April 2018

Property, Capitalism, and Guns

The shift away from guns as consumer products for hunting and sport towards guns as consumer products for self-protection ignores the argument initially used to validate private gun ownership: defense of private property, as opposed to self-defense of the people occupying personally-owned land.

by Michael R. Weisser – Mike the Gun Guy™

Although the gun-rights gang was initially skeptical about the attempt by a group of right-wing lawyers to bring the Second Amendment before the Supreme Court, the 2008 Heller decision affirming Constitutional protection of private gun ownership nevertheless became the launching-pad for a broad strategy to make guns a mainline consumer product. From a legal perspective, the strategy has moved in two directions: (1) Expanding right-to-carry (RTC) laws to every state; (2) promoting stand-your-ground (SYG) laws which validate the idea of armed, self-defense. The recent push to arm school teachers in the wake Parkland embodies both these ideas.

Behind what is basically a marketing plan to sell more guns is an argument that has been floating around the gun world since gun makers discovered in the 1980s that hunting was becoming a lost sport—namely, that guns should be used for self-defense and that all human beings have an inalienable ‘right’ to defend themselves from physical harm. Whether the threat to one’s welfare comes from a tyrannical government or a street ‘thug’ breaking down the back door is of secondary concern; self-preservation cannot be abridged either by behavior or by laws.

The argument which was initially used to validate private gun ownership was defense of private property, as opposed to self-defense.

What I find interesting about this shift away from guns as consumer products for hunting and sport towards guns as consumer products for self-protection is the absence of the argument initially used to validate private gun ownership: defense of private property, as opposed to self-defense of the people occupying personally-owned land. When British subjects first came to settle what would later become the United States, they arrived not only with privately-owned guns, but also the idea of privately-owned property, a basis of the Common Law since at least the twelfth century (novel disseisin). This concept was enshrined in the same Bill of Rights (Fifth Amendment) that contains the Second Amendment ‘right’ to own a gun.

The idea that a vast territory of nearly two billion acres would be divided into private holdings in which each property-owner could determine how his land could be used and who could or could not venture onto that land was quite distinct from the way in which land and landed property was managed by the indigenous (read: ‘native’) peoples encountered by the settlers arriving from the ‘other side.’ In brief, North American tribes held land in common, they had no concept of individual property ‘rights,’ and their settlement and farming practices reflected traditions of common land use. Opposing British values grew out of the enclosure movement, during which the wealthy closed off traditionally common land for their individual use, which set Britons at odds with indigenous notions of property centuries prior to their initial conquests on America’s East Coast.

Skull of a fourteen-year-old girl with cut marks from a cannibal’s knife. Their notions of exclusive property, combined with inexperience farming, contributed to a ‘starving time’ among Jamestown colonizers. Courtesy Smithsonian Magazine.

Ironically, the shift from open to closed land would quickly bring about a decline in land fertility and crop productivity because dividing farm land into individual plots meant doing away with the practice of ‘burning’ as the basic method used by native cultivators to regenerate land and maintain high yields. This shift from open to closed land was the reason why early homesteaders kept moving west, not because they needed land on which to settle per se, but because the result of cultivating virgin fields (which required an initial investment of heavy labor) was a bigger and more bountiful crop return.

Between the initial coastal settlements in the 1620s and 1630s and the push westward away from the coast beginning in the eighteenth century, the transformation of the North American sub-continent, property-wise, was accomplished at the point of a gun. In 1622, the Jamestown colony was attacked and almost wiped out by the Powhatan tribes; the Pequot wars in New England (1636-37) threatened but did not succeed in erasing Puritan settlements from indigenous lands.

The threat of reprisals for appropriating native lands for European settlement is what prompted the very first gun-control statute, which was enacted by the Virginia Colony in 1619.  The law stated that “no man do sell or give any Indians any piece, shot, or powder, or any other arms offensive or defensive, upon pain of being held a traitor to the colony and of being hanged as soon as the fact is proved, without all redemption.” Thus, the legal system that emerged twelve years after the very first permanent colony was established on British North American soil recognized both the government’s right to restrict gun ownership, as well as the government’s right to punish those gun owners who transferred a weapon to anyone in the first category of ‘prohibited persons.’ These were not felons or drug abusers as would be enumerated in the Gun Control Act of 1968, but Native Americans of all types.

TV and Movies like Disney’s Davy Crockett contributed to American’s view of the frontiersman’s gun as a tool of hunting and self-defense. Via IMDb.

It would be nice if the early use of guns in the settlement of North America conformed to the heroic images of frontier explorers like Daniel Boone or Davey Crockett (kilt him a b’ar when he was only three), but hunting, as opposed to trapping, was never a common method for killing wildlife on the frontier, nor did the laws prohibiting trespass ever sanction the idea that a property-owner could shoot an alleged miscreant on sight.

Which takes us to what happened in the small, farming community of Skidmore, Montana in 1981, when several townsfolk shot and killed a local bully, cattle rustler, and thief named Ken McElroy, in full view of just about everyone else living in the town. The murder was investigated for more than ten years by the local cops, state police, and FBI; nobody was ever indicted. The national media reported the event as an example of old-time ‘vigilante justice’ coming back to life.

You would think that the folks who killed McElroy would wind up on some kind of national heroes’ list promoted by organizations that support gun ‘rights.’ But the problem is that while the term ‘vigilante’ doesn’t appear in criminal codes, using extra-legal force against someone to defend property is a violation of criminal law. And let’s remember that the same groups who are most fervent in defending gun ‘rights’ are the same groups which proclaim themselves to represent ‘law-abiding gun owners,’ as opposed to the ‘bad guys’ who use guns to commit crimes.

The problem with making a distinction between the ‘good’ guys and the ‘bad’ guys is that much of the gun violence committed by the ‘bad’ guys involves an actual or possible theft of property.

The only problem with making a distinction between the ‘good’ guys and the ‘bad’ guys is that much of the gun violence committed by the ‘bad’ guys involves an actual or possible theft of property, as in ‘he didn’t pay me for the drugs,’ or ‘he stole from me,’ or ‘he’s working on my turf,’ or some other violation of the code of conduct that covers criminal activity in the street. The fact that certain types of commerce violate criminal law doesn’t invalidate the narrative that an armed individual can better protect his property and livelihood than someone who doesn’t carry a gun.

By making a distinction between armed defense against a personal attack as opposed to armed defense against trespass or illegal appropriation of goods, the pro-gun gang may find themselves better aligned with public opinion, but the distinction flies in the face of common historical practices. But since when does any advocacy group necessarily take a public stance using evidence-based facts?



Gun business for 35 years as a retailer, wholesaler, importer and firearms trainer. NRA Life member. Ph.D. in economic history.


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