Apparently from the conviction that one lie is as good (or as bad) as another, the left has never been known to let a lying cause die, if it could help it. I have read that Michael A. Bellesiles’ Arming America: The Story of a National Gun Culture (published by Knopf and awarded the 2001 Bancroft Prize in History before the book was discovered to include citations of nonexistent sources and other sins against the scholarly tradition) is being released in a revised edition by something called Soft Skull Press in New York City. I have always thought intellectual dishonesty to be dishonesty of the worst and most unforgivable sort, far more serious an offense than insider trading, say, or bank robbery, for the reason that what is sinned against in this instance is truth, and truth is infinitely more important than money. To be careless of the truth is to despise Truth.
It is unpleasant to think of someone despising Truth. It is nearly impossible, however, to conceive of anyone despising guns, as Professor Bellesiles (if, after his dismissal from Emory University, he is still professing anything) obviously must despise them. It is possible, of course, that he is not a fool or a barbarian but merely a hypocrite, in which case I would not think nearly so badly of him. As an old friend of the family (married to a Rothschild, she had fled Paris just before the fall) often remarked when I was growing up: Stupidity is worse than evil; it cannot be fought. It may be that “Professor” Bellesiles keeps a hunting rifle or two, a shotgun, several pistols and revolvers, and a thousand or so rounds of ammunition (what the federal government would call an “arsenal”) in the cellar of his house, and that he creeps downstairs in the dead of night to heft, fondle, and caress his treasures. In rating hypocrisy below other forms of dishonesty, I do not mean to suggest that it is not dishonesty. That would be to attempt to resort to paradox at the Chestertonian level; besides which, Chesterton has been known to lay on paradox a little thick. One might say, really, that all of Chesterton’s work, from beginning to end, is paradox: It is almost his single literary trope, his sole authorial voice. On the other hand, we (“we” including Chesterton and his generation) live in morally and intellectually inverted times; and what better device could there be than paradox for the purpose of inverting reversion and turning things outside-out and upside-up again?
Hypocrisy, anyhow, is all too natural a vice. That “Professor” Bellesiles should wish to reinvent history for the purpose of annulling the Constitution, replacing the U.S. government with something in the Soviet style, and transforming a more or less free society into an unfree one in which only a card-carrying vanguard is permitted to bear arms—that, I can comprehend. That any man should be resistant to the appeal of firearms, however, is incomprehensible. Really, it is unnatural: a monstrous perversity on a level with being resistant to the charms and appeals of the fair sex.
My own arsenal is embarrassingly minimal by comparison with those of many shooters I know. A federal inventory would itemize: 1) five rifles (in the .22 magnum, .22-250, .270, .308, and .338 Winchester Magnum calibers), four bolt- and one lever-action; 2) one muzzle-loading musket (.50 caliber); 3) one gas-operated shotgun (12-gauge); 4) three revolvers (.41 magnum, .38, and .22 calibers); 5) one semi-automatic pistol (.40 caliber). Of these, the .22-250 is the latest acquisition: a Ruger M77 bolt-action, equipped with a 2×9 Leupold scope and a sling of the military type. I thought long and hard about buying it in preference to a lever-action Marlin .30-30 and made my decision at last from a simple consideration: Which rifle would I get more use from? My Browning .270 (manufactured in Belgium before the Jap production line was established) and the Ruger M77 .338 Magnum give me firepower aplenty; the .22-250, illegal in Wyoming for taking big game, is a varmint and target rifle, shooting a .22-caliber bullet extremely fast and flat and allowing for intriguing experiments with hand-loads. It is a rifle to carry with you in the pickup, camping, and when engaged in armed hiking: everywhere and in all seasons, for every type of varmint and for plunking. As Ed Detrixhe remarked after some thought when I told him of my purchase: “You’ve been working all these years with your big, three-quarter-ton, four-wheel drive trucks. Now you have yourself a Ferrari to play with.”
I am one of those technologically challenged people who abhors machinery and can stare for an hour at the simplest gadget without being able to discern its operating principle. Guns—rifles especially—are different, probably on account of their powerful aesthetic component: that blued or stainless steel well bedded in walnut, cold to the touch, smelling of lubricant and oil, and evocative of adventure and a whiff of danger, wilderness and weather, leather boots, blaze orange, horses, fresh snow, campfires, whiskey, hot blood—and an efficient sidearm holstered comfortably on the hip or beneath the armpit. Guns are romantic, but they are also basically tools—which makes them more romantic still, in the special way of manmade things (like the great ocean liners of the first half of the 20th century) that combine utility with a beauty that transcends functionality. Guns, of course, are lethal tools, and their enemies commonly focus on their lethality to condemn not just the tool itself but the user of it, who (they assume) is obsessed with death and—even more—the power of being able to deal death at a second’s notice. There is, of course, the sense of security a gun (a handgun, especially) affords, leading to endless debates among gun owners regarding what most reliably delivers a killing punch. (Most shooters I know of, including the formidable Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper, insist on the .45 caliber.) Still, I can assure antigunners that the fascination that gun aficionados feel for firearms is neither morbid nor sadistic but aesthetic, in a deeply complicated way. One dimension of this aesthetic is historical, related to what John Lukacs calls historical consciousness: a Western phenomenon related to the creation of the modern world. There are very few things today that encompass past and present so neatly and so pleasingly as the gun, which, despite nearly inconceivable advances in design over the centuries, remains recognizably the same device it was hundreds of years ago. It is impossible for the elk hunter, high in his Rocky Mountain camp, to shoulder his rifle without comparing himself, however inchoately, to Jim Bridger, or the shooter in the mesquite deserts of Arizona to thumb the cylinder of his Colt .45 without having at the back of his mind the OK Corral. Nor is there anything silly or juvenile in his doing so, even if Sarah Brady (for whom history began on March 30, 1981) would sneer.
