Down a quiet, dilapidated road in Colonial Williamsburg, there stands a round brick building surrounded by a brick wall with a cone-shaped roof, passed by thousands every year without much more than a second’s glance. Yet embedded in its walls is a truly American story that remains relevant today. This conical piece of architecture is the powder magazine that once housed the gunpowder supply of the colonists in the Williamsburg area. While it is no longer in use today, it serves as a symbol of American resolve in the face of tyranny. It was here, before daybreak April 21, 1775, that the Royal Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, sent a detachment of royal marines to confiscate the powder. At a time of serious tension between Great Britain and its American colonists, this act further enraged the citizens and was seen as yet another breach of their rights as free people. Militias mustered and marched on the city to demand redress. While Dunmore never returned the powder itself, the idea of citizens uniting to stand against the overarching reach of a government that stepped too far is an American virtue that remains strong to this day.
This story gives us an insight into why individual ownership of firearms is vital not only on pragmatic grounds, but also as the foundation for the idea of American individualism. To the Virginians of 1775, Dunmore’s actions were viewed as an attempt to subjugate free citizens. By having their powder extracted, the colonists were unable to defend themselves from any manner of usurpation by the Crown.
To find a similar event in our modern age, one need not look further than an hour to the west, this time at the State Capital in Richmond, where after Gov. Ralph Northam expressed his support for incredibly radical gun laws, tens of thousands of Virginians rallied in Richmond outside the capital building. Many came armed, yet contrary to the fearmongering of others, not a single demonstrator was arrested, nor a bullet fired.
Even though technology has changed drastically in the past 250 years, the underlying principles behind the Second Amendment have remained. History has demonstrated time after time that if individuals surrender their means of defense, they become subject to the whims of those holding the reins of power. Whether it be African Americans in the segregated South, Kulaks in the Soviet Union or political dissenters in Hong Kong, governments around the world have never hesitated to use violence against their citizens, especially when they have been disarmed. It is self-evident that governments are set up to provide for the largest swaths of society. What is to be done to protect those who fall through the cracks of representation? The only reasonable answer is that governments should be designed to protect as many people as possible, and as a failsafe, individuals should accept the responsibility of defending themselves.
Restricting racial minorities from gun ownership has been an enduring theme in the history of firearm legislation across the United States. During the era of Jim Crow, laws were crafted to prevent blacks from defending themselves. Martin Luther King Jr. was denied a permit to carry a firearm on his person. A famous photograph exists of Malcolm X peering around a window curtain with a military-grade weapon perched on his hip due to him and his family receiving death threats. It is arrogance of the highest order to assume that our society will never again use the disarmament of its citizens as a way to persecute minorities, racial or otherwise.
A common refrain in American political thought is that the defense of individual rights rests in four boxes: the soapbox, the ballot box, the jury box, and the cartridge box. Without each of these, the citizen cannot truly be assured freedom. History has proven such rhetoric correct and we disregard the lessons of the past at our peril.
Email Caleb Coffelt at firstname.lastname@example.org.