In episode 2 of this 3 part documentary, “The 2nd Amendment: The Gun Culture” we explore the history and origination of of the American gun culture. Daniel Boone the American Pioneer, Americans defending themselves against hostile Indians and wild animals. How the gangsters and mob violence of the 1920’s during prohibition led to the passage of the first gun laws.
The string of high profile politicians and civil rights activists being assassinated during the 1960’s, which led to more gun laws and the NRA becoming more focused on protecting the gun rights of US Citizens. How the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan led to background checks to purchase firearms, and prohibited criminals and mentally ill people from purchasing guns.
The purpose of the 2nd Amendment as a check on a government that had become tyrannical and the tyranny of the majority against the minority. The true nature and purpose of the Militia referenced in the 2nd Amendment being composed of all people capable of bearing arms. History of Nazi Germany, USSR, China and Venezuela using gun laws to disarm their people, rendering them completely defenseless against government tyranny and criminals. Examples of corrupt local authorities being opposed by armed US citizens to prevent tyranny.
The reality is that guns and the right to bear them were baked into American culture from the beginning. Early America was a difficult place to survive without a strong mind, a rugged spirit and the ability to be self-reliant. Guns were required to defend against outlaws and warlike natives. They were also vital tools for fending off wild animals and putting food on the table.
In 1775, Daniel Boone crossed the Cumberland Gap and blazed a trail into the Kentucky wilderness, founding the village of Boonesborough — the first colonial settlement west of the Appalachian mountains.
This new frontier attracted armed adventurers and was inhabited by hostile Native-American tribes and wild animals. A pro-gun ethos was stamped on the American psyche — that only with a good gun should you venture into the wilderness.
“To disarm the people, that is the most effective way to enslave them.” ~ George Mason, Father of the Bill of Rights, 1788
British attempts to confiscate colonial arms were one cause of the American Revolution. In Lexington and Concord, armed colonists fought to stop British troops from seizing their cannon — and in Williamsburg, Patrick Henry and a handful of armed Virginians resisted a British attempt to seize a store of gunpowder.
With a native proficiency in guns, American Minutemen were the finest marksmen in the world and played a key role in victory over the British army.
“A free people ought not only to be armed, but disciplined…” ~ President George Washington, First Annual Address, to both Houses of Congress, January 8, 1790
In the 1840s, Samuel Colt invented the first revolver that could fire six bullets without reloading. Known as “the peacemaker,” the Colt revolver changed American manufacturing by combining precision machining with interchangeable parts and an assembly line — sparking a second Industrial Revolution.
“God created men, Sam Colt made them equal.” – Unknown
Yankee ingenuity soon led to more innovations. The Spencer Repeating Rifle was introduced in 1863, giving the Union army a brief advantage in the Civil war, while the invention of the Gatling gun the year before ushered in the age of rapid fire.
“It occurred to me that if I could invent a machine – a gun – which could by its rapidity of fire, enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that it would, to a large extent supersede the necessity of large armies, and consequently, exposure to battle and disease [would] be greatly diminished.” ~ Richard J. Gatling
After the Civil war ended, Americans headed west to chart out new territory, and the myth-making of the Wild West picked up steam.
In Springfield, Missouri in 1865, a former Union spy named Bill Hickok challenged a Confederate veteran who had won his gold watch in a card game the night before. In the first quick-draw duel, Wild Bill Hickok shot him dead and became the nation’s first celebrity gunslinger.
Buffalo Bill Cody followed in his footsteps. A former Pony Express rider who claimed to have won a rifle duel with a Cheyenne warrior, he earned his name hunting buffalo to feed workers on the Kansas Pacific railroad. He became a showman for America’s gun culture with his “wild west show,” a traveling vaudeville attraction that reenacted Wild West history and captured the imagination of Americans hungry for new forms of entertainment.
“The West of the old times, with its strong characters, its stern battles and its tremendous stretches of loneliness can never be blotted from my mind.” ~ Buffalo Bill Cody
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show featured female trick shot, Annie Oakley, who became a national celebrity and helped normalize gun use by women.
“I have had an ideal for my sex, I have wanted them to be able to protect their homes.” ~ Annie Oakley
The Gatling gun was the first well known rapid fire gun, but its mount on a cannon carriage made it unwieldy. That changed in 1884 when American inventor, Hiram Maxim designed the first portable fully automatic machine gun. The Maxim gun changed the face of battle and contributed to the carnage of World War I.
American inventors soon made machine guns that could be wielded by one man. John Browning created the Browning Automatic Rifle in 1917 for U.S. forces in WW1, while John Thompson invented the Thompson submachine gun in 1918. The “Tommy gun” became the weapon of choice for gangsters during alcohol prohibition and prompted our first federal gun law.
