How the Gun Made America Great
Rob Bluey / Ginny Montalbano /
Author and columnist David Harsayni joined the Oct. 15 Daily Signal podcast to discuss his new book “First Freedom: A Ride Through America’s Enduring History with the Gun.” This is a lightly edited transcript of that interview.
Rob Bluey: We’re here to talk about your book and America’s history with guns. What inspired you to write this book?
David Harsanyi: I grew up in an area in New York where most people didn’t have guns; perhaps criminals mostly had the guns. And my whole life—then moved later to Colorado—and my whole life I’ve been very curious about gun culture. So obviously I’m involved in the debate over the Second Amendment and the ideological aspects of it.
But I was interested more in the cultural aspect: Why do people treat guns the way they do? What’s unique about the American experience with the gun? So that’s what this book is about.
Ginny Montalbano: David, I want to ask you a very broad question. Could you explain to us, how are firearms linked to America’s rights?
Harsanyi: Well, in every way imaginable almost. First off, it’s important to know that as a philosophical matter, the right to bear arms—or to defend yourself, your property, your family—goes back farther in British law and history than the freedom of religion or freedom of speech, or anything like that. It’s one of the oldest rights.
So right away, the people who were coming here, from England at least, had that embedded in their thinking. And obviously that immediately became, as a practical matter, it became important in survival and in defending yourself from people who were already here, but also for hunting and defending yourself from the French or the Spanish or whoever else was around. So that’s the first thing.
The second thing is obviously in the Revolution. Lexington and Concord, let’s just take the first battle of the Revolution, those men were defending a cache of weapons. They weren’t arguing about anything specific. They knew that if the British would take the powder, and take the cannons, and take the guns, they would have no country and their rights could be taken away from them at any point.
The Five Most Important Guns In American History https://t.co/ywu8HJqSoP
— David Harsanyi (@davidharsanyi) October 18, 2018
Bluey: David, every time the left proposes some restrictions on firearms, or a way to curtail the Second Amendment in some way, we often see a spike in gun ownership in this country. What does that tell us about the American people today?
Harsanyi: It tells us that many of the American people still understand why the Second Amendment is important to them. And it’s not just for hunting—in fact, hunting, as a hobby and as a pastime, has really declined over the years—but as a right and the importance of it.
So whenever that right has been threatened, and I mean from the beginning until now, there’s always an upheaval, obviously, in the capitalistic form of buying more weapons, but sometimes it was more violent as well.
Montalbano: David, clearly you’ve done a lot of research on this topic. Have you ever found evidence where strict gun control laws have led to a decline in violent crime?
Harsanyi: No, I have not.
I guess if I were to be fair, I would think about the 1930s when a bunch of crazy people grabbed automatic, fully automatic weapons, and were driving around the countryside robbing banks with Tommy guns and fully automatic rifles. Putting some laws into place that would make it slightly more difficult for those people to have those guns, it might have helped.
But the reverse seems to be true. I think crime hit a high in the early 1990s. And since that time, over the last 30-35 years, we’ve seen a big drop in crime. And at the same time we’ve seen a big spike in ownership. So I’m not saying that we saw the drop in crime specifically because of the guns, though I think it’s a part of it. But obviously those two things are not related.
And most times when we see a mass shooting, very tragic events obviously, the laws that the politicians come forward with almost never have anything to do with the event itself. It’s just some other hobby horse, some other law that they’ve been thinking about, that they want to push through. Because, in my estimation, it’s all just leading towards, not confiscation of all guns, but as close as they can get to that.
Bluey: Obviously you must have been working on the book when we had some of the mass shootings earlier this year: Parkland, Florida; Santa Fe, Texas. What was it like to see those politicians come forward with some of those proposals as you were chronicling this history of firearms in America?
Harsanyi: Well, there were a lot of parallels actually, especially to the 1930s when the first federal gun control laws were being talked about.
