On the History of Gun “Rights”
As predictably as the inevitable tragicomic Onion piece, the Aurora, CO shooting has generated a maelstrom of controversy, with partisans taking equally unrealistic positions between the hippie-ish “melt down all guns and make them into meditation chimes” and the hawkish “all people should carry concealed weapons at all times and in all places, but most especially in crowded theaters.” Most of the latter camp’s rhetoric hinges (or unhinges) on the idea of a supposed “right” to firearm ownership. The unasked question is: How did it become a “right” in this country to own a piece of hardware capable of throwing dangerous and destructive pieces of metal at a high rate of speed, whereas (for instance) not being bankrupted because you need lifesaving medical treatment is not a “right”?
As “M.S.” points out in this insightful, if cynical, post on The Economist, the idea of a “right” is itself pretty complicated. We take the idea that we have “rights”—freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from torture, freedom to have sex in hotel rooms while dressing up as Disney characters—as inherent to the human condition. Yet, the “right” to reduce another human being to a fine red mist didn’t come from God, as conservatives maintain (“And the LORD spake, saying, ‘First shalt thou take out the Holy Pin, then shalt thou count to three, no more, no less…’ “). Rights, as anyone who’s survived Cambodia in the ’70s or Germany in the ’40s can tell you, are a social convention. In other words, they’re created by human beings interacting as a society. Once civil society goes away, so do your rights. In Bartertown, your rights are what Tina Turner says they are. In nature, the only “right” you have is to be eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger. In a totalitarian dictatorship, the only “right” you have is to obey; that things might be otherwise has to be suggested from an outside voice (which is why totalitarian states are so damn totalitarian).
“M.S.” argues the fact that rights are not inherent is seen by the fact that they’re not the same from culture to culture. If your average North Korean doesn’t know he has the right to free speech and a wardrobe not taken from “fashion faux pas of 1960s China,” he’s not going to miss them. Conversely, citizens of European countries are taking to the streets to preserve their “rights” to healthcare and retirement benefits, which are being threatened by the Eurozone crisis. It’s readily apparent that the rhetoric of “rights” only comes out when a perceived prerogative, particularly a longstanding one, is threatened. Rights, in other words, are historically constructed.
So where does the right to that Glock come from? It’s an interesting fact that the modern idea of the right to bear arms goes back to the Middle Ages. Let’s start with the medieval idea of rights which, much like the modern, was a constructivist one. The Framers, influenced by Locke, put in “life, liberty, and property the pursuit of happiness” to the Declaration of Independence, but it was only under pressure from the Anti-Federalists that a Bill of Rights was introduced. In the same way, the Magna Carta, written in the wake of the English nobility’s revolt against King John’s high-handed policies, proclaimed the “rights” of the English Church (that is, that its property wouldn’t be seized by the Crown) and that London and other towns had special privileges of self-government and that clergy didn’t have to pay taxes—all of which strike us as ridiculous in a modern context, but were a real concern back then. By writing down these “rights,” they were fixed in place so they couldn’t be violated again.
Now, most of the American Bill of Rights is in the tradition of the English Bill of Rights of 1689. (Newsflash: Modern democracy was founded not by the American Revolution, but by the English Glorious Revolution of 1688.) For instance, the militia spoken of in the Second Amendment comes directly from the English provision “That the subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law.” This article came about because the Catholic James II had just been overthrown by a Protestant Parliament who had feared that he was going to crack down on their other “rights” such as property ownership.*
But this weapons-ownership goes back a long way before the seventeenth century. In fact, in the Middle Ages, English commoners were commanded to have weapons—specifically, bows—and to practice with them. The reason, however, wasn’t defense against the government, but in order to serve the government. English archers contributed to the famous victories against the French aristocracy at Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt. This wasn’t unique in the medieval world: There were shooting and fencing guilds in France and the Low Countries who participated in urban defense, and William Tell and his Swiss homeboys kept crossbows and halberds in their houses before they had government-issued assault rifles. Not coincidentally, Switzerland and the Low Countries were also cradles of European democracy. However, it was only in England that philosophers such as Locke came up with novel ideas explaining how the person of the king and his government could be separate from the nation itself. In other words, patriotism to your country could mean taking up arms against your government.
Historians since Stanislav Andreski (in his 1954 Military Organization and Society) have argued that the relationship between arms and political power was significant. The fact that common people not only were taxed to support the national army and kept and bore arms in the service of their nascent countries led ultimately not just to a feeling of enfranchisement, but enfranchisement in fact—and, ultimately, modern parliamentary democracy. After all, in the medieval world, where the ruling class was the fighting class, to bear arms was to assert your enfranchisement.** Or, as Shakespeare’s Henry V puts it, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers, For he today who sheds his blood with me shall be my brother, Be he ne’er so vile, this day shall gentle his condition.” In other words, by fighting alongside the king, you yourself become akin to the king.
So, the right to bear arms and the right to democratic self-determination are inherently intertwined. The British legal system, through legislation, has since separated them. Extricating the two ideas in the United States will be trickier.
*Much of the land that the well-to-do in England owned had originally been confiscated by Henry VIII from the Catholic Church back in the 16th century—thus, incidentally, violating that particular provision of the Magna Carta!
**Enfranchisement” is itself an interesting word—it means to have legal standing as a citizen, but it came from the idea to have the rights of a Frank, that is, to be a member of the warrior-aristocracy. In other words, to be armed and French. Plus ça change!
Follow us on twitter@thefastertimes
- 1 First Openly Straight Figure Skater Comes Forward
- 2 Brooklyn Man Now Living Entirely Off Own Beard Garden
- 3 “Cra Cra” Now Official Diagnosis in New DSM (DSM-5)
- 4 OfficeMax Marketing Director Struggling to Make Staplers ‘Sexy’ and ‘Conversational’
- 5 Homeless Guy Woos Silicon Valley VCs with Low-Tech Crowdfunding Startup
- 6 Area Man Tailors Life To Be More Relevant To His Hulu Advertisements
- 7 Fan Banging Furiously on Glass Could Be the Difference in Hockey Playoffs
- 8 Survey: 88% of Eagles Fans Too Drunk To Spell Nnamdi Asomugha Last Season
- 9 Attorney Actually Starting to Believe Own Bullshit
- 10 Local Mom Won’t Stop Being First Person to Like Every Goddamn Thing Son Posts to Facebook