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The American ethos and the right to bear arms

Globe and Mail Update

WASHINGTON — Congress gave final approval yesterday to legislation that will limit abusive practices by credit-card companies. That bill contains an astonishing add-on.

It will permit people visiting national parks to carry loaded, concealed weapons.

The National Rifle Association and other elements of the gun lobby have been pushing for years for the right of gun owners to visit the Grand Canyon loaded for bear. Republicans and newly elected conservative "blue dog" Democrats, many of them from rural states, were happy to oblige, by adding the provision as a rider to the credit-card legislation.

President Barack Obama frowns on the guns-in-parks law, but considers it the price of getting his cherished credit-card reform through Congress. He'll sign the bill tomorrow.

Advocates for gun control, a weakening minority in Congress, are in despair.

"The NRA is basically taking over the House and the Senate," lamented Democratic congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy. "And if the NRA wins on each and every bill, the American people are the ones who are going to suffer the most."

Nothing, perhaps, divides Canadians from Americans like our cousins' determination to preserve their Second Amendment right to bear arms - virtually any arms, anywhere, at any time.

Polls show Americans becoming steadily more conservative on gun-control issues. One example: In 1959, 60 per cent supported a ban on the possession of handguns by private citizens, according to Gallup. In April, 2009, the number was down to 29 per cent, the lowest figure ever in support of a handgun ban.

Nonetheless, "the American public is supportive of sensible gun laws," argues Daniel Vice, a senior attorney at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Two-thirds of Americans, he points out, do not own guns.

"But certainly we see in the extremes of the gun lobby an argument that we need to be prepared to rise up against the government if we feel that they're being oppressive," he acknowledges. "Most Americans don't support that view, but certainly many in the gun lobby do."

To understand America's attachment to guns, it helps to cast back to 1777 and the American Revolution. That summer, General (Gentleman Johnny) Burgoyne - he was generally accounted a better playwright than an officer - led a British army south from Canada with the intention of seizing Albany and control of the Hudson River, severing New England from the rest of the rebellious colonies.

As his troops trudged through upper New York State, they ignored the grim farmers watching them. What Burgoyne and his men didn't realize was that the farmers had their own guns, something virtually unheard of among the European peasantry.

Burgoyne marched into disaster, unaware that citizen militias were streaming toward his army from every direction. Those farmers turned out to be very good shots, and eventually they outnumbered the British forces better than three to one. At Saratoga, Burgoyne surrendered his army, and the republic was saved.

Linda Gordon, a historian at New York University, sees in the American attachment to the Second Amendment "the classic American individualism - a society formed where there never was an aristocracy, where there never was caste or hierarchy in the sense that there was in England, where the very origins of the nationalism in the United States were rebellious against that control and against the communitarian conditions that prevailed in European countries."

That ethos prevails today, and finds expression in the defiant insistence on the right to bear arms.

But Prof. Gordon cautions that "we sometimes overestimate the long-term historicity" underlying contemporary debates.

Arguments over gun control may really be based, for example, on increasing resentment by white voters in rural regions toward cosmopolitan cities where support for gun-control laws is strong.

For Canadians, whose forebears embraced loyalty to the Crown over popular sovereignty, such debates are, at a certain level, incomprehensible.

But then we don't have revolution in our genes.

jibbitson@globeandmail.com

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