Columns about Canada and the U.S. by John Spragge

Growing up on the border meant exposure to American myths and legends, but with the sceptical perspective of the outsider. American legends came under the historical scrutiny informed, in many cases, by the perspective of those on the other side. One of the classic American legends, that of frontier heroes defeating the British in the forest with hunting rifles, does particularly badly in the light of historical fact.


Limits of the Gun

In debates about gun control, proponents of the private ownership of firearms frequently argue that ownership of guns confers on an armed population special powers to resist an invader or a tyrant. The logic seems compelling: after all, armies have guns, so the private ownership of guns should give a population an even chance to defeat them. Unfortunately, this argument does not stand up to historical or logical scrutiny, and making it involves fatal concessions on the real issue: the question of the individual right to own guns, irrespective of their supposed social utility.

In the United States, private gun ownership enjoys support from the constitution and from a national myth: the figure of the lone frontiersman who, outraged by threats to his individual liberties, took his hunting rifle in hand, gathered a band of revolutionaries, and formed a fighting force the stupid and sheep-like British and Hessians, accustomed to fighting in lines and firing on command, could not defeat. As a myth, this expresses several American convictions about the value of the individual and the special origins of American government. But it does not make it as either good history, or as an effective guide for present policies. In reality, the British almost always successfully defeated the American frontiersmen, partly because many of the settlers on the frontier took the Loyalist side, in formidable regiments such as the King's Royal Regiment of New York, or in frontier companies such a Butler's Rangers or Jessups Rangers. When faced with the British and Hessians, the American riflemen suffered a fatal disadvantage: the American frontier rifle, for all its beauty and its usefulness for hunting, has no bayonet mount. To defeat the American riflemen, the British had merely to attack them with bayonets fixed, and the Americans, whose rifles could only  fire one shot per minute, could not stop them. In the end, American diplomacy, not the American rifle, won the American revolution; the Continental Congress enlisted the aid of the French, and the most decisive battle of the revolution, the battle of Chesapeake Bay, took place between the British and French fleets. The battles the Americans won, they won with conventional military weapons: smoothbore muskets, cannons, and soldiers organized in conventional regiments, standing in lines, firing, loading, and advancing to the beat of the drum, just like the British and their Hessian allies.

The American experience with private ownership of guns has proven them ineffective in war. Other countries have had far more disastrous experiences. The Poles twice fought the Whermacht with a lightly armed popular force: once at the beginning of the war, in the siege of Warsaw, and once near the end, where the Poles rose up against the Germans with the Soviets halted within artillery range of Warsaw, and fought a desperate battle to evict the Germans. Both times, the Poles fought with the utmost heroism; both times, their allies left them to fight alone, and both times, the brutal logic of war prevailed: small arms alone cannot defeat armour and artillery. The same brutal realities ruled the war in the Balkans: Tito's partisans made life thoroughly miserable for the Germans armies, but could not evict them. Despite the appealing premise of movies such as Red Dawn, American civilians would face the same grim realities if any foreign army invaded the United States. An adversary determined enough to defeat the American forces and invade the United States would certainly not succumb to a guerilla assault with hunting rifles and the small arms available on American streets.

Some proponents argue that even if an armed population would not deter an invader, it would restrain a would-be tyrant. An aroused population, determined to defend their rights, can certainly prevent tyranny, but they do not need guns to do so. A resistance movement with enough support to mount an effective military resistance could simply bring the economy to a halt with a general strike. In a modern complex nation, a movement with broad support needs no arms, and the possession of arms will do nothing for a small and isolated movement.

While guns cannot give us either national security or freedom, the argument for firearms ownership as a public service requires a fatal concession on the issue of individual rights. The most compelling argument for allowing individuals to own firearms rests on the right of an individual to make their own choices, as long as they do so responsibly. A responsible gun owner needs no justification for owning a gun other than a desire to practise the discipline of hand and eye required for target shooting, or the urge to supplement their diet with wild game. If gun enthusiasts wish to help defend our shared heritage of individual freedom and rights, they would do better to defend gun ownership as a matter of individual rights and responsibilities. A consistent and strongly asserted ideal of personal freedom will preserve our political rights better than any weapons.

John Spragge, a Canadian computer programmer and pilot, currently sojourns in Ann Arbor Michigan.