When one reads gun blogs voraciously, one runs across two main types of arguments for our right to keep and bear arms (RKBA). The constitutional argument (the English comprehension model) and the self-defense argument. I have a broader theory, though. The idea hit me when I was watching General Van Uhm at TEDX. I began to think of a more salient correlation between weapons, personal freedom and democracy. The working theory: firearms are related to the rise of democracy, representing a basic subversion of the dominant political theory of government . . .
To examine the relationship between firearms and the subversion of tyranny, one must go back to the beginning. For democracy that means Athens. At the time when the political system arose, Athens was a gun-free zone. Socrates wasn’t leaning on his long rifle on the Promenade as he taught. But when nascent Democracy granted its citizens (a rather select group) voting rights, it required military service. Conscripts had to provide their own arms.
The average Athenian citizen owned his own sword, spear and armor. He was trained in their use during weekly drills in Phalanx fighting (as well as participation in the “manly” sports of wrestling and boxing). Given the geopolitical conditions on the Greek peninsula of the day, it’s highly likely citizens had plenty of actual combat experience as well.
Athens had a democratic political system. They also had democracy of violence—in that all citizens (once more, not the same thing as a modern citizen) had ready access to weapons and training. It becomes a chicken and egg question – which came first? I’d hazard the guess that the blades came before the ballot.
The fall of democracy, the rise of empires and the greatest inequality in political power ever seen followed with the Roman Empire, and on into the Dark and Middle Ages. Technology outpaced income. The average citizen of Rome, Germany and France could no more afford state-of-the-art weaponry than an average American can now afford a tank. Even for nobles, the cost of weapons and armor was years of income. They were totally beyond the reach of the common man.
Notice what emerges at roughly the same time as the rumblings of the Renaissance: two weapons, both cheap, which allowed a commoner equal footing with a knight. The crossbow and the longbow. The papacy and many kings tried to ban the crossbow, horrified that a peasant with a cheap weapon could kill a highly trained soldier. Richard the Lionheart, that famous conqueror, met his end at the point of a crossbow bolt from some low level grunt.
The only nations to embrace the new technology fully were the city-states of Italy. The Florentines, for example, made crossbow practice a national sport and fielded mercenary armies of crossbowmen who fought in wars across Europe. England was the other early adopter. The Brits mainstreamed the longbow, and met with great success against the French in the Hundred Years War.
The political process in both countries, the latter of which created the Magna Carta, reflects this democratization of violence. In short, an armed and trained populace demands more political freedoms.
The advent of the firearm hastened this process. The over-extension of colonial empires encouraged rebellion. The distances provided the space to learn self government, but the harshness of the new world and the necessity of personal defense weapons brought a new sort of populace.
The average American of the eighteenth century may not have been much more educated, healthy or wealthy than his British counterpart, but he knew his way around a musket. He’d drilled on the village green with his neighbors (sound familiar?). They were nothing like a trained military force, but they did have basic infantry skills and at least on a personal basis, their weapons were a match for any in the world.
Correlation is not causation. I don’t want to overstate the case here. Dozens of important factors led to the rise of modern democracy, including the advent of the printing press. But I do think that the availability of relatively cheap weapons—which are at least comparable to proper military arms—are part of the primordial stew that breeds a free political system. And, I like to think, maintains it.