“Those who give up their liberty to obtain a little safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
That “quote” appears everywhere online, and it’s attributed to Benjamin Franklin. On some gun forums almost every quote is from Franklin, or else from Thomas Jefferson. But rarely do those quotes contain strings of words actually said. And the few times they are, rarely do they actually belong to Franklin or Jefferson.
In the case of Benjamin Franklin’s alleged quote, it sure does look like something relevant to, let’s say, a discussion of gun rights:
“Those who would give up the Second Amendment rights of some of us to enhance life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all of us deserve no rights, no life, no liberty, no happiness.”
The problem lies in the issue of full context. Franklin’s words can’t be reshaped to apply to gun rights because it was a very specific group that Old Ben referred to: Pennsylvanians who thought Britain provided good protection from Indians and ruffians in the “wilderness” of that huge territory, and so didn’t want to join the fight for national independence.
Words from history belong to the time and place when they were spoken or written.
“This thing is really showing the divide between rural and urban, between well-educated and poorly educated in this country,” a history teacher friend of mine, and a fellow NRA member, said when we were talking about our organization’s increasing hysteria in the years after the Columbine massacre. “I see it eventually creating two or more separate countries from the United States that we have now.”
Seeing my look of alarm at this, he shook his head and explained: “That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Nations appear and vanish all the time. Look at all the changes to the world map since we were kids. Remember Rhodesia? Burma? The Soviet Union? All failed experiments. The United States is an ongoing experiment that will probably fail, too. The result of the failure could be good for everyone involved.”
The thing about historians is that, having analyzed and documented the world’s greatest triumphs and tragedies, they view events and epochs without emotional investment, just subjects to study like bacteria under glass. As individuals they fly into the same rages and giggles over a soaked shoe or a lost set of car keys that anyone else does. But ask them to consider the slow implosion of a nation and it’s all cool, detached analysis.
“Educated States of America and Jesusland,” I said, smiling, referring to an Internet meme that was safe to invoke between two at least occasional churchgoers.
“Exactly,” my historian friend said. “And see, it’s that joke right there that shows the split happening. There is an education gap, and it’s turning into a class divide, a class chasm, with each group ridiculing the other as worthless and stupid. That can’t go on too much longer before— ”
“Before civil war,” I finished for him.
“You got it. And I’m not seeing a way to prevent it, because guns aren’t going anywhere.”
“But you and I have guns. We would have to move to Jesusland?”
“Would you give up your guns to live in a country that doesn’t allow them?”
At this, I had to stop and consider.
An old high school friend of mine lived in Germany, having moved her husband and kids there years ago when her job migrated. Our families had stayed in touch, and from her I knew that Germans can own non-concealed guns (concealed carry permits are pretty much impossible to obtain), but first they have to prove a need for them. “Need” can include sport shooting, but the gun club has to verify that the applicant is a member who’s been well trained in handling the weapon and can be trusted with a firearm.
Guns also have to be registered, licensed, kept locked and away from ammunition, and reported when they move from one city to another with their owners. Licensing is an annual requirement, with a new criminal background check each year as part of it.
And that’s just for non-hunting gun ownership. If you want to hunt, your license costs an extra $2,500 the first time because there’s an exam required to test your knowledge of hunting beyond just pointing a gun and pulling a trigger. You need gunsmith skills to make sure your weapon works properly, ballistic skills to understand how far a bullet will travel if you take a questionable shot in wind and rain, veterinary skills to dispatch your game humanely, and butchering skills to turn the dead animal into cuts of meat without poisoning yourself or your family.
A hunting license isn’t just a monetary investment, either; the training course takes two years to complete. Not surprisingly, there’s a significant dropout rate for hunting-permit applicants.
“It doesn’t have to be either/or,” I said. “In Germany—”
My friend cut me off instantly. “Yeah, don’t even talk about getting Americans to think like Europeans. Not gonna happen, ever. To anyone who grew up in a culture of ‘rugged individualism’ like we have, Europeans are unreasonable. You’d be talking about asking American individuals to make sacrifices for the sake of the community. Letting collective government override personal freedom. We don’t play by those rules.”
