Conservatives, including the conservative I ended up across the table from last weekend who I told that I wanted the government to invade his home and take his guns, love to say that their ability to have 8000 high-powered guns was the direct intent of James Madison. To say the reality is a wee bit more complicated is a huge understatement. The supposed iron-clad judicial approval of unlimited gun control is only true if you take the decisions of pro-slavery southern judges as your guide. If you consider what is happening in the antebellum north, it’s a different story.
The slave South’s enthusiasm for public carry influenced its legal culture. During the antebellum years, many viewed carrying a concealed weapon as dastardly and dishonorable—a striking contrast with the values of the modern gun-rights movement. In an 1850 opinion, the Louisiana Supreme Court explained that carrying a concealed weapon gave men “secret advantages” and led to “unmanly assassinations,” while open carry “place[d] men upon an equality” and “incite[d] men to a manly and noble defence of themselves.” Some Southern legislatures, accordingly, passed laws permitting open carry but punishing concealment. Southern courts followed their lead, proclaiming a robust right to open carry, but opposing concealed carry, which they deemed unmanly and not constitutionally protected. It is this family of Southern cases that gun-rights advocates would like modern courts to rely on to strike down popularly enacted gun regulations today.
But no similar record of court cases exists for the pre-Civil War North. New research produced in response to Heller has revealed a history of gun regulation outside the South that has gone largely unexplored by judges and legal scholars writing about the Second Amendment during the last 30 years. This history reveals strong support for strict regulation of carrying arms in public.
In the North, publicly carrying concealable weapons was much less popular than in the South. In 1845, New York jurist William Jay contrasted “those portions of our country where it is supposed essential to personal safety to go armed with pistols and bowie-knives” with the “north and east, where we are unprovided with such facilities for taking life.” Indeed, public-carry restrictions were embraced across the region. In 1836, the respected Massachusetts jurist Peter Oxenbridge Thacher instructed a jury that in Massachusetts “no person may go armed with a dirk, dagger, sword, pistol, or other offensive and dangerous weapon, without reasonable cause to apprehend an assault or violence to his person, family, or property.” Judge Thacher’s charge was celebrated in the contemporary press as “sensible,” “practical,” and “sage.” Massachusetts was not unusual in broadly restricting public carry. Wisconsin, Maine, Michigan, Virginia, Minnesota, Oregon, and Pennsylvania passed laws modeled on the public-carry restriction in Massachusetts.
But then having unlimited access to guns has always been the goal of conservative white men. And this brings us to Douglas County, Oregon sheriff John Hanlin, who has come under a lot of criticism for his own embrace of extremist gun culture now that his county was the site of a mass murder.
John Hanlin, the sheriff of Douglas County who has been in charge of the police response and investigation of Thursday’s shooting at Umpqua Community College, has fallen under media scrutiny because he’s left an eyebrow-raising trail of gun nuttery that shades into conspiracy theorist territory. His past behavior calls into question not just his own office’s ability to handle this case responsibly, but tells us a lot about why it’s so hard to even begin to have a reasonable conversation about guns in this country, much less move towards sensible policies to reduce gun violence.
Conservatives aren’t lying when they say they need guns to feel protected. But it’s increasingly clear that they aren’t seeking protection from crime or even from the mythical jackbooted government goons come to kick in your door. No, the real threat is existential. Guns are a totemic shield against the fear that they are losing dominance as the country becomes more liberal and diverse and, well, modern. For liberals, the discussion about guns is about public health and crime prevention. For conservatives, hanging onto guns is a way to symbolically hang onto the cultural dominance they feel slipping from their hands.
This comes across clearly in the letter that Hanlin wrote to Vice President Joe Biden in 2013 where he asked that the administration “NOT tamper with or attempt to amend the 2nd Amendment” and where he threatened ominously, “any federal regulation enacted by Congress or by executive order of the president offending the constitutional rights of my citizens shall not be enforced by me or by my deputies, nor will I permit the enforcement of any unconstitutional regulations or orders by federal officers within the borders of Douglas County Oregon.”
Despite all the attempts at formal, legalistic language, Hanlin is clearly writing more in a mythical vein than he is actually addressing any real world policy concerns. His absolutist language about the 2nd amendment ignores the fact that there are already federal and state regulations on guns and who can buy them. More disturbingly, his posturing about open rebellion against the federal government evokes the conspiracy theory-mindset of the hard right, the kind of paranoid hysteria about federal power that led to so much violence during the Clinton administration, from shootouts at Waco and Ruby Ridge to the federal building bombing in Oklahoma City. This is not a letter from someone soberly assessing the pros and cons of proposed regulations on firearms. This is the letter of someone wrapped up in childish fantasies of revolution.
But then this plays so well in Douglas County. The county just south of my hometown is still recovering from the end of the timber industry and the cultural changes that have transformed Oregon in the last 30 years. A place like Douglas County, rural, poor, and white, feels threatened by a secular America, one with a scary black man with a scary name from a scary city as president. With the gays marrying and the women running around, and the libtards in Eugene ruining their resource exploitation state, everything is threatening. Everything. The America they dreamed once existed is no more. And they don’t know what to do. So they arm themselves and kill each other. And this scenario is played out over and over again around the nation, such as Tennessee Attorney General Ron Ramsey urging Christians to arm themselves against the impending atheist-led apocalypse. With white male hegemony under supposed threat from so many places, even as white men still control most of the levers of society, only putting down the strange new people with guns will make them feel remotely safe. But of course they will just put down each other.