Well, first of all, I found that not only were politicians, at the point of those today, contemporary politicians, attacking the Second Amendment, but they were attacking the fourth and the fifth, and the first, and all kinds of other amendments to try to take those guns, which was very reminiscent of what courts during [Franklin Delano Roosevelt] tried to do, what FDR’s presidency tried to do when pushing gun control laws in the mid ’30s.
So that hit me, just from a historical aspect. But then, again, what hit me even more was that someone like Sen. Chris Murphy, who’s in Connecticut, where the American gun was basically invented, doesn’t understand the culture and why it’s so important to so many law-abiding citizens to own their own firearms.
Montalbano: Recently we’ve heard a lot about due process in the news, about Brett Kavanaugh, now Justice Brett Kavanaugh. You wrote a recent piece about how new anti-gun proposals, like some that Sen. Dianne Feinstein has proposed, they can be harmful to due process. Can you elaborate on that?
Harsanyi: Sure. I’m not exactly sure when they came forward with this. It was probably two years now. On the federal level, Democrats had a sort of a sit-in in the House and then in the Senate, I think. And they were trying to pass laws that would allow the government to ban people who are on secret government lists, terror watch lists, which include basically a million or more people who have not gone through any due process, whose names happen to be on there and it’s a very faulty list to begin with, and allow the state to take their guns.
But she had a bill—she knew it wouldn’t pass—that would ban anyone, forever, from owning a weapon if they were on that list, which is a complete attack on due process. And now you have a lot of local laws–California for instance–where if your neighbor feels like you’re a threat to them, they can go to the police and the police will take your weapons from you.
I realize what this is a response to. But we always have to balance … We have to make sure that our rights are protected even though people are scared, because these laws have not proven to diminish violence in any way.
Bluey: You mentioned California. And of course the senator from California is a leading advocate in the U.S. Congress. But California, the state, is taking a new approach we’ve seen recently, which is restrictions on ammunition and bullets.
Do you think this is a new attempt by the left to put restrictions on the Second Amendment? And does it have any threat that we should be concerned about?
Harsanyi: Well, yeah. And it’s not a new threat by authoritarians because this is exactly what the British initially did. I document it in my book. But the Powder Alarm which happened, which almost had the Revolution break out, was a year or two before the Revolution actually broke out and was about the British trying to take powder. They were going to powder houses.
So in the 1700s, black powder would sometimes just blow up if a spark hit it or whatnot. So people used to pool all of it in powder houses, outside of town. And the British were confiscating those, the powder from there. And that’s the way, obviously, you render a weapon useless without ammunition. So I think the high taxes on ammunition, trying to limit the amount of ammunition folks buy, is just another way to limit their Second Amendment rights.
So it’s something to be very careful about because, obviously, it has not shown to diminish violence because you don’t—people can buy ammunition infrequently and build up a storeroom of it. So it’s just kind of another silly, impractical law that’s just meant to try to undermine people from having weapons.
Montalbano: We’re in the midst of Major League Baseball postseason. And a couple of months ago, Red Sox star J.D. Martinez got in some hot water for supporting the Second Amendment. He faced a tremendous amount of backlash on social media. The owners were upset with him. Why do we see that kind of reaction?
Harsanyi: Well, I don’t feel like defending him after the Yankees lost.
Bluey: You have an Astros fan here.
Harsanyi: I’m with you now. So it’s a little sore spot.
But it is kind of incredible that someone who defends the Second Amendment, the amendment that secures all other freedoms—it’s just part of American life, and not just in war but in commerce and in culture, and for individual use. That should provoke a backlash when others are kneeling and disrespecting, I think, the flag.
I’m not saying people shouldn’t be able to protest in the way they want, but the idea that the person who is defending the Second Amendment should face that sort of backlash is just ridiculous. Why does it happen? Because it’s so politicized.
The gun issue has become so politicized that the people who run the media and who focus, who aim the focus of the nation, on certain things, they’re upset when they see something like that. That’s the only reason why.
