The Europeans, and their closest cousins across the Atlantic, the coastal states of North America, have been shocked in the last few years by the seeming plethora of gun attacks on civilians and other gun-related deaths in America, and are appalled that anyone can defend the general availability of assault weapons there, particularly the open and free market in guns to be found in some states under the protection of the 2nd Amendment of their Constitution and state independence in laws of local control of dangerous possessions, such as guns and cars, though there are some federal laws involved in both.
“Why, oh why,” the distraught people say, “do they need all those guns? What are they afraid of?”** I have been corresponding with Americans of every political shade, and have come to see that, first, it is futile to think the core group of gun owners will ever give up their weapons without a fight no government would want to instigate. Second, it has nothing to do with fear, and everything to do with family histories and a spirit of determined self-sufficiency, and as one correspondent put it to me, preparedness. The detail, the often gory scenarios they envisage when arguing their case seem ridiculous to my experience of the world here in south west Ireland, but that, I think, is because they feel they have to shout, as it were, metaphorically, to get their message across. I don’t really understand the worry one man had that he might be on a Chicago street and be threatened by a gun man. Such thoughts never occur to me. But this is to miss the point. American gun owners are mostly annoyed to be threatened with the confiscation of possessions they have been brought up to believe to be as essential to secure and civil living as owning a car or weatherproof clothes. It doesn’t make them dangerous, in fact, it makes them safer than most, because they understand and are highly aware of the deadly threat their weapons can pose, far more so than most car owners think about their equally dangerous cars.
The states of the Great Plains, Washington, Idaho, Montana, the Dakotas, Utah and Wyoming, were only formed around 1890 and later, New Mexico and Arizona not until the early 20th century, and Texas is still officially called The Republic of Texas, and to this day, it has to be said, there is some uncertainty as to just how united they are to the rest of the states!
Before then those vast lands were open country with a wide variety of threats on offer to any European settlers hoping to make ranches and farms or build towns in the wilderness.
The great Sioux Nation Chief Red Cloud once said: “The white man calls it a wilderness. We call it home.” The difference between the two ways of life was an unbridgeable abyss. In the first two hundred years of contact the two cultures kept their distance. In 1850, most of North America was hostile territory for the incoming Europeans. From the start of the move west with the opening up of the great trails to Oregon, Colorado and California in the 1840s and 50s, for their survival the people who made the journey had to be ready to hunt for food, to fend off attacks by wild animals, not to mention roving gangs of outlaws on the run from the east and looking for the new lawless lands to the west where the gold was to be found. After the army entered the scene in the 1860s and with it the rule of law, to serve the need to establish secure settlements for the returning armies and for the new waves of immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia, the situation was changed forever. To quote Red Cloud again: “The white man never kept but one promise: he said he would take our land and he took it.”.
Modern America began with the settlement of the Great Plains and the end of any concept of a shared continent by treaty with its original inhabitants. Henceforth, America was essentially a European nation.
In the second half of the 19th century the Native American Nations saw the initial modest invasion by Europeans become a threat of their total annihilation as a self-determining culture. During most of the 18th century, the initial period of invasion and settlement on the North American continent the British and French in the East made treaties with the Nations and generally kept themselves to the east coast of the continent, with agreed boundaries and trading relationships. For a long time the Native Americans of the Great Plains had watched the settlers arrive from the safety of their back country, and when the occasional European came into their lands, so long as he or she treated them with respect, did not cross any local taboos or start any fights, they accepted them. Most of those early pioneers were hunters or traders, they weren’t looking to settle. The gold diggers, the peasant farmers and religious fugitives that came later were not merely hostile to the Native Americans’ way of life for moral reasons or ignorant fear of the unknown. They wanted them gone, and their buffalo too, to make the land available for farming and marketing. They saw the Native Americans as savages, and in return the Native Americans fought back savagely, for as long as they could. It was a ruthless war of attrition (I recommend “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee” if you want to read this story in detail).
The last Native American to surrender was the Apache War Chief Geronimo, who surrendered on September 4th 1886, just 132 years ago (oddly enough, I checked this date on Google on September 4th 2018. I love serendipity!).
Until that day, the European settlers living in the vicinity of the Apache war parties he led had to be prepared to fight them off if they came looking for food and weapons (though there were some settlers who fed Geronimo’s men and befriended this intelligent, brave man, and no blood was shed). Geronimo was the last of a long line that began with the first so-called Indian Wars of the 1830s and 40s, in which the Nations were able to assemble large armies and outnumber, and often outmanoeuvre the invaders. They fought a desperate guerrilla war, and the settlers were caught in the middle of it and were often the first victims of Native American war parties.
Those first settlers were the great-grandfathers and grandmothers of families living today in those states. All of the American states are home to descendants of families that left Europe within the last fifteen generations: it’s a young country. Britain, for instance, has written records dating back through around five thousand generations, and was a polity for four or five thousand more before that. China has written records that date back more than twenty thousand generations. The powerful, courageous, independent spirit engendered by those American myth-makers is the crucible of their gun laws.
