In a few days, Americans will celebrate our nation’s birth by shooting loud fiery projectiles that sparkle and whizz and explode in the air. Colorful and dramatic as fireworks are, why not just celebrate with a nice dinner and exchange presents? Simply because our nation was birthed in the smoke of gunpowder and freedom was delivered by the flare of patriots’ rockets and such displays are a grand reminder of our history and how liberty was won.
Which brings us to another topic involving explosives: guns and their place in our modern society. The latest terrorist attack in Orlando prompted a recent sit-in reminiscent of 1960’s activism by Democratic Congressmen who demanded a vote for stricter gun laws. But as Kentucky Congressman Thomas Massie (R-Garrison) tweeted, “So let me get this straight…we have rule-makers breaking rules so they can pass more rules that they expect criminals to obey?”
We all know criminals and terrorists don’t obey laws but would making it more difficult to obtain guns (even for those on the no-fly list) make us a tad bit safer? Would it stop another mass shooting? According to a recent Gallup poll 64 percent believe that increasing the number of people carrying concealed handguns will help prevent terrorism.
The question of firearms in a peaceful society isn’t an easy one. For urban dwellers, guns are colored through the prism of gangs and criminal activity and viewed as threats to peace and safety. For the rural, like me, guns are part of a way of life. Hunting and target shooting are rites of passage into adulthood. And the right to own a firearm for self-defense is unquestioned. Views on guns are tempered by our experiences and vantage point, but such perspectives should also be informed by history past and present.
History past tells us that America’s War for Independence was stoked in 1774 when Britain banned colonists from importing firearms and gunpowder. The conflagration of open war began on April 19, 1775, when 700 Redcoats marched on Lexington and Concord to seize American arms. Five days later, they seized nearly 2700 guns from Bostonians. In Williamsburg, royal authorities confiscated gunpowder from the public storage and destroyed the public firearms. As Britain was winning the war in 1777, Colonial Undersecretary William Knox proposed to disarm the colonists and said “…the Arms of all the People should be taken away, … nor should any Foundery or manufactuary of Arms, Gunpowder, or Warlike Stores, be ever suffered in America, nor should any Gunpowder, Lead, Arms or Ordnance be imported into it without Licence … .”
History present tells us that disarming law-abiding citizens makes them vulnerable to criminals who do not abide by the law and exploit gun-free zones—a school in Newtown, a church in Charleston, a movie theater in Aurora and now a nightclub in Orlando. According to the Crime Prevention Research Center nearly 99 percent of the mass public shootings since 1950 have occurred in gun-free zones. Taking their cue from such data, Tennessee lawmakers legalized concealed guns on college campuses for faculty and staff with permits.
As much as the Second Amendment secures an individual’s right to self-defense, its primary purpose is to secure citizens with the veto power over a tyrannical government that would deprive them of the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness promised in the Declaration of Independence. In a letter to James Madison, Declaration author and third president Thomas Jefferson asked “What country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms.”
Jefferson was intimately acquainted with tyrannical government. While we haven’t had to suffer under the train of abuses he did, the 20th century is a sad tale of megalomaniacs—whether in Germany, Russia or China—disarming their own citizens, denying their human rights and eventually killing many millions more than any lives taken in isolated terror attacks here. Simply put, stripping citizens of firearms makes people vulnerable to governments who would bully them.
We don’t like to speak of these things in polite company. But the threat to peace and safety from criminals and governments deserves our utmost attention and seriousness. We are good at enjoying our freedom but perhaps not so good at understanding why we have it in the first place. No doubt, there will continue to be fireworks over this volatile issue, but as we enjoy the displays lighting up the night skies on July 4, let’s remember that the United States of America would have never existed without being unequivocally pro-gun at its inception.
Richard Nelson is the executive director of the Commonwealth Policy Center, a nonprofit public policy organization. He resides in Cadiz with his wife and children.