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    The Right to Bear Arms
    The Real Safeguard Against Anarchy Lies in “Millions of Good Civilians Who Have Arms and Know How to Use Them”

    By Horace Kephart

    Within the past twelve years about forty of my personal acquaintances have killed someone, or have been killed, in gunfights. All this happened in my own county and those adjoining it, which are so thinly settled that their combined population is’ less than that of Erie, Pa., or Utica, N. Y.

    These killers and their victims were not just names in the morning paper, to me. They were not people I had never heard of before and cared nothing about. I knew them individually; in most cases I knew their families or associates, I attended many of the trials, and in a few of those trials I was a witness.

    None of these homicides was committed by a professional criminal. There was not one instance among them of a holdup, robbery, burglary or even theft. They were just fights between hot-headed men in a belated region where a fifteenth-century code of honor still persists and dominates public sentiment.

    Every one of these killings, save the latest, was done with a pistol.

    Does it follow that no murder would have been done if there had been no pistols?

    It does not.

    I knew these men. If they had been armed with nothing but fifteenth-century weapons there would have been as many casualties. Back in the fifteenth century, in reality, everybody who was somebody carried a sword, and everybody who was nobody carried a dirk. There were more homicides then, in proportion to the population, than we have now, in our year of the automobile and the automatic.

    Cain did not kill Abel with a pistol. No pistol ever slaughtered men so fast as a certain celebrated jawbone of an ass.

    It would be silly to blame the instrument for the deed, or to think that by abolishing up-to-date weapons we could abolish robbery and murder.

    If we want to check crime (and who among us sportsmen does not?) then, for goodness’ sake, let us try to find some way that will work.

    Going back to my forty cases — could they have been prevented by other laws than what we already had?

    Well, let us eliminate a few at the start. Some of those men (take my word for it) needed killing.

    Why not, then, by due process of law?

    Because the law, in these cases, was impotent. If you were away off in a wilderness by yourself, and a bad man came along and attacked you with a deadly weapon, could you sit down there and wait for the sheriff? A consistent pacifist might do so; but he would be murdered, and his murderer would get away.

    All of our non-resistants, men and women, who practice what they preach, owe their lives, their property, their honor, to neighbors who have arms, who know how to use them effectively and who have the manhood to do it whenever necessary.

    But most of my dead acquaintances did not need killing. Would a new law have saved any of them?

    Suppose, for instance, the Shields bill prohibiting the manufacture or sale of concealable weapons had already been passed.

    It would not have saved a single one of these lives; because every one of the killers already owned a pistol. There is a saying here: “Everybody in this county who oughtn’t to have a pistol has two.”

    Suppose, then, a far more drastic Federal law had been enacted, ordering all concealable weapons to be confiscated and destroyed. What would have resulted?

    Not to trust my own judgment alone, I went out the other day and put that question to the first five or six prominent and responsible citizens that I met in my home town. Each and every man answered frankly: “They wouldn’t get mine.”

    “Would you resist search and seizure?”‘

    “No: not if the officer had a warrant. But I’d know about that law before the officer got around: and then I’d let him smell his nose off.”

    These were typical good citizens talking, any one of them acceptable on a grand jury, and every one of them a church member.

    What, then, could be done to cure a homicidal tendency, if prohibitory laws would do no good?

    Well, consider this particular problem. No actual criminals involved who would kill for the sake of gain. Just an old-fashioned people with an old-fashioned code of honor that they valued higher than life itself. So long as that code persists there will be killings among them. In most cases whiskey started the quarrel; but it would be a perversion of truth to lay the whole blame on whiskey. What whiskey really did was to inflame passion and bring on insult or injury. But under just the same circumstances men of other communities would have fought the quarrel out with their fists. Here, under the fifteenth-century code, it must be settled with weapons.

    Therefore, in this set of cases, a modern code must first be substituted for the ancient one; and you can’t do that by legislative enactment any more than you could turn back the tide of the sea by such means. Church and school must effect the change.

    But we sportsmen stand for fair play — it is the cornerstone of our code — and so let us be fair to even this ancient standard of honor. It has its good points as well as bad ones. Wherever it prevails there is more politeness between man and man (drunks excepted) than we see in modernized communities. In a land where nearly every man goes armed, every sober man treats, his fellows with respect, he regards others’ rights, he avoids giving offence. And so there are fewer fights than in the other sort of society, the modernized sort: though the fights that do occur are likely to be deadly.

