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My earliest understanding of guns was formed by television westerns. (It was the Fifties. It was eastern Kentucky. There were three channels. There was nothing else to watch.) Those shows were moralizing, and the moral was always something to the effect that if you have to carry a gun to show you're a man, you can't be much of a man.

People had guns. My grandfather's pistol, secreted in a bureau drawer that I never investigated, was kept less for protection than for use against varmints, like the groundhogs that treated the vegetable garden like a buffet.* It was an innocent time.

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Today weaponry is one of the most intractable issues in national politics, and the issue must be understood under a number of categories, summarized here.

Grammar: Many of the people gumming over the language of the Second Amendment do not understand English grammar, particularly the Latinate grammar favored in the eighteenth century. The opening phrase of the amendment, "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State," is an absolute, a construction that modifies the main clause. The sense is that because a regulated militia is necessary for security, the right to bear arms is not to be infringed.

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History and law: The Founders were leery of standing armies, and after the Revolution they minimized the Army, trusting on state militias for local defense. This was found to be inadequate in the War of 1812 (cf. "the Bladensburg races") and during the nation's subsequent territorial expansion. The militias, the stout local yeomen drilling on the green once a month, faded away, to be replaced by the National Guard.

But the Constitution does not stand still in 1787, and even the Originalists evolve with the times. In District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), the Supreme Court found that the people have a right to own a weapon in the home for self-defense, entirely apart from service in a state militia. Though a break with previous case rulings, that is the current constitutional law of the land (though the justices took care to insist that the right of possession is not absolute).

The more extreme exponents of the Second Amendment read it as a device to permit an armed populace to rise up against a tyrannical federal government—a sort of suicide clause in the Bill of Rights. They misunderstand. Perhaps the more pertinent text is found in Article III, Section 3 of the Constitution: "Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them. …" In 1794, when the farmers of western Pennsylvania rose up in revolt against a tax on whiskey imposed by the federal government, President George Washington himself proceeded against them at the head of a force of thirteen thousand troops. The Whiskey Rebellion collapsed.

Race: Race is the underlying issue that tends to color every other issue in our political discourse. You do not have to go far into the darker reaches of the Web to find people who maintain private arsenals against the day that the black people come swarming out of the cities to loot and rape. You do not have to find it coincidental that the yokels who parade their weaponry in support of open-carry laws are invariably white. As a thought experiment, imagine the reaction, by individuals and law enforcement, to groups of black men exercising open-carry rights by walking into supermarkets and restaurants carrying assault rifles.

Masculinity: That lesson of the westerns, if you have to carry a gun to show you're a man, you can't be much of a man, now looks as dated as other Fifties television. When a group of young women at the University of Texas proposed to carry dildos openly on campus to protest a law allowing guns on campus, the proponents of this joke met with a storm of abuse, including death threats. Apparently the Y chromosome cannot bear to be mocked.

Realities: The proponents of gun ownership are more passionately committed than the opponents. To proponents, the deaths of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School, though regrettable, are simply the price society pays to preserve constitutional rights. And opponents, though horrified, lack the political will and muscle to stand up to them.

Estimates are that something like three hundred million guns, legal and illegal, are in private hands in the Republic. They are the reality, and they are not going away. As a parallel, think of the estimated eleven million undocumented immigrants in the United States. It would require a police state of unprecedented size and reach to remove either, and as a practical matter that is simply not going to happen.

It is idle to talk of Australia or Britain or Scandinavia or Switzerland. Gun culture as we know it is American culture. And unless or until cultural changes shift away from it, gun culture is the culture we have to live in.

*My grandfather's undergraduate career at Kentucky Wesleyan came to an abrupt conclusion the day he accidentally shot his roommate in the foot. Decades later, I came to work at the local paper for the daughter of that roommate. In Kentucky, it seems, everyone is connected by blood or gunfire.

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