Why Texas is on the front lines of the gun control debate.
The arguments about Newtown had been raging for barely a month when Texas’s attorney general, Greg Abbott, ran a series of web ads inviting New York gun owners to move here. “Is Governor Cuomo looking to take your guns?” the ads asked. “We’ll fight like hell to protect your rights. You’ll also get to keep more of what you earn and use some of that extra money to buy more ammo.”
He was not the only Texan on the pro-gun scene. Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst drew national attention when he declared his support for arming schoolteachers and training them to respond to life-threatening situations. His onetime campaign rival, the newly minted senator Ted Cruz, drew the ire of PolitiFact when he told the PBS News-Hour, “If you look at the jurisdictions with the strictest gun control laws, almost without exception they have the highest crime rates and the highest murder rates.” (The senator received a “False” rating, but as is so often the case, it depends on the methodology.)
The Second Amendment sentiment was hardly restricted to major officeholders. In February the Gonzales City Council declared that any federal law regulating firearms violates the amendment “and, consequently, is invalid in the State of Texas and shall be further considered null and void and of no effect in this City.” It’s been a little more than 177 years since the Mexican government attempted to seize Gonzales’ single cannon, prompting the people of that town to successfully resist, under a banner daring the Mexicans to “Come and Take It.” The dubious constitutional reasoning of nullification-by-municipality aside, that spirit is still alive in Gonzales.
All of this raises the question, Why Texas? And why Texans? Why are we at the forefront of a debate whose proximate causes—the recent mass killings in Newtown, Minneapolis, Oak Creek, Aurora, Seattle, and Oakland—have nothing to do with us? As a Second Amendment absolutist myself, I’d like to think it’s because we Texans are inherently more conscientious and vigorous in the defense of our rights. But that’s not the whole story. Texas stands out in the gun debate not because we are deeply Texan but because we are deeply American. We Texans like to think of ourselves as unique—and we’re right. But we’re wrong to ascribe that status to our Texanness. The Second Amendment is an expression of an American ideal that Texas was fortunate to inherit.
The roots of the Texas ideal in the American ideal stretch back to our founding, in 1836. William B. Travis’s famous letter from the Alamo appealed for aid “in the name of Liberty, of patriotism and everything dear to the American character.” And the Texas Declaration of Independence justified itself on the grounds that the revolutionaries “should continue to enjoy that constitutional liberty and republican government to which they had been habituated in the land of their birth, the United States of America.” T. R. Fehrenbach, in Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans, vividly described this blood-and-soil aesthetic: “The Texan’s attitudes, his inherent chauvinism and the seeds of his belligerence, sprouted from his conscious effort to take and hold his land. It was the reaction of essentially civilized men and women thrown into new and harsh conditions.” Fehrenbach identified that mind-set as European, but it encompasses nineteenth-century America to a tee as well.
This history is the reason Texas’s elected leaders reflexively defend our Second Amendment rights. And it’s the reason the rest of the country takes notice of us. If we were merely parochial, we would not matter. In today’s gun debate, Texas is a proxy for America’s traditional view of itself.
There is one big truth that used to hold from sea to shining sea and is now most keenly apprehended here: an argument against the individual right to bear arms is an argument that the average American is incompetent to contend with the most fundamental moral questions of life, death, and justice. It is an argument that assumes ordinary people cannot be entrusted with democracy.
Even modest curbs on this right, such as closing the “gun show loophole,” requiring mandatory trigger locks, and placing limits on magazine size, are an insult to the foundational premise of our nation. One is reminded of the 1790’s tumult over the meaning and scope of the First Amendment, with Federalists enacting national laws to limit free speech and the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans declaring the right to speak one’s mind to be beyond federal (though not necessarily state) control.
An irony of the 2012 mass killings is that the same year marked a forty-year low in violent crime across America. Our communities haven’t been this safe since 1972, and it’s no accident that this coincides with an era of mass firearm ownership. Yet guns in our history aren’t primarily instruments of security. They’re instruments of liberty. The modern use of arms against state power is checkered with attention-grabbing lunatics, from Oklahoma City to Waco. We also ought to remember, though, the far more numerous examples of Americans’ using their arms to protect their rights, from West Virginia coal miners fighting murderous strike breakers in the early twentieth century to black self-defense organizations warding off racist vigilantes during the civil rights era. In Texas we remember the legendary Gregorio Cortez, who was unjustly accused of murdering a Karnes County sheriff in 1901 and spent ten days eluding capture. The famous corrido that was written in his honor had him assert, “I won’t surrender my weapons until I am in a cell!” And finally, this past August saw the 150th anniversary of the Nueces massacre, in which armed German Texans defended themselves against the predations of Confederate authorities. They lost and more than half of them were killed, but what Texan can gainsay the value of a doomed and valiant resistance?
These men and women and their arms are not the American exception. They are the American ideal. There is a direct line from the farmer with his musket at Lexington to the settler with his rifle at Gonzales. These armed free men—and not the armed madmen who made 2012 a year of infamy—embody the true meaning of our Second Amendment.
We have come a long way since our wild frontier origins. But our lives are not any more certain than our ancestors’. There are those who say the government can now fill the gap that our rifles used to cover. There are those who believe it. But it is a hard sell. We have enough history to tell us otherwise, and Texans know it.
Read a response to this column by Harold Cook, a Democratic public relations strategist and political advisor based in Austin.