The Lines of Fire

Graphic by Julia Enright

How Southern Narratives of the Civil War Shape Modern Gun Rights Policy

Every time a major mass shooting happens in America, the country whirls itself into the chaos of another national debate over its guns. With each horrendous murder, the victims bear different names, and the sleepy suburban towns different streets, mayors, and congressmen. But one thing that seldom changes in the United States are the parameters of the debate itself. On national news, on social media, in  streets and in legislatures, the same stalwart ideology is always presumed: many a Republican and a handful of Democrats, concentrated in though not excluded to the Southern United States — are so ardently opposed to any form of gun control that no comprehensive legislation can ever thrive in a myriad of state assemblies, or in the current Congress.

Granted, when one questions why these positions are so instantly assumed, why so many legislatures are predominated by a staunch resistance to gun control, the answer might seem obvious at first. The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in 1791, enshrines verbatim the right of private citizens to keep and bear arms. Accordingly, and almost tautologically, Americans today purchase their guns due to an entitlement that is clearly stipulated by their country’s highest legal code, and they later defend this right to firearms by exclusively citing the same document. And, while, the flailing repetition of the phrase — “my Second Amendment rights” — is enough to sustain debate on  24-hour news channels, when history is analyzed more holistically, such a baseline of argument might be seen as rather superficial.

Perhaps today’s zealous defence of the Second Amendment among Southern gun owners is actually rooted in the narratives that surround the Thirteenth Amendment — the Civil War and the abolition of slavery in the United States.

Perhaps for some Americans, particularly in the South, an allegiance to guns is more deeply seeded than an allegiance to the Second Amendment alone. Perhaps today’s zealous defence of the Second Amendment among Southern gun owners is actually rooted in the narratives that surround the Thirteenth Amendment — the Civil War and the abolition of slavery in the United States.

Since the 1950s, public school systems in the American South have taken an entirely different tack on the Civil War than their Northern counterparts. Rather than instructing students that the conflict’s crux surrounded the issue of slavery, which, according to historians, is empirically true, the South continues to frame the issue as one of “sectionalism, states’ rights, and Southern values.” Supported by textbooks — some of which have their roots in older literature approved by Confederate generals — teachers paint the landscape of the Confederate cause with streaks of honour, an underdog society merely trying (and failing) to preserve its idyllic (white) way of life.

Thus, when schools in the modern South disguise the Civil War as if it were an issue of states striving to assert their rights in the face of federal overreach, no term more perfectly buttresses the Confederate struggle.

The constitutional amendment enshrining the right of gun ownership, ratified nearly 100 years earlier than the one abolishing slavery, features a pivotal preambulatory clause. The sentence begins with, “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state…” and is followed by, “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”  If the country’s military can function as the instrument of a tyrannical government, then, the text implies that citizen militias must have the capacity to fight against such tyranny through weapons somewhat comparable to those of the hired soldiers.

But, how can one define tyranny? When the Constitution was written, the Framers generally understood the concept of tyranny through the writings of Eighteenth Century English philosopher, John Locke. A tyrannical government, as Locke wrote and as it is still believed, occurs when this body abuses its power beyond its right or authority to act. Thus, when schools in the modern South disguise the Civil War as if it were an issue of states striving to assert their rights in the face of federal overreach, no term more perfectly buttresses the Confederate struggle.

To concede that certain weapons ought to be banned from civilian purchase, or to even consider the repeal of the right to bear arms on the whole, would be, in the minds of historical Southern Whites, akin to conceding the baseline of ancestral identity to which they so desperately cling.

Combine these two pieces of context— the South’s continued miseducation on the realities of the Civil War and the definition of tyranny embedded in the Second Amendment — into a single equation. The result is a conception of the pro-slavery Confederate army as a benevolent force, justly harnessing the principles underlying the right to bear arms to fight against their perceived Northern oppressors. Accordingly, the more generations of children to which this warped understanding of the Civil War is perpetuated, the more deeply entrenched the modern South’s identification with guns becomes.

The South lost the Civil War, but it refuses to lose the tools—both legal and literal—with which that war was fought. To concede that certain weapons ought to be banned from civilian purchase, or to even consider the repeal of the right to bear arms on the whole, would be, in the minds of historical Southern Whites, akin to conceding the baseline of ancestral identity to which they so desperately cling. It is, therefore, no coincidence that it is these people to whom civilian weapons manufacturers market the bulk of their products; these people to whom the NRA distributes the bulk of their membership cards; and these people on whom the Republican base and its pro-gun legislators depend for electoral support, especially in the wake of horrific gun violence.

Of course, I am simplifying this issue considerably by theorizing only upon smaller subset of gun owners in the United States. On the whole, Americans’ relationship to their right to bear arms is obviously more complex than a basic North-South cleavage, and is greatly influenced by economic and political associations that lie outside the psychological factors I have addressed. Nevertheless, it seems as though the extreme utility of the right to bear arms at a time of critical historical importance for the South has rendered it a central pillar of identity there. It is not necessarily this population that constitutes all supporters of gun rights, but it certainly constitutes the critical mass. With them tipping the scales of electoral support against gun control, legislators can more easily comply with the demands of pro-gun donors and ignore the pleas of gun victims and activists, all without risking unpopularity or electoral defeat.

It is not necessarily this population that constitutes all supporters of gun rights, but it certainly constitutes the critical mass.

As of yet, federal legislation on gun control in America has been piecemeal and accessory — only marginally reducing the potential for more gun-related carnage in the future. In order to facilitate  an expansive change of law, gun control activists must apply pressure in what might at first seem a sector irrelevant to their cause. They must concentrate on reforming states’ education policies, eradicating those misleading Southern textbooks and replacing them with curricula that re-centre discussions of the Civil War on slavery. In so doing, they can prevent the false glorification of the Second Amendment in the conflict’s context and, through a new generation of students, erode the notion of its untouchability in Southern identity.

If the rest of American history reveals anything about the path forward for gun control, it is that successful changes of narrative always precede successful changes to the law. It was in school where the most recent incarnation of the American gun debate horrifically began, and it is in school where this debate might one day end.

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