When Senator Robert Kennedy was assassinated 30 years ago with a cheap imported handgun, I was among the many Americans who believed that America’s “gun culture” was out of control. To me, it seemed obvious that all guns should be banned. At the least, a psychiatric test ought to be required for anybody who wanted to own a gun. Yet 30 years after a gunman deprived America of the chance to elect Robert Kennedy instead of the criminal Richard Nixon, I am writing my first gun rights column for Chronicles. And I feel especially comfortable writing about gun rights in “a magazine of American culture” because I’ve come to believe that gun ownership represents some of the very best of American culture. How did I get here from there?

In the coming months, I’ll discuss not only the practical importance of firearms ownership—such as the public safety benefits of guns in the right hands—but I’ll also examine the cultural aspects of guns in America: why some people love guns, and why others loathe them.

Regarding the latter group, some people believe, including many of the supporters of Sarah Brady’s Handgun Control, Inc., that the use of force by anyone who is not a government employee is immoral. As Mrs. Brady states, “To me, the only reason for guns in civilian hands is for sporting purposes.” James Brady agrees: asked by Parade magazine if private possession of handguns were defensible, he replied, “For target shooting, that’s okay. Get a license and go to the range. For defense of the home, that’s why we have police departments.”

Likewise, Professor M.L. Friedland of the University of Toronto, father of Canada’s modern gun legislation, argued that

a person who wishes to possess a handgun should have to give a legitimate reason. . . . To protect life or property . . . should not be a valid reason. . . . Citizens should rely on the police, security guards, and alarm systems for protection.

In the eyes of some gun-prohibition advocates, the right to life itself must be subjugated to “civilization.” The late David Clarke, then-president of Washington, D.C.’s City Council, told the Washingtonian that his efforts to outlaw gun ownership for self-defense were “designed to move this government toward civilization. . . . I don’t intend to run the government around the moment of survival.”

Simply put, many advocates of gun control are not especially concerned with whether it saves lives. Survey data consistently show that about half of all gun control supporters do not believe that stricter laws will have an impact on crime or violence. (For more on this topic, see Cary Kleck’s new book, Targeting Guns.)

The idea that it would be better for someone to die than to use force to defend herself was explicitly stated in testimony before Congress by a representative of the largest denomination of the Presbyterian Church. The idea is also implicit in that church’s recent call to its members to get rid of all handguns in their homes. But this odd form of selective mandatory pacifism (which, according to the gun control lobbies, should only apply to people who don’t work for the government) explains some but not all of the anti-gun sentiment. One of the social uses of gun control is that, even if it does nothing to make anyone any safer, it provides psychological benefits to some people by symbolically controlling the world’s dangers.

To understand some of the roots of the anti-gun movement, read E.P. Evans’ The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals: The Lost History of Europe’s Animal Trials. As Evans details, in early modern European law there was an extensive system for legal punishment of animals. If a pig killed a baby or a swarm of locusts ate a crop, the animals would be charged with legal offenses. They would be defended by a court-appointed lawyer who would use all of the ordinary tools of law; in one famous case, the lawyer appointed to defend rats who had eaten the region’s barley argued successfully that the rats could not be prosecuted because the legal notice of prosecution had not been publicized widely enough to encompass all the areas where the rats lived.

Once a court obtained proper jurisdiction, the animals were usually but not always convicted. Animal defendants whom the court could apprehend, such as domestic pigs, would often be tortured to death, just as human criminals were.

Nicholas Humphrey’s foreword to the 1906 edition of Evans’ book suggests that the people who executed pigs did not believe that pigs could form criminal intent or be deterred by the punishment of their fellows. Rather, he argues that people were terrified by the seemingly random nature of bad events, which implied that perhaps there was no order to the universe. Thus, the purpose of punishing animals

was to establish cognitive control. . . . The job of the courts was to domesticate chaos, and to impose order on a world of accidents—and specifically to make sense of certain seemingly inexplicable events by redefining them as crimes. . . . The child’s death became explicable. The child had died as an act of calculated wickedness, and however awful that still was, at least it made some kind of sense.

While punishing animals was popular on the Continent, punishing inanimate objects was more popular in England (as it had been in ancient Greece). If a criminal killed someone with a sword, the sword would be forfeited. If a man fell from a tree, the tree was cut down. If he drowned in a well, the well was filled up. If a criminal killed a victim with a third party’s sword, “the sword shall be forfeit as deodand, and yet no default is in the owner,” According to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., a steam-engine was even forfeited under this doctrine.

The legal term “deodand” meant a gift to God of the object causing death. In early America, one court ordered the destruction of a canoe that had failed “to make way in a storm,” causing its owner’s death. A Virginia court ordered the chain by which a boy had hanged himself to be forfeit as deodand. Similarly, in ancient Greece, a statue that fell on someone would be banished beyond the city limits.

The tradition of punishing non-humans is very old; Exodus 21:28 commands, “If an ox gore a man or a woman and they die, then the ox shall surely be stoned, and his flesh shall not be eaten.” If the sole purpose for this ordinance were to remove a dangerous animal from the community, there would be no mandate to treat oxen like human criminals deserving community punishment nor would there be any injunction against eating the animal’s flesh.

Prosecuting pigs and banishing swords may seem primitive to late 20th century postmodern Americans, but it would be unwise for us to feel too superior to our predecessors. In Chicago and Philadelphia, a relatively small number of people (mostly single young males with no father figure in their lives) commit a large number of predatory violent crimes, sometimes with guns. The “solution” being seriously considered by Philadelphia Mayor Rendell and Chicago Mayor Daley is to sue the manufacturers of firearms.

Albert Cohen described this phenomenon as the “evil causes evil fallacy,” the belief that bad consequences must have bad causes. Perhaps it is easier to trace America’s problems to “wicked” objects like guns or drugs, rather than to consider the depressing possibility that America may include a large number of wicked people.

The desire to blame never changes, but the expression of the desire is highly variable. In the earlier part of this century, the blame for a criminal’s commission of a violent act with a gun would have been placed primarily on the criminal himself, and secondarily on the biological father who abandoned the mother not long after conception. But today, many people seem to believe that human beings are helpless automatons who cannot be held responsible for their actions. Instead, responsibility must be placed on physical objects such as firearms, which apparently embody the moral flaws that can no longer be attributed to people.