A Civic Duty: Teaching Gun History in the Gun South
Andrew C. McKevitt
“You liberals can have my bullets before you have my guns.”
The message arrived in my inbox just minutes after I sent a campus-wide email blast about an upcoming public forum hosted by the students in my class, “Guns and Gun Violence in American History,” which I taught in spring 2018 at Louisiana Tech University. The students had built and distributed a survey of several dozen questions intended to gauge the campus community’s attitudes toward issues related to guns in the United States in the past and today. We planned to reveal the results of the survey at the public forum. I didn’t recognize the sender’s name, but I assumed the email was from a student. My initial thought was that I might read something like this as a joke if it came from a friend, but I didn’t know this person. How many times have Americans heard, in the aftermath of gun-violence incidents, something to the effect of, “If only someone had said something”? So I wrestled with it for a few minutes. I remembered the uproar a week prior on a local Facebook page for town residents, who speculated on the “liberal brainwashing” taking place in the class. I also considered that the campus chapter of Young Americans for Liberty deemed our public discussion about guns in American society so challenging to its own worldview that its leaders scheduled a competing event for the same day as our forum. It would feature Larry Pratt, former executive director of Gun Owners of America, a man with decades-old links to white supremacist groups who for a quarter-century headed an organization that had pitched itself as the radical alternative to the NRA. I thought about all this, and then I asked a colleague to take a look at the email. On his suggestion, I called the campus police.
What had I gotten myself into?
There I was, two months into teaching a class on the history of guns in the United States at a public university in the Deep South—and not just the Deep South, but the Deep Gun South, North Louisiana, a region famous for its gun-culture celebrities (the Duck Dynasty family lives just down the road from our institution, and the family patriarch is an alumnus) but not as infamous as it should be for its history of racial violence—according to a recent report on lynching by the Equal Justice Initiative, four of the eleven deadliest counties in the country in the era of Jim Crow were in North Louisiana. The region knows violence and forgetting. In fact, Louisiana’s history of gun violence prompted me to design and teach the course. I have been working recently on the 1992 killing of Yoshi Hattori, a 16-year-old Japanese exchange student who was shot to death when he knocked on the wrong Baton Rouge door. His killer, a white man named Rodney Peairs, was acquitted of manslaughter charges when a jury decided he was justifiably fearful of an Asian teenager in a Halloween costume. Though the killing provoked an international outcry, Yoshi’s death was just one of many: For decades, Louisiana has had one of the highest gun-death rates in the country.
I had advertised the class around campus with a flier featuring Louisiana’s former Republican governor (and outspoken gun-rights supporter) Bobby Jindal holding a military-style rifle. The subject was inherently provocative so I went all in on provocation, knowing students from our region in particular had strong feelings about guns and their place in their communities and American society more generally. In the interim between listing and advertising the course and the start of the spring quarter, a thousand miles away in Parkland, Florida, a student walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and murdered 17 people with an AR-15, a weapon designed for military use. So I expected the attitudes of Louisiana Tech’s students to reflect the charged national political atmosphere dictated by a back-and-forth between the young survivors of the Parkland shooting and the conservative supporters of the National Rifle Association. Sitting in the front row on the first day of class, then, was a student seemingly ready to respond to my provocation: He wore an NRA t-shirt and a MAGA hat. As we went around the room for introductions, NRA–MAGA student spoke first, introducing himself as Owen, a “gun nut,” explaining his lifetime of collecting, using, and learning about guns. Just as I was about to move onto the next student, he said, “Oh, and last summer I got shot.” Frozen, I stammered to continue, but then Owen offered that he had suffered an accident with his own concealed-carry pistol, shooting himself in the abdomen and lodging a bullet there permanently.
What had I gotten myself into?
I got an answer to that question over the course of the ten-week quarter that followed: Fifteen students and I read and discussed our way through a series of texts that covered a range of themes related to the history of guns in America. As a historian of the twentieth-century United States, I felt more comfortable with the recent past, so we began, via Adam Winkler’s Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America, by surveying changes in the U.S. gun landscape since the 1970s—the dramatic increase in gun ownership, new gun laws emphasizing an individual’s right to carry (like concealed-carry laws, which date back only to the 1980s), the NRA’s emergence as a political force, and the changing interpretation of the Second Amendment from a collective right to form a militia to an individual right to own a gun independent of militia service.I think students appreciated starting with a historicized perspective on their contemporary context; there were audible gasps, for instance, when they learned that the Supreme Court only recognized that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to own a gun in 2008. In those first weeks these students—almost all of them white men generally skeptical of the gun-control movement—started to think historically about guns in the United States; in other words, they began to see change over time, even in their own lifetimes, when it came to Americans’ relationship with guns.