    And in the old-fashioned land, there is far less crime against property — the sort of crime that professional criminals practice — than in new-fashioned places. Burglary and robbery are so rare as to be almost never on the court calendar. That is because the thug knows that every citizen is well prepared to take care of himself and his home. Crooks do not thrive, they do not even linger, where everybody carries a gun and knows very well how to use it.

    But what is the use of mentioning such exceptional people and extraordinary conditions?

    Well, maybe, not so exceptional as you think. In considering new legislation that is to govern every community in the United States, whether they locally want it or not, we should first of all consider whether it would work or not. Unenforceable laws are worse than no laws.

    That old-fashioned code I have been talking about is the actual standard today in at least one-third of the territory of the United States. And it is the actual standard of countless individuals outside that third.

    But let us turn now to the rest of the country and to the people who accept the modern standard.

    Here we meet a quite different problem, as regards anti-firearms legislation. It is the problem of the armed crook. Can we disarm him by prohibiting the manufacture and sale of pistols? If not — if he will arm himself in spite of everything that laws and policemen and courts can do — then is it wise to prohibit decent citizens from owning the best weapons for self defence and home defence?

    One question at a time. Can we disarm the crook?

    It answers itself. A criminal can make his own weapons. We have laws against burglars’ tools, but they have never done the least good on earth except to fasten an incidental guilt on anyone found carrying them. Our present laws against carrying concealed weapons do the same thing.

    But a crook could not make a good revolver or automatic pistol.

    No; why should he, if nobody else could get one? He would far rather employ a silent weapon, a sandbag or a knife, than a noisy one that instantly attracts attention and compels him to get away at once.

    Bear in mind that I am not arguing for unrestricted traffic in pistols, or any other sort of weapons. I don’t care two whoops for the commercial side of the question. All I am interested in is how to devise a practical way to fight crime, a way that will work. As a gun expert I know that anti-pistol laws would not work. All the propaganda of this sort that has been spread about by newspapers and by societies and by individuals is just a waste of breath. It helps to defeat the very cause it has enlisted under — does so by advertising as a cure-all something that is a mere quack nostrum.

    Good citizen! use your wits a bit. Put yourself, for the moment, in the crook’s place. (If you haven’t enough power of imagination for that, if you can’t summon enough of it to enter the ABC class of a detective correspondence school, then, for the Lord’s sake, don’t try to frame laws against crime!)

    What would you do if you were a robber, burglar, high-jacker, and the Government sent its agents everywhere confiscating pistols? You know they couldn’t grab up ten million pistols in one night, nor in six months, nor in six years. And there are more than ten million pistols in this country right now. If you were a crook you would know plenty of places where such arms could be procured, law or no law. I am no crook; but I could buy a wagonload of them within forty-eight hours after the law was passed.

    The next question: If crooks cannot be deprived of concealable weapons, then should good citizens be prohibited from owning defensive weapons that would place them on partly even terms with the crook in a fight?

    Doesn’t that answer itself, too? I can imagine only one plausible rejoinder, which is that the good citizen lacks either the skill to hit what he shoots at or the “guts” to do it.

    Well, if that is so, then we have come to a pretty pass — we the descendants of a line of pioneers who fought their way from sea to sea against enemies compared with which the doped gunman of the city street is a rotten coward. If that is so, then we are not worth the powder to shoot us down.

    It is not so. There are four million registered sportsmen in this country licensed to use firearms in the field. They know how to shoot. There are four million ex-service men who were taught how to shoot, if they did not already know. There are other millions who could and would give good account of themselves in an encounter with arms.

    There stands our real safeguard against anarchy — back of the police and the standing army, those millions of good civilians who have arms and who know how to use them.

    If we must pass a nation-wide law about pistols let it be a law that encourages reputable citizens to get the best ones and train themselves to use them right, and that makes it as difficult as possible for disreputable citizens to get arms equally good. The crook has too much advantage as things are. Turn the tables on him.

    I purposely began this article with instances of gunfighting that a propagandist would seize upon as proof positive that all pistols should be confiscated. Perhaps I have told him some things he will not relish, because they show another side to the matter — a side that mere emotionalism cannot or will not see. But, anyway, my object in mentioning those forty cases was to show that I am no theorist airing a hobby, but a serious observer of actual conditions whose own experience has made him think long and earnestly on this rather serious subject. That is why I have no patience with emotional reformers who jump up and ballyhoo about fake nostrums when the body politic is already sick from overdosing. Let us use less medicine and more sense.

    Outing magazine
    May 1922

    Profile photo of L Tecolote
    L Tecolote

    Hear! Hear!

    Cry, "Treason!"

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