What We Talk About When We Talk About Guns
The Oresteia of Aeschylus is the Greek’s great epic about the founding of the state. The trilogy of plays tells how a blood feud in the house of Agamemnon comes to an end when the gods decree that justice shall now be delivered not through individual vengeance but by governmental process. As Charles Hill writes in Grand Strategies, “This makes the death penalty the foundation stone of civilization, for only when a victim’s kin are convinced that the state will exact justice in response to murder will they entrust that power to the state.”
When a state decides to abolish the death penalty, they are reneging on that original agreement. The progressive argument is, essentially, that the contract was made in former times when people were not so civilized as they are now. Years of life under the rule of law have made us better than we were, and we have moved beyond the savage need to punish murder with murder. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, as Ben Kingsley said when he was pretending to be Gandhi.
The conservative argument — the argument, in this case, for preserving capital punishment — is, no, mankind is ever and always what it was. New technologies may have given us greater powers of imprisonment and reform that make execution necessary in fewer cases, but there is still murder in the world and the wronged heart still demands full recompense. The state must hold to at least the minimum of its Oresteian agreement or lose the right to govern.
But Aeschylus notwithstanding, the delivery of justice after an attack is not the only foundational contract a state makes with its people. In allowing the government to maintain a standing army and police force, we are also agreeing to transfer to the state the duty and immense power of defending us from being attacked in the first place. This is not only a matter of practicality, it’s the only method anyone’s come up with to prevent the Hobbesian war of all against all.
As the founders knew, however, the power we grant the state to defend us can easily be turned against us. "The means of defence against foreign danger,” Madison wrote, “have been always the instruments of tyranny at home.” Going back even farther, this was why the supporters of republican government stuck the long knives into Julius Caesar. In “crossing the Rubicon,” he violated the law by bringing the Roman army into Italy. This effectively turned the means of protecting the republic into the tool for establishing imperial rule.
In the Second Amendment, the founding fathers sought to protect us against any Rubicon-crossing by granting Americans the right to bear their own arms and form home militias. We own guns, in other words, to defend ourselves from the possibility of government tyranny. It is part of our foundational contract with the American state. This is why, whenever some anti-gun idiot on television cries out, “Why would a hunter need an automatic rifle?” the correct answer is... well, unprintable. The hunter has a 30-06 in his gun cabinet for hunting. The M-16 he hides in the cellar is for the next American Revolution.
As with the death penalty, the argument of the progressives is that times and people have changed. Our democratic institutions and traditions are now engraved upon our hearts, they say, and no longer require the elaborate constitutional safeguards the founders provided for us. Civilized by the years, our leaders no longer pose the threat of tyranny, and guns only serve to give the anarchic power of death to individual lunatics and rednecks when it should be reserved to the state.
The conservative argument is, to put it succinctly: “Not so much.” Once again, we aggravating creatures of the right can’t help pointing out that human nature has changed neither a jot nor a tittle since we hightailed it out of Eden. Those who in ancient days sought to rule us in the name of our own good are still among us, and the only thing that keeps them on their side of the Rubicon is, in the words of that great patriot Neo from The Matrix: “Guns. Lots of guns.”
History supports the right in this. Four hundred years of Roman republicanism was not enough to keep the Caesars at bay, and there’s no cause to believe it’ll be any different here. If freedom is what we’re after, the conservative argument to preserve the second amendment clearly holds good.
There is, however, some question about whether freedom is, in fact, what the progressives are after.
Which is only one more reason to hang onto your weapons!