When Gov. Mike Beebe signed the Church Protection Act into law this month, Arkansas joined Louisiana, South Carolina, and Wyoming in allowing parishioners to bear weapons as they bear witness.
There is a certain logic to this: if you can arm teachers, why not preachers? If Jesus came with a sword, who is to say that in modern times his flock can’t pack a Glock? Advocates for such measures maintain that, a church being a public place, a mobilized congregation could defend itself from whatever armed intruder that threatened the peace of the faithful.
Unlike the NRA’s post–Sandy Hook push to allow guns in schools, however, there’s an American tradition of pistol-packing prayer—one that dates back beyond the Founding Fathers and the Second Amendment to an even earlier authority: the Puritan elders. During the drawn-out Indian Wars, colonists, on constant alert for raids, weren’t just expected to worship armed but were actually fined for praying without their weapons handy, the historian Bernard Bailyn tells us.
This pattern of armed vigil, with every man expected to bear his share of the military burden, continued for almost 200 years as the frontier moved ever farther West and pioneers ventured into hostile territory with little protection from dangers—human and natural—except one’s rifle. Thus the association of guns not so much with the niceties of constitutionalism but the manly virtues of rugged individualism and pioneering enterprise. This is the visceral appeal in which the gun lobby’s legalist arguments are wrapped. Our image of liberty is not Madison and Hamilton scribbling the Federalist Papers with their quills but the Minuteman, his rifle at the ready. But a look back at America’s romance with guns suggest that the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms—like most other Constitutional rights—is best achieved by appreciating its limits.
Too often in our history, guns intended for self-protection were turned on fellow citizens. John Hope Franklin’s chronicle of violence in the antebellum South, The Militant South, 1800–1861, documents a culture where violence was everywhere and guns were the weapon of choice. In regions that were rural and relatively isolated, where legal redress could not always be readily obtained, guns were an accepted means of settling disputes. Duels were ubiquitous, vendettas commonplace as a prevalent honor code demanded that every insult, real or perceived, had to be answered.
Northerners were not intrinsically more peaceable than their Southern counterparts, but the fact that more of them lived in urban centers that, by mid-century were more secure and better policed and administered made the necessity, and indeed the opportunity, to resort to gun violence less prevalent.
As the frontier expanded, one of the central metaphors of how the West was won in the half-century after the Civil War was the replacement of vigilante justice with law and order. The U.S. Marshals that we celebrate in American lore represent the federal government. And while the NRA would probably have objected, there’s a plain reason why cowpokes were required to check their guns at the bar. (Despite such horse sense, today Arizona, Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee, and Virginia allow loaded guns in bars).
Even more than bars—or schools—we can see why a house of worship is a particularly attractive prize for gun advocates. Once this citadel is breached, the other walls can come tumbling down. However, a look back at history suggests that America’s gun tradition may have caused more problems than it solved. It again reminds us that the right to bear arms has its limits, much as our First Amendment right to freedom of speech does not permit us to shout “fire” in a theater.
Imagine a heated school board meeting if one side shows up bearing arms. Might this not inhibit the other side’s right to free speech? What if both sides come armed, each seeing itself as “the good guys?” Nor is this far-fetched. Both sides came armed to the 1857 election that would decide whether Kansas entered the nation as a free or slave state, with the pro-slavery border ruffians who’d crossed over from Missouri ultimately helping to seize control of a rump legislature through violence, intimidation, and skullduggery. The famous name for that bloody election, coined by Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune: Bleeding Kansas.
Lately, gun advocates, presumably after watching Django, have been remarking that if blacks had been armed in 19th-century America, they could have better defended themselves against their oppressors. The efficacy of this bromide may be considered in the Colfax Massacre of 1873, where 150 members of an all-black Republican militia in Louisiana were slaughtered by an armed force of whites who proceeded to terrorize the region. The white enforcers were part of the resistance Reconstruction that revived the antebellum tradition of using armed patrols to keep blacks in thrall.
Outside the South, white workers too found guns turned on them by the powers-that-be, as corporations employing company thugs and Pinkerton men called in state militias to subdue the burgeoning union movement. Among the most notorious instances of guns being turned on workers were the Homestead strike of 1892 in Pennsylvania, the Pullman car strike of 1894 in Illinois, and the Ludlow massacre of 1914 in Colorado.
Moving forward, a more recent example reminds us that the Second Amendment can be, well, a two-edged sword, putting the gun lobby in some strange company that might even make some of its members uncomfortable. The guns were pointed the other way in the 1960s, when the Second Amendment was invoked by the Black Panthers, its first notable recrudescence for political attention in our own era. The group’s call to urban violence, which descended into thuggery and worse, may not have been what the Founders had in mind. Quite the opposite, the right to bear arms was intended to repel foreign invasion and suppress domestic anarchy, not encourage it in the form of resistance by self-styled militias hostile to the government.
Today’s patriot militias might be troubled to learn that they have more in common with the Panthers than one may imagine. What unites them—albeit from opposite poles—is a mistrust of government and, ultimately, a disdain for democracy. In the name of their own perverse idea of liberty they would threaten not just the safety but the liberties of us all.