From The VG Bookshelf: David Harsanyi’s First Freedom
From The VG Bookshelf: David Harsanyi’s First Freedom
If you have a gun aficianado in your life, or a history buff, David Harsanyi (a senior editor at The Federalist) has written First Freedom, which traces America’s unique relationship with guns and how they have evolved over the centuries.
The book reads as both a light technical manual (Harsanyi’s descriptions of arms and the mechanical components involved is readable for novices, but might not satisfy those who want all the details) and a historical account of American colonization, revolution, defense, expansion, and war. It also highlights the characters along the way that either improved or popularized certain firearms – these include still-recognizable names like Samuel Colt, John Browning, Buffalo Bill Cody, Wild Bill Hickok, Horace Smith, and Daniel Wesson. Here are some of the highlights from First Freedom that I found to either be highly interesting or very relevant to the here and now.
It wasn’t the lack of arms, even though the British tried stripping cities of their arms. It was the lack of gunpowder that nearly undid the Continental Army. As Harsanyi writes in First Freedom, North America only had one gunpowder mill before the Revolution, and the British had systematically made sure that their gunpowder was unavailable – even by sending British troops to raid the local magazines of gunpowder near Boston in 1774. How do you fight a war without gunpowder? Making it in a timely fashion was too difficult during wartime. There were raids on British gunpowder stores, but it really was the French who saved the day.
In the end, around 90 percent of the gunpowder used by the revolutionaries was imported, with most of it finding its way to the Americas through the French colonies of the West Indies. Eager to harm their archenemy, the French became the the primary source of ammunition…. Soon the Committee of Secret Correspondence, established by the Second Continental Congress to build relationships with friendly Europeans, was sending ships to France’s Mediterranean ports; they would bring back ten tons of powder per voyage and help save the Revolution. (Chapter 3, “Powder Alarm,” page 41)
Given that laws are right now being proposed on taxing or limiting ammunition, this seems like a timely reminder that when there is an inability to get rid of the firearm, the next move is always to target the ammunition.
American gun history is full of colorful characters, but it is always interesting to find out a new tidbit about a folk legend – especially when that person really existed. Annie Oakley was a legendary shooter, made all the more colorful by her association with Buffalo Bill Cody. But Oakley was also passionate about women being armed and able to defend themselves.
We can never know how many women in the West and rural areas mastered their rifles and revolvers. But Oakley was a champion of the sport and spoke about guns with the kinds of conviction that would be familiar to any Second Amendment advocate these days. She gave women lessons on shooting and advocated that they take up guns. “I want to see women rise superior to that old-fashioned terror of firearms,” she said. “I would like to see every woman know how to handle them as naturally as they know how to handle babies.” Oakley encouraged women not only to own guns but to use them in self-defense. “I have had an ideal for my sex,” she once wrote. “I have wanted them to be able to protect their homes.” Oakley liked to tuck a revolver into an umbrella when taking walks alone in case she was attacked, even demonstrating her system of self-protection in the Cincinnati Times-Star. “If I were accosted, I could easily fire,” she told the paper. “A woman cannot always rely on getting help just by calling for it.” When the New York State legislature passed a bill barring women from having guns in the home, she spoke publicly against it. (Chapter 13, “The Showman,” pages 151-152)
How ironic that up to today, the New York State legislature continues to find itself making bad law.
And after reading about Annie Oakley’s vision of women’s empowerment, I feel a need to go shopping for a revolver and an umbrella.
Harsanyi points out that the right of the individual to be armed was never even a question for the new American government.
The notion of individual ownership of firearms was so unmistakable and so omnipresent in colonial days – and beyond – that Americans saw no more need to debate its existence than they did the right to drink water or breathe air. Not a single Minuteman was asked to hand his musket over to the Continental Congress after chasing the British back to Boston. If they had been, the Revolution would have been short-lived, indeed. (Conclusion, “Molon Labe,” page 239)
However, Harsanyi traces the legal challenges to the Second Amendment through three court cases – United States v. Miller (1939), United States v. Emerson (2001), and District of Columbia v. Heller (2008). Miller held that there were certain types of guns that the government could regulate. Harsanyi comments that the left now tries to use Miller as the basis for expanding that list of guns that should be regulated. Emerson was a Fifth Circuit Court ruling, relating to a bitter divorce that had an ex-wife filing a restraining order against her former husband, who was a gun collector. This case affirmed the right of the individual to “keep and bear arms,” and led directly into creating the legal case that would later be known as Heller.
First Freedom points out that “The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights lists the most vital freedoms of man. The second lists the only way to attain them and preserve them. Without the second, there is no first” (Chapter 7, “Freedom’s Guarantee,” page 75). David Harsanyi has drawn together the history of the development and usage of firearms and has expertly shown how without those same arms – literally, our “first freedom” – there would be no America today. This book and its subject matter might not be in everyone’s wheelhouse, but it is well worth your time.
Featured image: Original Victory Girls art by Darleen Click