Not the bald eagle. Not the great seal. Not the mighty Mississippi nor the majestic Hudson. Not the Rocky Mountains nor the Great Plains. Not the automobile. Not the skyscraper. Not the buffalo. Not the hamburger. Not Whitman's leaves of grass (his uniform hieroglyphic) nor Melville's white whale. Not denim. Not baseball. Not apple pie. Not rock and roll. Not even the highway nor the open road, although these latter two are the only things I can think of that approach the gun for the freight of symbolism it carries--of freedom and self-determination, of power and will, of individual strength and national might.
From Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun to Cypress Hill's Hand on the Glock the gun has served Americans as a remarkably malleable symbol of disparate ideals--in those two works alone the gun serves as a symbol of gender equality and alpha male dominance, of frontier life and urban life, of self-determination and of the imposition of one's will.
The gun's image in American life was informed first by the militia culture of the colonial era in "defense" against Native Americans and the British--when the gun stood as a symbol of national unity and collective action; later the image of the gun was formed by the frontier culture of the Western expansion--when the gun stood as a symbol of survival and of the ability of the individual to tame the wilderness.
But in the early days of America actually gun ownership was not as widespread as today, dominated by Eastern and Southern elites, in romantic emulation of English hunting culture.
It was Samuel Colt, more than anyone else, who fixed the image of the gun in the American mind--as a product of American ingenuity and industry and a tool of American manhood and domestic tranquility--advertising his revolvers by evoking images of would-be stagecoach robbers held off by Colt-wielding citizens, and of Colt himself, riding the range, firing at buffalo. And it was Colt who put gun ownership within the reach of every American, mass producing weapons that could sell for $20 a piece.
But it was the political assassinations of the 1960s, and the resulting push for gun control laws in the late 1960s and early 1970s that turned the gun into the symbol it is in American life today: a dividing line between left and right, a them against us front in a "culture war" freighting the gun with even more symbolic baggage, a new rhetorical totem that divides rather than unifies, which is what makes an effort by five South Dakota legislators to require gun ownership in that state a political gesture that is brilliant, nefarious, potent, and reckless.
Five South Dakota lawmakers have introduced legislation that would require any adult 21 or older to buy a firearm “sufficient to provide for their ordinary self-defense.”
The bill, which would take effect Jan. 1, 2012, would give people six months to acquire a firearm after turning 21. The provision does not apply to people who are barred from owning a firearm. Nor does the measure specify what type of firearm. Instead, residents would pick one “suitable to their temperament, physical capacity, and preference.”
The measure is known as an act “to provide for an individual mandate to adult citizens to provide for the self defense of themselves and others.”
The bill is not designed to be passed or even to be seriously considered. Instead it's a pure bit of political theater created by its sponsors in the context of the legislative and judicial battle over health care reform's individual mandate to purchase health insurance:
Do I or the other cosponsors believe that the State of South Dakota can require citizens to buy firearms?," Rep. Hal Wick, R-Sioux Falls told the Argus Leader. "Of course not. But at the same time, we do not believe the federal government can order every citizen to buy health insurance."
Apparently the measure is not unique. Last month columnist Earl Morgan reported in the Jersey Journal on a 30-year old ordinance in Kennesaw, Ga. requiring heads of households to own and maintain a gun and ammunition. And today No More Mister Nice Blog calls attention to a 2003 law in Geuda Springs, Kansas with a similar mandate, violation of which is punishable by a fine.
No, apparently the South Dakota proposal is not unique, but it does represent a new chapter in the American life of gun as symbol, one that obfuscates the constitutional issues it intends to clarify.
I don’t think this bill makes the constitutional point its sponsor intends — state governments, unlike the federal government, are not limited to enumerated powers. But even the federal government could require citizens to own guns under its militia power, as opposed to the commerce power. In fact, it did just that in the Militia Act of 1792, but I rather doubt that this power would extend to requiring ObamaCare under that clause, which empowers Congress “To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress."
Still the proposal does illumate the continuing power of the gun's symbolic power in American life, and how profoundly dangerous a weapon, even a symbolic one, can be in the wrong hands.