Dave Kopel gives us a fascinating account of the divergence between American and British gun culture in The American Indian foundation of American gun culture. I learned some things from this article, which is not a trivial observation because I’ve studied the same process from some different angles.
While Kopel’s article is excellent of its kind, it stops just short of some large and interesting conclusions that immediately present themselves to me, upon reading his evidence, because I think like a science-fiction writer. A significant part of that kind of thinking is a broad functionalist perspective on how societies evolve under selective pressure – a drive to look beyond specific historical contingencies and ask “What is the adaptive pressure motivating this social response? Can we deduce a general law of social evolution from this case?”
I’m going to anticipate my conclusion by coining an aphorism: “Decentralized threats are the mother of liberty.” Kopel’s account of how the American and British traditions of citizen arms diverged illustrates this brilliantly.
Kopel insightfully points out that the American and British traditions of civilian arms began to diverge immediately after the first successful British colonizations of what would later become the U.S., in 1607. But it’s worth looking – as Kopel does not – at what the threat model of the ancestral, common system was.
The customs and laws around British civilian arms can be traced back at least as far as a royal decree of 1363 requiring all Englishmen to practice archery on Sundays and holidays. At that time, before the early-modern formation of nation states, the nascent English militia system was intended to deal with two different threat axes: on the one hand, organized territorial war by feudal sovereigns, and on the other banditry and cross-border raiding. These were less clearly distinguishable in 1363 than they would later become.
Modern accounts focus on the theory that well-practiced civilian archers could be levied by the monarchy in times of formal war, to meet a centralized threat. But at least as important, and perhaps more so, was the pressure from local banditry and especially Scottish border reivers, a decentralized threat that would plague England for more than 300 years after the earliest recorded raids in the late 1200s.
An enemy that presents as multiple fast-moving raider bands with no common command structure and no interest in holding territory is difficult to fight with heavy troops trained and armed for set-piece territorial battles. The every-man-an-archer early English militia makes some sense as a civilian reserve for royal/aristocratic field armies, but it makes more sense as a civil defense – a decentralized response to raiders and bandits. For obvious reasons this aspect of its function would be under-recorded.
Now we fast-forward to around 1600 and the period of early modern state formation. The border reivers were stamped out within a few years of James I’s accession to the throne in 1603; as James VI of Scotland he could exert force on the Scottish side of the border as well as the English. At this point the English militia lost much of its civil-defense role.
It was, in any case, less well equipped for that role than it had been a half-century earlier. The shift from archery to matchlocks in the later 1500s was the culprit. Kopel points out that matchlocks has to be kept lit to be ready to fire and were thus nearly useless for hunting – the burn fumes made stealth impossible and scared off prey. He also points out that at that time hunting in England was increasingly heavily regulated and legally risky.
This change in weapons mix, and the decoupling of militia duty from hunting, changed the character of the militia. The predictable result was a shift from individual aimed fire to mass-fire tactics. This was better preparation for a military reserve that might have to face a field army, but much less good for bandit suppression. In Great Britain after 1600, the militia system became more and more focused on centralized threats and preparation for organized warfare.
In the Colonies after 1607 that trend exactly reversed. Unregulated hunting and Indian banditry drove the early adoption of the flintlock, a weapon much better suited to accuracy-centered small-scale fights than the matchlock. The British traditions of civil-defense militia and individual marksmanship reasserted themselves and, in direct response to local conditions, became stronger in the New World than they had been in the Old.
The British militia’s last hurrah was in the Glorious Revolution of 1688; armed with pike and matchlock in emulation of a regular field army, they made James II’s attempt to (re)impose absolute monarchy impossible. This example was very much on the minds of the American revolutionaries of 1776 – they were steeped in the British republican theory of civilian arms as a bulwark against centralizing tyranny that had developed before and around the Glorious Revolution.
Ironically, by the time of the American Revolution 88 years later, the British militia system in England was in deep decline. The 18th-century British, operating in a threat environment that included very little banditry but lots of field armies, effectively abandoned their militia tradition – muster days became poorly-attended drinking parties. The attempts of the more radical British republicans to center the post-1688 political system on the natural rights of the armed and self-reliant citizen failed; instead, the unwritten British constitution made Parliament sovereign.
In the U.S., by contrast, the militia system remained central to American political life. Centralized threats like field armies were the exception; the major defense problem was Indian raiding, the pike was abandoned early, and the gun culture that evolved to see off the raiders was adapted for pot hunting in that it prized accuracy over mass fire. Eventually the Revolution itself would be triggered by a British attempt to seize and confiscate civilian weapons. The British republican dream of a polity centered on the natural rights of the armed citizen would be expressed in the Second Amendment to the written U.S. Constitution.
Eventually the American version of the organized militia system would also largely collapse into irrelevance. It is well known that that mustered militia proved laughably ineffective in the field campaigns of the War of 1812; one thing Kopel’s article clarifies is why. The weapons mix, culture, and institutional structures of the U.S. militia system had become so specialized for decentralized civil defense against bandits and irregulars that it lost the adaptations for mass warfare that had enabled its British forebears to face down James II’s field armies in 1688.
Of course U.S. gun culture and its model of the armed, self-reliant citizen as first-line civil defense survived the humiliation of the organized militia in 1812. Doubtless this was in part because Indian and renegade banditry did not cease to be a prompt threat until around 1900.
But something else was going on – the long result of New World conditions was that the armed freeman became a central icon of American national identity in a way it had never (despite the efforts of British republicans) quite been in Great Britain. With it survived the radical British republican ideal of the individual as sovereign.
Between 1910 and 1984 British authorities could quash civilian arms with barely a protest heard; in the U.S. a similar campaign from 1967 to 2008 ended in a near-total defeat that is still unfolding as I write – national concealed-carry reciprocity is scheduled for a floor vote in the U.S. Congress this month and seems very likely to pass.
Here, I think, is the largest conclusion we can draw from Kopel’s historical analysis: Decentralized threats are the mother of liberty because the optimum adaptive response to them is localist and individualist – the American ideal of the armed citizen delegating power upward. Centralized threats are the father of tyranny because the optimum response to them is the field army and the central command – war is the health of the state.
There is an implication for today’s conditions. Terrorism and asymmetrical warfare are decentralized threats. The brave men and women of Flight 93, who prevented September 11 2001 from being an even darker day than it was, were heroes in the best American tradition of bottom-up decentralized response. History will regret that they were not armed, and should record as a crime against their humanity that they were forbidden from it.