America’s best known WWI hero, Sergeant Alvin York was a farm boy from Tennessee who grew up hunting and applied his skill at shooting turkeys to killing Germans.
During WWII, America became the “great arsenal of democracy” retooling its factories to make weapons and supplies for the Allied armies. Gun designer John Garand invented the M1 infantry rifle, allowing soldiers to fire 3 times faster than bolt action rifles.
“In my opinion, the M1 rifle is the greatest battle implement ever devised.” – General George S. Patton
With a tradition dating back to Colonial sharpshooters picking off British officers, the sniper took a place in the American imagination. During WWII, American sharpshooters used their proficiency from hunting to pick off Nazi soldiers.
The US Marine Corps opened the first sniper schools in the 1940s, forging a level of marksmanship evident 60 years later in the Legend of U.S. Navy SEAL Sniper Chris Kyle, as memorialized in Clint Eastwood’s blockbuster film, American Sniper.
With roots in Buffalo Bill’s wild west show and pulp fiction, guns have always featured prominently in our popular entertainment. From Westerns and crime sagas, to war movies and video games, gun-wielding heroes and villains fight a running battle between good and evil, reflecting the real life and death struggles in the world around us.
The truth is, guns are woven into the fabric of American history and pop culture. As recently as 2008, a Gallup poll found some 73% of Americans believed we have the right to bear arms.
Beginning with the 14th Amendment, attempts to pass new federal gun laws have been reactions to things happening in the broader culture.
During Prohibition in the 1920s and 30s, turf wars between rival criminal gangs led to shoot-outs on city streets, putting civilians in danger.
After Al Capone’s Italian mafia executed 7 members of Bugs Moran’s Irish mob in Chicago’s infamous St. Valentine’s Day massacre, the federal government took action. The National Firearms act was passed in 1934 to restrict weapons favored by mobsters, such as Tommy guns and sawed off shotguns.
“After a shooting spree, they always want to take the guns away from the people who didn’t do it. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to live in a society where the only people allowed guns are the police and the military.” ~ William S. Burroughs, American Writer and Visual Artist
In the 1960s, there was a string of assassinations of prominent figures including President John F. Kennedy, his brother Bobby Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
As riots and looting engulfed inner cities, locals sniped at National Guardsmen attempting to restore order. A study placed partial blame on the wide availability of guns in inner cities and the ease of purchasing guns across state lines. Both JFK’s and MLK’s assassins had purchased their rifles by mail order.
All of this helped spur the passage of The Gun Control Act of 1968, a federal law to restrict gun sales across state lines and attempt to set up a gun registry.
Before the 1968 law, the National Rifle Association, or NRA, had primarily been a club for hunters. Now, it switched its mission to Second Amendment advocacy, helping to pass the Firearm Owners Protection Act in 1986 to roll back some of the 1968 regulations and ban the sale of new automatic weapons.
In 1981, a mentally deranged man obsessed with teen actress Jodie Foster in the movie Taxi Driver, tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan with a handgun. Reagan survived, but his Press Secretary James Brady suffered a severe head injury.
Brady and his wife became gun control advocates, campaigning tirelessly for the Handgun Violence Prevention Act that was signed into law in 1993. The new law prohibited some people from owning firearms, such as convicted criminals, the mentally ill, drug addicts, illegal immigrants and people subject to restraining orders for stalking or harassing intimate partners. It also required firearms dealers to be licensed and conduct criminal background checks on gun purchasers.
“To have people with – with psychological problems have a background check before they can buy a weapon? I don’t think the NRA would pull me off that one. If they do, then I need to be pulled off it because… you can’t give a weapon to someone who has mental issues, right.” ~ Marcus Luttrell, former U.S. Navy SEAL and author of “Lone Survivor” portrayed by Mark Wahlberg in the movie, “Lone Survivor”
One of the more compelling arguments for the right to bear arms is that free people need guns as a check on government tyranny. While gun control advocates dismiss the concern as outdated, the idea was central to the founders’ thinking and enjoys support across a broad spectrum of American society.
“It’s legal in the United States, because that’s the last form of defense against tyranny. Not to hunt. It’s to protect yourself from the police.” ~ Ice-T, American Hip-Hop Artist and Actor
This issue loomed large during the Civil Rights era when the “Deacons for Defense and Justice,” a group of African American World War II and Korean War veterans took up arms to defend civil rights workers in the deep South.
