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How Guns Brought America the Tyranny Its Founders Feared

7 minute read
Erdozain, a visiting professor at Emory University, is the author of the new book One Nation Under Guns: How Gun Culture Distorts Our History and Threatens Our Democracy

In March 2023, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser sent out a distress signal: “Protect Hawaii and our peaceful culture from tyranny of guns.” The Supreme Court’s Bruen decision had made it legal to carry firearms outside the home in all 50 states, and laws were pending to apply the ruling to Hawaii. “So, guns are coming,” warned the authors: to churches, schools, shopping malls and restaurants. Between “this dystopian future” and Hawaii’s peaceful traditions there were few remaining options.

A gun gives its owner “the power to intimidate,” continued the authors. It shrouds ordinary conflict in the possibility of death. “Once the guns come out,” they warned, “an unarmed person will almost always submit to an armed person.” And that is no way to live. This culture of confrontation ran counter to Hawaii’s values of modesty, tenderness, and harmony. But thanks to a 6-3 decision by the Supreme Court, Hawaiians were going to have to live with the fear and anxiety that follows guns wherever they go.

Tyranny is not too strong a word. Guns have begun to define the American experience, from small decisions about where you might travel to the massacres that haunt the news cycle like the visitations of a malevolent deity. Sold as freedom, they have created the very conditions that the liberal state was designed to prevent.

The singular idea behind the emergence of democracy was the protection of life from arbitrary power. What is liberty? wondered John Adams. Freedom from “wanton, cruel power”—from “imprisonments, whipping posts, gibbets, bastenadoes and racks.” Kings shed blood with little emotion, wrote Benjamin Rush, because they believed they governed by divine right. Republican governments spoke a different language. They taught the absurdity of the divine right of kings and asserted the sanctity of all life. This was not achieved through individual force but by collaboration and consent. In a democracy, power is diffused, and layers of restraint are placed between the restless will of the individual and the capacity to harm others. That was the “social contract.”

"What do we lose by this submission to the judgement of our peers?" wondered the statesman and philosopher John Dickinson. “The power of doing injuries to others—and the dread of suffering injuries from them.” What do we gain? “Tranquility of mind.” Freedom, in republican thought, was freedom from fear. It was an almost literal salvation from the “caprice” and cruelty of fellow mortals.

Unlike today’s gun advocates, who think of danger as other types of people, the founders understood tyranny as a universal propensity—a problem larger than monarchy or the more obvious villainies of history. The hard truth was that violence lurks in every heart, and “all men would be tyrants, if they could.” Such was the foundation of American constitutionalism and the elaborate checks and balances that defined it.

Read More: How Magical Thinking Gave Guns Their Power

The problem, explained one of the most influential works of political philosophy, was “egoism” or “self-love,” a force that made “a man the idolater of himself, and the tyrant of others.” For men are proud and vindictive, noted Alexander Hamilton, and such passions assert “a more active and imperious control” over their conduct than reason or justice. To plan for virtue was “to calculate on the weaker springs of the human character.”  

“If men were angels,” wrote James Madison, “no government would be necessary.” But few are so. When wills collide, “neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on as an adequate control.” Indeed religion often made matters worse, flattering people that they are chosen and somehow exempt from the rules of the game. The wise government was one that grasped the natural despotism of the human mind.

Everything in the American system—from bicameral legislatures to nervous protections against “standing armies”—reflected this shrewd and skeptical psychology. Power was dangerous and always looking to expand its franchise. The virtue of a representative, as opposed to a direct, democracy was that it was broken up, shared, and delegated.

This was the principle behind the well-regulated militia named in the Second Amendment. A militia placed “the sword in the hands of the solid interest of the community,” not the burning will of the individual. The militia was to defense what trial by jury was to justice: safety in numbers. It was protection against anarchy, insurrection, and the “hand of private violence.” The notion that, in providing for a militia, the founders were also providing for that hand of violence reveals a profound misunderstanding of their philosophy. Gun laws, as we now know them, enable the very brutalities that the political process was designed to contain.

The goal of a republic, argued Hamilton and Madison, was to substitute “the mild and salutary” influence of the law for “the destructive coercion of the sword.” An appeal to force was an admission of failure, and the pride of the new nation was the sense of overcoming the sanguinary reflexes of the old world.

When Americans claim an absolute right to lethal weapons, and a right to fire them on their own authority, they are closer to the divine right of kings than the civil liberty enshrined in the Constitution. They are closer to what the philosopher John Locke called a state of nature than the “state of peace” in which true freedom is found. “For who could be free,” he wondered, “when every other man’s humour might domineer over him?”

If the original purpose of government was “to restrain the partiality and violence of men,” in Locke’s enduring formula, guns are surely the nemesis. Every ten hours, a woman is shot dead by her current or former partner. A mass shooting, involving four or more victims, occurs every twelve hours. These are not contests. They are one-way affairs, in which the person who wants to kill invariably can.

It is no accident that the jurisprudence of individual gun rights first developed in the slaveholding South, where guns were the white man’s prerogative and considered essential to the management of slaves. If the Civil War served to nationalize gun ownership, racial prejudice has always provided a vital ingredient: the sense that some people are beneath the mercies of the law. There are good people and bad people—“law-abiding citizens” and “criminals”—and the good people must be armed. The kingly entitlement that so troubled Benjamin Rush has resurfaced in republican dress.

As the famed columnist Molly Ivins once observed, there is a telling irony in the speed with which law-abiding gun owners are inclined to threaten their critics. “I’ve been writing in favor of gun control for years,” she reported, “and people always threaten to shoot me in response.” Her correspondence is full of such material. To Ivins, it confirmed how far such people had strayed from the give-and-take of democratic discourse. It was us against them. The holy and the damned. “Christians don’t need gun control,” announced one of the letters. Go after the bad guys, and all will be well.

The tyranny of guns is more than the killing. It is a cast of mind that can be casual about violence because it sees the world in such simple terms. When a law-abiding citizen commits murder, he is no longer a law-abiding citizen, so the concept survives. But this is not how a democracy is supposed to work, least of all America’s. One king is a problem, thought John Adams. A nation of them is a disaster.

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