If only because the failure of a firearm bears a vastly greater potential for catastrophe than the failure of a washing machine or a CD player does, guns are one of the very few exceptions today to the law of planned obsolescence and the shoddiness guaranteed by mass production. With the exception of Saturdaynight specials in this country and some equivalent items manufactured overseas, modern guns are superbly designed and engineered and wonderfully well made. It is hard, in fact, to think of a product for which the purchaser receives as much for his money. A possible exception is digital electronic equipment; this is mostly outmoded within a year or two, however, and, even if it is not, its expectable life span is not above five or six years. (The prospect of very many computers, DVD’s, etc. being passed on to grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren, as millions of guns have been over the centuries, appears dim.) Also, all this electronic stuff is associated, mainly, with nerds and geeks; nobody, to my knowledge, has ever accused gun owners of being nerds and geeks (on the assumption, perhaps, that geeks and nerds, unlike “fanatics,” scare no one). Finally, guns appreciate very nicely in value—although, for a gun “fanatic,” that is on the order of suggesting that one’s children appreciate in value: an insulting remark, and in the worst possible taste.
Had I more money, I would own more guns as well—and, having more guns, probably handle the ones I have now less skillfully and efficiently. Every firearm, including those of the same model and sharing the same manufacturer, is different and, hence, shoots differently; each one has, as it were, its unique digital whorl. Carry a gun regularly enough, and long enough, and it becomes like a part of your own body, as familiar and comfortable and as dependable as your arm. My old Browning, for instance, handled awkwardly for several years—that is to say, I handled it awkwardly—owing to its weight (about seven pounds) and the trapezoidal forestock around which I could never seem to take a proper hold. But through perseverance, after filling (or attempting to fill) all my big-game permits for several seasons with that one rifle, I became much more adept, so that eight years later, when I decided to move up to the .338 Winchester Magnum for elk, the Browning had long since become what is remains today: simply, an extension of my own body. Only the government is stupid enough to assume that the citizen with the largest “arsenal” is the most dangerous to its interests and agents. More likely, the opposite is true: The shooter with only a few weapons in his possession, in whose use he is impeccably drilled, is far more deadly than the collector, with dozens or scores of firearms scattered around the house or stored behind steel and glass (as our earlier imperial masters, the British, discovered in the course of the Revolutionary War).
A gun owner for nearly all of my adult life, I am hard put still to explain the fascination all guns have for me and the intense affection I feel for my own. The “cold, dead hands” motto may be less a statement of political determination (“The Second Amendment Ain’t About Duck Hunting”) than it is a simple, honest, and heartfelt expression of a sentiment that is second nature to people familiar with guns. In the case of worldly possessions generally, I find it a relatively easy thing to practice what the catechism calls “detachment.” With guns, the thing is not so easy: The attachment is visceral. The usual Freudian explanation, of course, is ludicrous and outlandish: Whatever guns are about, they are totally unrelated to the sex instinct. For those who demand Freudianism, I suggest that the gun, like the automobile, symbolizes freedom, autonomy, and identity—with the difference that the motorist too easily becomes the extension of his auto, while the gun remains always the extension of the shooter.
Firearms are aesthetic objects, among the loveliest creations of man. Combining traditional workmanship with modern technology, they are utile objets d’art that can be realized only through the prowess of the user, complementing the craftsman’s artistry and fulfilling the designer’s skill. Guns are beautiful for their form, simplicity, refinement, precision, efficiency, power—and danger. Danger, not violence. It is true that a lead projectile weighing 250 grains and flying at 3,000 feet per second produces a violent effect on the atmosphere, if on nothing else, and that, in this sense, at least, guns may be said to be “violent.” Practically speaking, however, violence is less a property of firearms than it is of the shooter who directs that violence. Yet the word violence, outside of any context, is a value-neutral word. Recently, the New York Times ran a front-page human-interest story about two U.S. Army snipers in Baghdad whose job is to protect infantry patrols and to kill guerilla leaders before they can carry out attacks. In one countersniper mission, Sgt. Randy Davis spotted an armed Iraqi on a rooftop 300 yards away, trying to line up a shot on a squad from Davis’s company in the street below. “I went ahead and engaged him and shot him one time in the chest,” he told the Times. “I watched him kick back, his rifle flew back, and I saw a little blood come out of his chest. It was a good hit.” (Teddy Roosevelt would have appreciated that story.)
Over Christmas break, I took the new Ruger .22-250, a box of factory-loaded ammunition, hearing protectors, and a sight-in target out to the range to fine-tune the job the bore-sight had begun at my workbench. The Laramie Plain stretching between the mountains east and west was covered by a ragged December sky, and the day was windy for shooting 45-grain bullets at distance; trying to wait out Wyoming weather, however, is like attempting to wait out death. The rifle range extends only to 100 yards, but I knew from checking the ballistics tables that point-blank range at 200 yards meant hitting .80 inches above dead center at 100 yards. I set up the target, walked back to the bench, took the bright new rifle from its stiff new case, folded the case double, and laid my gloves across it to make a rest. The pointed brass-and-copper shells stiffened my fingers, and the blued steel clouded from my breath as I stacked the magazine. I got behind the rifle, fitted the stock to my shoulder, and took the safety off. The light rifle had a sweet trigger squeeze, and, when the discharge came, the report was startling; but I felt hardly any recoil at all.