At the time, some Southern police officers were in the Ku Klux Klan. After Klansmen murdered civil rights workers, the Deacons showed up with guns to protect them, exercising their right to bear arms in a pure expression of the founders’ intent.
“We all have the right to bear arms. I have that. I have that same right as you do. Just because I’m black doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have a gun… I legally own guns.” ~ Tupac Shakur, American Hip-Hop Artist and Actor
The founding fathers were clear that the right to bear arms wasn’t just for hunting or self defense, but was a last defense against a government that had become tyrannical, including the tyranny of the majority against the minority and the individual.
“Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” ~ John Adams, Founding Father and Second President of the United States, 1814
“It is of great importance in a republic, not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers; but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part.” ~ James Madison, Father of the Constitution, Federalist No. 51, 1788
The founders knew from history that governments always end up becoming tyrannical. They included the Second Amendment as a safeguard to make sure the new American Republic could avoid a similar fate by maintaining armed militias that included all of the people.
“A militia when properly formed, are in fact the people themselves… and include all men capable of bearing arms” ~ Richard Henry Lee, Signer of the Declaration of Independence and Virginia statesman who made the motion for independence, 1788
“Little more can be reasonably aimed at, with respect to the people at large, than to have them properly armed and equipped.” ~ Alexander Hamilton, American Statesman and Founding Father, Federalist No. 29, 1788
“The great object is that every man be armed. Everyone who is able might have a gun.” ~ Patrick Henry, American Revolutionary
“I ask who are the militia? They consist now of the whole people, except a few public officers.” ~ George Mason, American Statesman and Father of the Bill of Rights, Address to the Virginia Ratifying Convention, 1788
“The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. A well regulated militia, composed of the people, trained to arms, is the best and most natural defense of a free country…” ~ James Madison, Founding Father and Fourth President of the United States, 1789
“For a people who are free, and who mean to remain so, a well organized and armed militia is their best security.” ~ Thomas Jefferson, Founding Father and Third President of the United States, 1808
“The conception of the militia at the time of the Second Amendment’s ratification was the body of all citizens capable of military service, who would bring the sorts of lawful weapons that they possessed at home to militia duty.” ~ Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia
The founders clearly believed that an unarmed people would be vulnerable to tyranny and that an armed people would be the best defense.
One doesn’t need to look far to find countries where the people were disarmed and oppression and mass murder followed. Nazi Germany inherited strict gun control laws from the Weimar Republic — but when Hitler came to power, he tweaked the laws to allow members of the Nazi party to own guns and to prohibit Jews and other “unreliables” from owning guns.
Hitler imposed a gun registry to identify gun owners, then later used the information for confiscation and applied the law to all the occupied territories conquered by the Nazis.
“The most foolish mistake we could possibly make would be to permit the conquered Eastern peoples to have arms. History teaches that all conquerors who have allowed their subject races to carry arms have prepared their own downfall by doing so.” ~ Adolph Hitler
In the Soviet Union, members of the Communist party could own guns, but people were otherwise limited to owning nothing more than a smooth bore hunting rifle.
Communist China also imposed strict gun control laws, with ownership tightly regulated by the Communist party. Once their people were disarmed, both governments enacted policies that led to the imprisonment or death of millions.
“Our principle is that the party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the party.” ~ Mao Zedong
A recent example of gun control used as an instrument of tyranny is Socialist Venezuela, where Hugo Chavez outlawed private gun ownership in 2012. Since then, violent crime has spiked with the country’s crime rate now the highest in the world.
While the general population was disarmed, government thugs were armed and given free license to murder political opponents and protestors in the street. With only the government and criminals owning guns, the rest of the Venezuelan people are completely defenseless.
“Guns would have served as a vital pillar to remaining a free people, or at least able to put up a fight.” Javier Vanegas, Venezuelan teacher in exile, Fox News Interview, December 12, 2018
Despite the evidence that liberal gun rights help deter government tyranny, many Americans believe it couldn’t happen here. But in some ways, it already has.
In 1946, in the small town of Athens, Tennessee, a corrupt local government engaged in predatory policing and voter intimidation to try to fix a local election. A group of returning World War II vets took up arms against the local police and stopped a stolen election.
And when the Deacons for Defense and Justice took up arms to protect Civil Rights workers in the South, they were also opposing local government tyranny.
“The rifle hanging on the wall of the working class flat or laborer’s cottage is the symbol of democracy. It is our job to see that it stays there.” ~ George Orwell
In Episode 3, we’ll look at how the gun debate continues to evolve as new threats arise and technological advancements threaten to overtake the issue — and we’ll learn how one country has developed a model gun culture that America can learn from.
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