Many of today’s most divisive political debates emanate from assumptions about the intent of our Founding Fathers. None of these dialectics are more emotionally charged than discussions about the Second Amendment. Obviously, we can’t access many of the important things we need to know about the founders’ intentions. What we must then fall back on is the cultural context in which they drafted the core documents of our republic.
In 2001, historian Michael Bellesiles published insightful scholarship on this very topic, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture.
His thesis is that the story of intrepid Colonial pioneers blazing trails into the untamed wilderness with muskets in hand is largely a myth. This myth has been romanticized and propagated so much that our present ideas about gun ownership and the Second Amendment are directly attributable to the incorrect belief that nearly everyone in Colonial America owned a firearm.
Bellesiles supports the revelation with the fact that less than 15 percent of Colonial era probate records show a transfer of a firearm. This observation drew predictably strident criticism from gun-rights advocates.
Bellesiles responds by noting that prior to the Industrial Revolution, guns were extremely expensive, handmade items that cost the typical worker several months wages. Few Colonial Americans could afford such luxuries. As a consequence, gun ownership was largely the purview of the white male landed gentry. Bellesiles argues that fewer than 20 percent of colonials owned a gun.
Owing to their iron construction, they wore easily and required a very high level of maintenance to keep them in service. As evidence, he cites the British Army’s custom of retiring the scrupulously maintained weapons every two years.
Moreover, guns of the era were notoriously hard to load, unpredictable in firing and difficult to aim accurately. So plagued were firearms of the day that several Colonial legislatures banned media reporting of militia drilling out of fear that the unflattering results would undermine feelings of public safety. In short, muskets were poor implements both for military use and hunting.
If the technical deficiencies weren’t sufficient to retard ownership, the poor quality and general unavailability of gunpowder was. The first Colonial gunpowder mill began operation in 1675. Due to uneven and low quality produce, it was shuttered in 1750. While more reliable, imported gunpowder was prohibitively expensive for most common people.
Further substantiating Bellesiles’ contention is the fact that pre-Revolution militias routinely pleaded with the Crown for more weapons and were consistently rebuffed. So dire was the Continental Army’s predicament that it stood to end the rebellion. Only after the Continental Army captured a trove of British weapons at Yorktown in 1781 did they have a minimally sufficient cache of arms. It took the French supply of weapons to get the Continentals fully armed. In an ironic twist, it was not until October 1783 that units of the Continental Army reported they were fully armed — this was a month after the Treaty of Paris granted independence to the Colonies.
According to Bellesiles the widespread private ownership of guns was neither an economic nor practical reality until the 1840s. By this time, industrial production had increased their quality and lowered their cost, such that the average person could afford such a luxury.
If men of the mid 19th century learned to use a firearm, more often than not, it was in the course of Civil War service. Only after the war did gun ownership become as commonplace as many current gun enthusiasts want to believe.
Not unlike the ridiculous adoption of tricorn hats by many of the Tea Party set, the adoption of mythologized and counterfactual gun history undermines, rather than supports the ardor of the gun lobby. Absent the false historic talisman, the all-too-common fetishism of guns in America must be explained another way. It’s not manifest destiny. It’s not exceptionalism. It’s something far less palatable.