Friday, December 21, 2012

Tony Horwitz on the "Gun Power" -- an excerpt

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.

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