From there we jumped back to the eighteenth century and read about the origins of the Second Amendment, building our discussions around Saul Cornell’s A Well-Regulated Militia. Shifting our attention to early America allowed some of the heat from contemporary debates to dissipate. Both gun-rights and gun-control advocates today attempt to shoehorn their arguments into an eighteenth-century framework. Gun-rights proponents especially rely on a mythology of independence won by Minutemen rushing to aid the rebelling colonies’ fight against tyranny. But as Cornell notes, implementing the founding generation’s ideas for both gun rights and gun control “would be a nightmare that neither side would welcome,” necessitating mandatory ownership of military-style weapons by all white men as well as registration and regular inspection.Cornell argues that neither of the dominant contemporary understandings of the Second Amendment—the individual-right model or the militia model—captures the hybrid nature of the “civic right” that the Federalists in particular envisioned: an individual right to own a gun connected to a communal duty to serve when the state required. Despite the students’ divided attitudes toward contemporary gun issues, they seemed to grasp the idea that history rarely provides easy answers to complicated present-day problems; indeed, as Cornell puts it, “If history seems to provide clear and unambiguous support for one’s ideological preferences in the great American gun debate, then the history is likely wrong.”
Students brought this perspective—that history enriches our understanding of present dilemmas but doesn’t provide simple answers—to the campus-wide forum they planned and conducted. At the beginning of the quarter I had tasked the class with brainstorming some way to use our classwork as a platform for a conversation about guns among the Louisiana Tech campus community. They decided to design a survey of attitudes toward various gun-related issues, to generate and draft the questions, and then distribute it online. The response was overwhelming: the students had hoped to get 300 responses over the course of a week, but they had already collected 300 within an hour of a campus email blast. Nearly a thousand total responses gave the students an unprecedented picture of our campus population’s attitudes toward guns in American society. Despite the apparent national shift in favor of some measure of gun control in the aftermath of Parkland, the survey results skewed conservative and in favor of extensive gun rights, as the class expected, considering the broader culture of North Louisiana, where hunting and the consumer culture that supports it are ubiquitous.The overwhelming majority of respondents saw the Second Amendment as protecting an individual’s right to own a gun independent of any sort of military service, a right fundamental to American life in the twenty-first century. But some surprises also emerged: Nearly 80 percent of respondents said all gun owners should be required to take a gun-safety class, for instance, while about half said that all guns should be registered with state or federal authorities—two proposals the powerful NRA is likely never to support.
The forum audience heard reflections on the class and the survey from several of our students, including Owen, who said he experienced a kind of catharsis from speaking about his accident. Contrary to local Facebook chatter, the class did not “brainwash” him into taking an anti-gun perspective, he said, and obviously that was never the class’ intention anyway. Instead, he developed a greater appreciation of the historical complexity of this contemporary problem, and a deeper awareness of the responsibilities gun owners ought to accept with the freedoms they demand. In that sense Owen came to embody Cornell’s notion of the Second Amendment as a civic duty: For the founders, the right to own a gun was always linked to a responsibility to a larger community. Owen chided himself for taking guns for granted. He spoke with a sense of mission, even the zeal of a convert, one converted not to an anti-gun agenda but one of greater individual responsibility and conscientiousness. Owen also became a convert of another kind: He started the class as an engineering student, but now he’s a history major, armed with the discipline as a set of tools for engaging critically with today’s most intractable problems, including the gun-violence epidemic. Eventually it will be someone like Owen rather than me—the brainwashing, gun-grabbing liberal professor—who will have to function as a bridge between two camps separated by the ocean of anger and fear manifested in that angry email I received.
So in the end, what had I gotten myself into? Ultimately, it was a conversation, but one in which historians are unlikely to provide simple answers to complicated questions. Our teaching and research can serve, however, to disarm combatants equipped with fiery rhetoric and mythologies shaped by political agendas, providing not answers but tools for critical self-reflection and social change.
My thanks to Owen for allowing me to share his story, and to the other students in the class for a terrific quarter.
Adam Winkler, Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America(New York, 2013).
Saul Cornell, A Well-Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control in America(New York, 2008), 2.
Lee McGuigan, “The Hunting Industry: Exploring the Marriage of Consumerism, Sport Hunting, and Commercial Entertainment,” Journal of Consumer Culture17, no. 3 (2017), 910–30.
25 June 2018
About the Author
Andrew C. McKevitt is Associate Professor of History at Louisiana Tech University.