“It is through the enjoyment of a dangerous freedom that Americans learn the art of reducing freedom’s perils.” —Alexis de Tocqueville
Many people are often surprised to learn that I am a gun owner and firm defender of the Second Amendment. After all, I, a first-generation Chinese-American immigrant, do not fit the stereotype of the typical American gun owner. Of all of America’s cherished freedoms, the natural and unalienable right of self-defense, recognized and protected (not granted) by the Second Amendment, took me the longest to fully embrace.
But as an open-minded rationalist, the lessons of history and statistical research proved overwhelming (not to mention the sheer fun of learning the basic operations and mechanics of firearms) and eventually helped me understand why tens of millions of my fellow Americans treasure their right to keep and bear arms.
Cultivating Civic Virtue
From the colonists winning independence from Great Britain to African-Americans vindicating their civil rights, the role of the gun is inseparable from American identity. The gun is the ultimate multipurpose tool that empowers its user with the means to put food on the table, as well as preserve one’s life, whether against common street criminals or government tyranny. The philosophical underpinnings and lived experiences that shaped American gun culture all matter (and reinforce each other), but I want to focus on one aspect in particular: the cultivation of civic virtue.
Owning and shooting a gun promotes self-reliance, personal responsibility, and community. Whenever I go to a gun range, I see parents teaching their young children how to shoot, men instructing their significant others, and people of all colors and ethnicities enjoying themselves. Nervous skeptics usually end up leaving with a big smile on their faces.
Further, I am surprised by the large number of foreign tourists eager to learn how to handle and shoot a gun for the first time, an activity that is often out of reach—if not outright illegal—for the average person in their homeland. On more than one occasion, I served as an unofficial ambassador and taught European exchange students how to shoot my AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.
In my experience, a typical day at the range is an ideal snapshot of American diversity tied to common principles. In the United States, gun culture fosters civic virtue and a healthy civil society as admired by Alexis de Tocqueville, one of America’s best foreign observers. In his classic Democracy in America, he was impressed by the young republic’s numerous voluntary associations, which provided the lifeblood and training grounds for self-rule among its people.
The activities and interactions at gun clubs, ranges, trade shows, and conventions have every effect in cultivating a virtuous citizenry as churches, sports teams, debate societies, and other civic groups do. From lectures on current firearms law to practical lessons on self-defense, experts and ordinary Americans alike freely share their knowledge. America’s gun culture is further reinforced by a vibrant online community that covers gun reviews, custom AR-15 builds, military history, current politics, and virtually every topic one can think of pertaining to firearms.
Empowering People to Be Prepared
After sharing a poignant story of true threats directed at him and his family, National Review writer and Iraq veteran David French describes how carrying a weapon leads to individual empowerment and, as one learns, discovers a welcoming network of support, solidarity, and community:
As your worldview changes, you expand your knowledge. You learn that people defend themselves with guns all the time, usually without pulling the trigger. You share the stories and your own experience with your friends, and soon they walk into gun stores. They start their own journey into America’s “gun culture.”
At the end of this process, your life has changed for the better. Your community has expanded to include people you truly like, who’ve perhaps helped you through a tough time in your life, and you treasure these relationships. You feel a sense of burning conviction that you, your family, and your community are safer and freer because you own and carry a gun….
Confidence is contagious. People want to be empowered. That’s how gun culture is built. Not by the NRA and not by Congress, but by gun owners, one free citizen at a time.
Although I’m fortunate not to have faced a true threat that convinced me of the need for self-protection like French and his family did, I fully understand that evil exists in this world and that under the right circumstances, people can do unspeakable things to each other. On a happier note, I can also confirm that my own journey into American gun culture introduced me to some of the most knowledgeable, kind, and supportive people who are now personal friends.
I especially want to emphasize the gun community’s overwhelming support for newcomers and marginalized groups. In the aftermath of the 2016 Orlando night club shooting, many gun ranges offered free training, and traditional pro-gun groups such as Open Carry Texas offered armed security for LGBT people. Many gun shops reported a rise in LGBT customers, and new self-defense groups, like the LGBT-centered Pink Pistols, experienced a surge in membership. Free citizens with diverse backgrounds united over shared principles and interests. If he were to witness how individual empowerment through the gun strengthened the fabric of civil society, Tocqueville would be proud.
As admirers of their Greco-Roman predecessors, the Founding Fathers of the United States understood that only virtuous citizens are capable of self-rule and preserving a free society. In the early American republic, statesmen and ordinary people alike saw no conflict between the individual right to bear arms and participating in a militia for collective self-defense, unlike many of today’s misguided debates. In his famed Commentaries on the Constitution, Justice Joseph Story articulated the orthodox view of the Second Amendment:
The importance of this article will scarcely be doubted by any persons, who have duly reflected upon the subject. The militia is the natural defence of a free country against sudden foreign invasions, domestic insurrections, and domestic usurpations of power by rulers. It is against sound policy for a free people to keep up large military establishments and standing armies in time of peace, both from the enormous expenses, with which they are attended, and the facile means, which they afford to ambitious and unprincipled rulers, to subvert the government, or trample upon the rights of the people.
The right of the citizens to keep and bear arms has justly been considered, as the palladium of the liberties of a republic; since it offers a strong moral check against the usurpation and arbitrary power of rulers; and will generally, even if these are successful in the first instance, enable the people to resist and triumph over them.
And yet, though this truth would seem so clear, and the importance of a well regulated militia would seem so undeniable, it cannot be disguised, that among the American people there is a growing indifference to any system of militia discipline, and a strong disposition, from a sense of its burthens, to be rid of all regulations. How it is practicable to keep the people duly armed without some organization, it is difficult to see. There is certainly no small danger, that indifference may lead to disgust, and disgust to contempt; and thus gradually undermine all the protection intended by this clause of our national bill of rights.
As Justice Story and early Americans understood, an armed people upheld free institutions. Far from being lone wolves, individual gun owners throughout American history organized and participated in militia units as a counterbalance against a standing army and the prospects of centralized government tyranny. Even though the militia today no longer plays the important historical role it once did (as Justice Story and others would lament), that certainly does not mean the Second Amendment is obsolete, nor does it even slightly diminish the importance of gun ownership.
The Second Amendment is not a vestigial remnant from a bygone era. It grew out of the experiences of a people who understood the dangers of standing armies and martial law, successfully overthrew a tyrannical government, and recognized the reality of human nature, especially the tendency of men to seek power and dominate others.
Today, as in the Founding generation, our precious right to keep and bear arms remains indispensable for securing the blessings of liberty for ourselves and loved ones in our persons, homes, and livelihoods.
Most modern gun owners know they are the heirs of a constitutional legacy that stretches across the pages of history. A free society endures only when its people internalize its principles. As a naturalized American citizen, I can’t help but feel proud every time I shoot a gun, knowing I am one of millions who keep our heritage of freedom alive.