The NRA and the 'Positive Good' of Maximum Guns

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In light of the NRA's call for even more guns, in even more places, friend of the room and historian Tony Horwitz (Confederates In The Attic, Midnight Rising) sends along this beautiful missive noting the haunting similarities between the aggressive expansionist tactics of The Slave Power and aggressive, expansionist tactics of "The Gun Power." I am tremendously excited, and privileged to offer this to you guys. Tony's is a beautiful mind. Watch him work.



In the 1840s and 50s, abolitionists often spoke of a menace they called "The Slave Power." This pejorative wasn't aimed at Southern slavery, per se. It referred to the vast reach of proslavery money and influence in Washington and beyond. If unchecked, abolitionists warned, the Slave Power would poison every corner of American life and territory. I'm wary of historical analogies. But in the wake of the Newtown massacre, I'm struck by parallels between the Slave Power and a force haunting us today: call it The Gun Power. 


For decades we've appeased and abetted this monster, as Americans once did slavery. Now, like then, we may have finally reached a breaking point. I don't mean to equate owning slaves with owning guns. But I do mean to equate the tactics and rhetoric of the NRA with those of proslavery "Fire-Eaters." The NRA casts itself as a champion of the Constitution. So did slaveholders, citing the safeguards accorded owners of human "property." Few Americans questioned slavery's legality, though they debated the Founders' intent, just as we do with the Second Amendment. 

But as the nation spread, slaveowners turned the defense of a right into an expansionist crusade. Slavery wasn't just a right that nonslaveholders had to recognize and uphold. It must extend wherever slaveholders traveled and settled. So, too, has the N.R.A. demanded the right to carry guns into every conceivable place, including schools, churches and hospitals. The N.R.A. does so in the name not only of rights but of "safety" and "self-defense." Guns, you see, aren't a danger to be regulated; they're a source of peace and security that everyone should enjoy. 

Proslavery zealots had their own version of this. While 18th century slaveowners like Jefferson had treated the institution as a necessary evil, John C. Calhoun lauded slavery as a "positive good," a source of freedom even, because it liberated whites from drudgery and class conflict and blacks from African "savagery." It followed that all should enjoy its benefits. "I would spread the blessings of slavery, like the religion of our Divine Master, to the uttermost ends of the earth,' declared Mississippi Senator Albert Brown. 

This wasn't just bluster. Even after the U.S. had enlarged itself by a third at Mexico's expense in the 1840s, Brown and others urged the nation to conquer Central America to provide Southerners with more land to plant and enslave. In the 1850s, Americans invaded Cuba, Baja, and Nicaragua, where a proslavery partisan, William Walker, installed himself as leader and reinstated slavery. His dictatorship won recognition from the administration of President Franklin Pierce, of New Hampshire. Northerners like Pierce were derided as "doughfaces"--half-baked and malleable in the hands of Southern leaders. 

The N.R.A. has its own such minions, many of them Democrats the organization has bought or bullied with its lobbying and war chest. A famous political cartoon from the 1850s, titled "Forcing Slavery Down the Throat of a Freesoiler," shows a miniature Pierce and Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois holding a bound man's hair while two Southern Congressman hoist a black man down the captive's throat. A similar cartoon could be drawn today, featuring the NRA's Wayne LaPierre and legislators with A ratings from the gun lobby, ramming concealed weapons and Stand Your Ground laws through state bodies too cowed to oppose them. 


These kinds of tactics can work for a time, a very long time, as they did in the case of slavery. Most mid-19th century Americans, after all, were white supremacists who had little or no care for the plight of blacks. What most Northerners hated and feared wasn't slavery in the South, but the prospect of competing with slave labor and slaveholders' wealth in new territories, putting white freedom and opportunity at risk. 

I suspect most Americans today who don't own guns have somewhat the same stance towards gun ownership. So long as guns stay on shooting ranges, or in the hands of hunters, or those who can make a good case that they need protection, few of us will make a stink, however much we disapprove. But forces like the Slave Power and Gun Power know no limits. 

Emboldened by success, and imbued with a fanatical and paranoid world-view, they see enemies everywhere and regard any hint of compromise as betrayal. As New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley wrote in 1854, slavery "loves aggression, for when it ceases to be aggressive it stagnates and decays. It is the leper of modern civilization, but a leper whom no cry of 'unclean' will keep from intrusion into uninfected company." Much the same applies to the NRA and its insatiable appetite for new territory to allow arms in, and new ways to allow those guns to be used--such as putting armed guards in our elementary schools, as the NRA today suggested.

In the 1850s, slaveholders got their way in Congress (including a hardened Fugitive Slave Act), in the Supreme Court (the Dred Scott decision), and in the White House (occupied by a succession of doughfaces). But proslavery hardliners weren't satisfied. They sought the resumption of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which the Constitution had banned as of 1808. They branded moderates like Abraham Lincoln--who pledged to leave slavery alone in the South--as members of a "Black Republican" conspiracy to overthrow slavery. And they banished former allies such as Stephen Douglas, who lost his A-Rating for straying from the ultra-orthodox line that there must not be any restriction on slavery. 

Rather than accede to Douglas's nomination as Democratic candidate in the 1860 presidential election, which he might well have won, Southerners split the party and nominated one of their own, dividing the Democratic vote and paving Lincoln's path to the White House. At which point, the Fire-Eaters led Southern states out of the Union rather than accept a democratically-elected president they opposed. 

The NRA shows signs of similar derangement and over-reach. During the election, it demonized a president who had done nothing on gun control, claiming a "massive Obama conspiracy to deceive voters and hide his true intentions to destroy the Second Amendment during his second term." It has alienated staunch allies like Democrat John Dingell who resisted the NRA's mad-dog campaign to hold Eric Holder in contempt over "Fast and Furious." Other supporters who have deviated an inch from the NRA line have been targeted for electoral defeat. 

And now, as the NRA's crusade bears fruit in Aurora, in Newtown, in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the nation shows signs of finally rousing from its slumber and acquiescence to whatever the Gun Power demands. The freedom of gun-owners--as interpreted and enforced by the NRA--threatens the freedom and security of every American. This was, in essence, the argument of Northerners who conjured the Slave Power: unstopped, it will enslave us all. 

Here's one last link between the Slave Power and Gun Power, albeit ironic. The NRA was founded after the Civil War by Union veterans who felt Yankees had shown a lack of marksmanship in battling Rebels. 

The NRA's first president was General Ambrose Burnside, who led Union troops at Antietam, a battle that in turn led Lincoln to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. This early NRA appears to have regarded guns and marksmanship as necessary to the maintenance of a well-regulated militia. Today's NRA, of course, resists the "regulated" part of that equation. And militia, in its mind, means massively armed individuals ready to resist the "jack-booted government thugs" of the ATF and other agencies (including the United Nations). 

In short, the NRA has become a neo-Confederate movement that sees Federals as foes, and that stokes the paranoia of its followers by claiming, as LaPierre did this year, that Obama's re-election marks "the end of our freedom forever." That's more or less what Fire-Eaters said about Lincoln in 1860. 
Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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