Bluey: Well, I’ve got a follow-up question for you on the media. So one of the things that I don’t think our listeners, perhaps, know and certainly, I think, many Americans probably aren’t aware of, is that most gun-related crimes are carried out with illegally-owned firearms. In fact, I think there’s some estimates that put it at as much as 80 percent.
Why does the media, then, tend to focus so heavily when we have a mass shooting, and not in places like Chicago where there are violent acts taken almost every day? But we rarely see that on the front page.
Harsanyi: Well, why? Because they’re part of the left wing. They’re an advocacy group for the Democratic Party, basically. And if you travel out into the country, outside of Washington, D.C., New York, wherever, and you meet gun owners, legal gun owners, National Rifle Association members, they are the most ridiculously safety-focused people on earth, right?
They are very serious about their firearms. They’re very safe. They make sure that everything they do is legal. And that’s why you see that most crimes are committed by people who break existing law. Now, I’m not exactly sure how more laws help. I mean, this is an old argument, about how more laws will help diminish criminality. But that’s something they don’t focus on.
And they don’t focus on the mental problems most of the big mass shooters have, and they’d rather focus on guns because that’s the default position of the media and the left. And I don’t know why they’re the way they are. They’re just terribly left wing.
And I worked at a newspaper in Colorado, where you would imagine that people would be open to the Second Amendment. And even there, it was just, the default position was to immediately blame gun and gun ownership and say there were too many guns in America.
Pick this podcast for your commute—@davidharsanyi talks with @RobertBluey about First Freedom: A Ride Through America’s Enduring History with the Gun. Listen now where ever you get your podcasts: https://t.co/40ACbnzu8q
— The Daily Signal (@DailySignal) October 15, 2018
Montalbano: Earlier this year, students from Parkland, they led a huge effort to register new voters and to also rally people for gun control. How big of an issue do you think gun control will be in this year’s election?
Harsanyi: It depends, I guess, where you are because of where they’re pushing these laws. But I have to tell you, I can’t think of an election where someone lost because they were too pro-gun. I don’t think that that has happened, that I know of.
But I can think of a few, perhaps, elections where people were not pro-gun enough and were hurt. But it’s difficult to say, in House races especially, where people generally agree with each other. So being anti-gun in a certain liberal district will help you, and otherwise not.
So I don’t think it’s going to be a huge issue. I think it was a bigger issue when you had a president who was so anti-gun as President Barack Obama was. But obviously Prsident Donald Trump, whatever his true, deep feelings are about the issue, he’s been pro-gun. And the most pro-gun thing he’s done is put originalist judges on to the Supreme Court, who will make sure District of Columbia v. Heller isn’t overturned.
"David Harsanyi does Americans a service: he spells out in comprehensive, fascinating detail just how firearms are part of the American story — and why they should continue to be seen as a crucial centerpiece ensuring American liberty."https://t.co/bhg6soive6 pic.twitter.com/GpueksXxmX
— David Harsanyi (@davidharsanyi) October 6, 2018
Bluey: One of the things that we’ve tried to highlight on this show, particularly when it comes to the Parkland students, is the alternative voices that we don’t often hear from the media. In fact, I think it was just a couple weeks ago, Ginny, when we featured Cameron Kasky, right?
Bluey: Who has had a change of heart, in some ways, and says that he’s separated himself from the March for Our Lives movement. He’s apologized to Sen. Marco Rubio for how he’s treated him.
What is your message to younger Americans who perhaps get caught up in the moment, but now have a chance to step back and think about some of the things that you cover in the book?
Harsanyi: Well, first of all, I’m sympathetic to why they take the position they do. I think it’s scary to go to school and believe that someone could just walk in with guns. And how the left and the media portray it, that they can just, easier than getting a book, they can just get an AR and come in and shoot everyone.
