November 18th 2017

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Full audit can end dual-citizenship fiasco

CANBERRA OBSERVED High Court high handed to 'foreigners' in Parliament

MANUFACTURING Auto industry loss result of government policy failure

AGENDA FOR AUSTRALIA Financing infrastructure for development and jobs

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Behind the indictments of ex-Trump campaigners

AUSTRALIAN HISTORY Beersheba charge enabled a pivotal victory

ECONOMICS China intends to party like it's 1949 ... again

ENVIRONMENT Core of climate science is in the real-world data

U.S. HISTORY Why Americans stick to their guns

MUSIC New styles: Dipping into the melting pot

CINEMA Loving Vincent: A mystery in oils

BOOK REVIEW Just what is the conservative idea?


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Why Americans stick to their guns

by Jeffry Babb

News Weekly, November 18, 2017

The first 10 amendments to the Consti­tution of the United States of America are known as the Bill of Rights. The Second Amendment, often quoted as guaranteeing the right of Americans to own guns, states: “A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.”

This constitutional guarantee would seem to support a militia, not gun ownership, but it has been upheld in numerous court rulings as the “right to bear arms”: in other words, to own guns. Those who say Australians have a constitutional “right to bear arms” are simply being fanciful. There is no constitutional right to bear arms in the Australian Constitution, implicit or explicit.

But America is not Australia. America is the republic of ideas. The idea of a militia goes back a long way before America’s Declaration of Independence in 1776. The first major conflict in America was King Philip’s War (1675–78), when the northeastern colonists expelled the native Americans from New England using militias. Colonial militias supported the British in the French and Indian War (1754–64). The First President of the United States of America, George Washington, gained his experience as a commander of men in this war. The British won.

The idea of the militia was particularly powerful in the American War of Independence, when the Minutemen could be called out “within a minute”. The Minutemen were under 30, elected their own officers and could be deployed rapidly wherever they were most needed.

One of the seminal acts of the American War of Independence was the Boston Tea Party in 1773. The cry “no taxation without representation” was heartfelt, as the colonists saw themselves as Britons and worthy of equitable representation within the British Parliament. The raiding party, some dressed as American Indians, threw the entire cargo of three East Indiamen into Boston Harbour. This caused the East India Company a huge financial loss. “John Company”, which had considerable sway in the British Parliament, was enraged and helped stiffen opposition to the demands of the American colonists.

The idea of the militia as a defence against tyrants became imbedded in the American psyche. “Sic semper tyrannis” (“Thus always to tyrants”) became a rallying cry, especially in Virginia. The flag of a rattlesnake emblazoned with “Don’t tread on me” became the flag of the Boston Tea Party, and later the ensign of the American Navy during the Revolutionary War. The Gadsden flag – named after American general Christopher Gadsden (1724–1805), who designed it in 1775 during the American Revolution – became a popular addition to several U.S. state flags.

The idea that there should be no restriction against gun ownership was a product of the American aversion to standing armies, and that the first line of defence against foreign enemies and domestic tyrants should be the militias. The militias were irregular state-based outfits, providing the sole U.S. ground force following the dissolution of the Continental Army after the end of the Revolutionary War. When foreign wars became necessary, troops were raised for the duration and the army was disbanded after the U.S. was victorious.

The United States Army was relatively small up until World War II. The Penta­gon was intended to be only a temporary headquarters for the US Armed Forces; it was intended to become the home of the National Archives. But during the Cold War the U.S. Armed Forces assumed new permanent responsibilities in Europe and elsewhere and the Pentagon was still in service. Yet the notion that the U.S. would have, as its first line of defence, part-time civilian militiamen did not die easily.

The West drew settlers ever onwards, following Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon in 1803, expanding the United States by over 800,000 square miles, a bargain at $US15 million. The frontiersman, many of them Scotch-Irish, used their rifles as tools of trade. Winning the votes of their descendants is relatively easy – just convince them that the opposition will take their guns away.

The U.S. further expanded with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, when in 1848 the U.S., under the Mexican Cession, purchased from Mexico the territories of California, Nevada, Utah, most of Arizona and New Mexico, a quarter of Colorado and part of Wyoming. In addition, Mexico recognised Texas as being an integral part of the United States. This grand bargain cost the U.S. $US15 million. Almost as good a deal as buying Alaska from the Russians for $US7.2 million in 1867.

As the American centre of gravity moved ever westward, so did the settlers and their prized guns. Could we forget that the famous Colt .45 revolver was named “The Peacemaker?” In Virginia, many a hard-pressed farmer simply put on his door “GTT” (“Gone to Texas”.) Speculation that guns were not in common use on the frontier has been shown to be fallacious. As Americans moved west, they took their guns with them. Guns kept the peace. The armed cowboy became a universally recognised symbol of America.

The idea that an armed citizenry is an insurance policy against tyranny will not die, nor will the association of hunting with masculinity. Also, many Americans actually hunt to live. These notions are associated with the conviction that guns are necessary for protection. Of course, not all gun owners are expert marksmen, which makes putting a high-powered weapon in their hands hazardous, because they often don’t hit what they are aiming at. The conception that it is a right to own a gun, protected by the Second Amendment, is not something that Americans will give up easily, if ever.

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