunks the claims that “The Wild West” was bloody anarchy, noting that many of the “range wars” were more the product of journalists’ imaginations to sell papers back East. For example, the Associated Press reported that Dodge City, Kansas, had broken out in open warfare. The casualties of this war, Harsanyi reports, were zero. Ogallala, Nebraska, earned the nickname “Gomorrah of the trail,” for its violence. Between 1875 and 1884, it registered six killings.
Instead, the men and women on the frontier owned guns to hunt for food and protect their families and property from criminals. “The majority of men and women who trekked westward in the second half of the nineteenth century did so to find prosperity and peace,” Harsanyi writes. “Most never fired, or even had to point their gun, at another human being.”
The right interpretation
In 2008, in a 5-4 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court finally put to rest the intellectually dishonest argument that the Second Amendment did not guarantee an individual’s right to bear arms. The justices, led by Antonin Scalia, however, did not say it was an unfettered right. Government could regulate guns and gun ownership, but the majority upheld what should be common sense, both historically and philosophically: The right to bear arms should be “understood as resistance to either private lawlessness or the depredations of a tyrannical government (or a threat from abroad).”
In other words, anyone advocating the complete abolition of gun ownership in America, whether out of ignorance or malice, should be seen for what he is: a threat to the right of self-defense — the most natural right a human being possesses. And as Harsanyi aptly shows, without the right of self-defense, all other rights are null and void, because a government bent on disarming law-abiding citizens has shown it no longer trusts them. And that’s neither limited government nor self-government. It’s tyranny.
This article was originally published in the July 2019 edition of Future of Freedom.