In gun owning families children are taught from an early age about guns, how to handle them safely and how to use them effectively. It is seen as a basic life lesson. Not only in America; even as an English child, I was given my first air rifle for my 12th birthday in 1958, and I fired my first target rifle and shotgun before I turned 14. Adult gun owners store their guns responsibly, and practice regularly, either hunting or on dedicated ranges (those FBI training-style pop up target urban layouts are very popular, or so it seems on YouTube). Much fun is had by all.
There is the swagger factor, of course, but even that has its basis in honest need. Watch any Western movie or read any history of the pioneers and you can see that in the burgeoning settlements and towns of the central and western states in the last decades of the 19th century people considered it necessary to be armed at all times, to kill whatever threatened them, be it rattlesnake or mountain lion, dispossessed natives or violent outlaws. Or cheating card players or lovers, but such town-based murders in anger were largely under the control of sheriffs and marshals by the 1870s. Out in the wilderness no one can hear you scream; you have to be ready to defend yourself.
Such traditions die hard. Maybe a day will come when Americans only own guns at European levels, or at least, only kill with them at European levels (Norway has gun laws not much different to American laws, but none of the plethora of bad news stories, apart from that man who shot all the students), but it won’t be soon, and it is pointless to hope it will. I expect cities will tighten possession and licensing laws and there will be better oversight of who can get hold of a gun, but there are more guns than people in America, so it wouldn’t be hard to find one if you want one. Laws or no, no government will entirely disarm all the world’s criminals, and there are sufficient laws to control the use of guns by non-criminals. The issue of mental capacity, licensing and so forth is one for discussion, but my own greatest concern for our American friends is the high rate of suicide by gunshot. One must wonder how many of those attempts would have failed if they had not had a gun to hand, and how many of those survivors would have learnt the lesson and never tried again?
I should add here that I have a certain sympathy with the American fascination with weapons. If I was an American I have no doubt I would own a gun or more than one. I consider them objects of beauty. Guns are like sharks, perfectly designed for a very distinct and limited range of purpose: in sharks to swim and eat; in guns, to fire bullets.
The Colt .45 1911, seen here, is my favourite (I have several toy versions) for sheer beauty of design, its compact sense of power and high precision accuracy. Shotguns don’t interest me, I like target shooting, which seems to be the main use the vast majority of American gun owners put their weapons to, probably more than hunting, a pastime largely pursued by the rural population.
Of course, it isn’t only for the day to day use of their guns that Americans cling to their weapons, or it would only be the rural population that would own them. Guns have the spiritual power of mythology for the Americans, but much more importantly, they represent a central theme of the American Constitution and characterise the raison d’être of the War of Independence.
The 2nd Amendment is the Constitutional expression of a deeply held and exclusively American idea of Freedom. George Washington wrote that the Constitution was designed to protect the “sovereign right of citizens”. At the time, the 18th Century, in every other European nation only the Monarch, the Sovereign, could own or license weapons, and they were generally limited to the ruling class and their guards and armies. Washington was making a very specific point: that in law there is no one above any American citizen, every American is legally and politically equal to all other Americans (well, that was the theory).
Above all that practical need to be armed, the first purpose and main reason that modern Americans, not often troubled by snakes and wild animals, still demand the right to own guns is as a defence against the tyranny of government. Europeans are in a poor position to criticise the Americans who are unique in their absolute rejection of, defence against; in short, their immunity from dictatorship. Europe has been ruled by tyrants for millennia; they produced a few destructive dictators in the last century and there are new ones arising here even today, just look at events in Turkey. Middle Eastern autocracy is of a different nature, but in all other European culture nations outside America and Australia, how differently might history have run if the people were armed against their governments? Whatever the answer to that, it is a core reason for owning guns to the majority of American gun owners.
This is a digression, but it is a curiosity of the American Constitution for me that, with this central theme of anti-tyranny in mind, they put so much executive power in the hands of one man, the President. I expect they did not anticipate the kind of divided, “we’re all right, you’re all wrong” rift in the political argument in America that we are witnessing there; nor that Congress might become, in the circumstances of one party holding a majority in both houses, a rubber stamp for the Executive. But even now, the President of America is a long way from being a dictator. A British Prime Minister has more power. In the British system of first past the post democracy, a government with a large majority is an elected dictatorship.
The point being that, even with both houses and a popular vote, an American President is no closer to being a dictator than the British Queen.
** I was told a good joke about this by a gun owner: An old lady gets pulled over by a cop for a broken tail light. When he looks inside the car he sees a Glock lying on the passenger seat and another in a clip on the dashboard. He checks the trunk and finds two shotguns and an AR-15.
“Jeez, lady,” he says, “what are you afraid of?”
“Me?” says the old lady. “Not a goddamn thing!”