“What sacrifices? Training and licensing? Hell, my secretary pays to renew her cosmetology license every year, just in case the economy ever tanks worse than in ’08 and she needs a fallback job. What’s the worst she can do—fry someone’s scalp by leaving perm solution on it too long? If someone needs an annual license for a pair of haircut scissors, we sure as hell should need one for guns.”
He laughed. “Don’t try that common-sense stuff on me, it won’t work. Americans don’t do community sacrifice, and we don’t do logic. You want that stuff, then move to Germany, you socialist traitor.”
He said it smiling, and I recognized that it was offered in fun. He knew I’d grown up around guns and valued mine as much as he valued his. But I was starting to feel depressed.
“It shouldn’t come down to that kind of choice,” I replied. “The ratio of gun deaths between the two countries is almost two hundred to one. They have 160, and the last CDC report I saw said we had 30,000. There are ways to fix this.”
The historian looked at me for a minute, measuring something in the numbers I’d just thrown at him.
“No,” he said finally. “There aren’t. I’m still seeing at least two separate countries by the year 2100, and possibly three or more when the water wars begin. We can’t keep going the way we’ve been.”
I realized, then, that I’d been taking part in the same kind of “civil war is coming” argument that I’d read a thousand times in gun forums online, ideas I’d always dismissed because the arguments were so poorly made. But this one had come from someone who knew the history of civilization and of the United States, and who could stand back from what he saw taking place to identify it objectively.
So it really did all come down to a class divide. It actually was the Educated States vs. Jesusland, and I was guilty of dismissing the residents of the latter place not for what they said, but for how ignorant they sounded saying it.
No wonder their resentment was so palpable.
Why can’t there be an Educated States of Jesusland? And more importantly, who is it that profits the most from ensuring there can never be one?
Confederate states and Union states were once united as Americans. Americans were once united with Great Britain. And until the early 1500s, the Catholic church played a key role in caring for the poor and the sick in British society, until a king declared himself head of the new Church of England and decreed the Dissolution of the Monasteries. As churches were closed and pillaged by the state, the state took over their functions but found that providing Christian charity came at a high price. Pretty soon labels were created for “deserving” and “undeserving” poor people, to sort out poverty from vagrancy.
The “vagrants” of the 1600s became the “takers” of the 2012 Romney/Ryan presidential campaign, the “47 percent” of their day that Mitt Romney portrayed as people “dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.” Just as Romney’s little dinner speech riled up the Tea Party base in the 21st century, the idea of worthless “vagrants” receiving undeserved assistance riled up the British base in the 16th century. And 300 years later, things had deteriorated so badly that Charles Dickens reflected it in the dialogue of a morality play:
“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen,“it is desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time.”
“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge. “And the workhouses? Are they still in operation? I help to support [those] establishments…. They cost enough, and those who are badly off must go there.”
“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
More than a hundred years after these words were published, gun evangelist extraordinaire Ted Nugent echoed Dickens almost exactly, but with the colossal difference that Dickens was criticizing the social attitudes that Scrooge reflected, not promoting them as the Nuge did in the conservative Washington Times:
Being poor is largely a choice, a daily, if not hourly, decision. If you decide to drop out of school, fail to learn a skill, have no work ethic or get divorced, a life of poverty is often the consequence. The children of parents who choose a life of poverty quite often pay a horrible price, and so does all of America…. [W]e need to punish poor decisions instead of rewarding them. We cannot continue to offer a safety blanket to those Americans who make poor choices. The fewer social welfare programs, the better.
Contrary to my historian friend’s claim, I’m pretty sure that gun owners like us could work to fix the gun problem in America. But first, Americans would have to address a much larger problem that can’t be talked about because it threatens the core of who Americans are.
It’s the problem that makes a minimally employed worker curse labor unions instead of executives who earn up to a thousand times the worker’s salary. It’s the problem of voters attacking the same “47%” that many of them belong to, by definition of their living in subsidized housing or needing federal food assistance because the family paycheck doesn’t extend far enough for groceries.
It’s the problem of an “us against them” ideology created, endorsed, and reinforced relentlessly by a dozen sources in the “Us” category that wouldn’t give three shits if everyone in the “Them” category blew each other’s heads off tomorrow and decreased the surplus population.
And that’s why an Educated States of Jesusland will never be possible.
Lock and load.