So that’s a horrible thing to have to think about. Obviously, I have children and I worry about that as well. But it should be noted that there are fewer mass shootings now than there used to be in the ’90s. It should be noted that homicide rates from guns have fallen dramatically from my childhood to my kids’ childhood.
And that’s something to think about. Because of the way that we have social media, and the way that we all experience things at the same time together, it makes tragedies seem, and it is horrifying for the people involved, but it makes tragedies seem like it happens all the time. So that’s the first thing I would tell them.
And the second is that they should better understand the history of the gun and why so many people have them; and why it’s important, if they want to be free, to be able to defend themselves and their family, their schools.
If we really want to get into it, I don’t like to argue with kids who have gone through that, but if they really want to get into it, let’s talk about why we can’t defend “you” with weapons from people, bad guys who have them, who will always have them.
So those are two of the things I talk about, but it’s very … people who experience something like that, I think it’s very difficult to reason with them. It’s a very emotional moment for them.
I should actually give you a personally story, quickly.
Harsanyi: When I was growing up, my dad had a shop and it was robbed. Three people had guns. And my dad went with his instinct.
So, in the 1970s, crime rose and it was terrible. And that’s when the modern debate split. You had people saying, “We have to get these guns off the street,” and a bunch of other people saying, “We have to protect ourselves from these criminals.” And that’s when the NRA became politicized, and so on.
So when I was a kid, and then that happened to me and my dad, and then my dad tried to get a gun in New York City and he had to jump through hoops. It was the hardest thing to do. And it hit me, at a young age, that the Second Amendment says that we can defend ourselves, but that we have to go to the state and ask them for permission to defend ourselves.
And I think how you feel about that freedom and what you do with that freedom says a lot about how you generally view individual rights in this country.
So I completely forgot what the initial question was, but I know that I had a point to make and that’s it.
Bluey: Well, no. Thank you for sharing that story. I’ll share one of my own, in fact. One of the reasons I think so many people in the news business are ignorant is because they have no familiarity with guns at all. And they’ve never held a gun, they’ve never fired a gun, they’ve not taken the opportunity to learn about that.
And so one of the things we did with our Daily Signal staff is we went to a shooting range. And everybody had the opportunity to experience it firsthand. And I think that, for those Americans and those of you who might be listening, that’s a step that you could take to better understand.
And I know there are organizations out there that encourage reporters and editors to have that experience, so they can better understand it.
Harsanyi: I didn’t shoot a gun until I was in my 30s.
Harsanyi: Yeah, and it was exhilarating.
Bluey: Same here.
Harsanyi: It as an exhilarating experience. It was so much fun. Everyone who taught me how to use those guns were very into the safety, and they explained all that to me before I even shot. And, yeah, I wish more reporters did that and it would be less of a mystery to them.
Montalbano: I grew up shooting in Texas and I think it definitely gave me an interesting perspective, and an appreciation for the Second Amendment, for sure.
David, what’s the most important thing that you want readers to take away from “First Freedom”?
Harsanyi: Well, I think when they read the history and they read about the people who used guns to survive initially, the innovations they came up with that were very American—the Kentucky rifle, Sam Colt, and the revolver; John Browning and automatic weapons; the Gatling gun. And I also go into the lives of everyday people and how they used guns.
I think that when you read through the whole history of the gun, leading to today, you have a far better understanding of why people in Texas want their guns, right?
And once you understand that it’s in the DNA of American life, you understand, I hope, why the debate is what it is, and why at least a half of the people in this country, or more, believe that should have a right to firearms. And even liberals never say, “We want to take away your guns.” They’re just like, “We want it to be safer.” Even they know that it’s embedded in our thinking.
Hopefully this history will help you better understand it, than just the politics and the way we fall into those two camps, and say the same things over and over again every time there’s a shooting.
Bluey: The book is called “First Freedom.” David, thank you so much for telling us all about it.
Harsanyi: Thank you for having me.
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