Book Review

EveryManArmedThat Every Man Be Armed: The Evolution of a Constitutional Right (2013)
By Stephen P. Halbrook
Univ. of New Mexico Press
ISBN-13: 978-0826352989
336 pages

Reviewed by Gila Hayes

Over the 4th of July last month I vowed to reread a classic in gun rights books, Stephen P. Halbrook’s That Every Man Be Armed: The Evolution of a Constitutional Right, which was updated last year. This is a concentrated, scholarly book that defies synopsis in a couple of pages (in fact, I did not finish reading it over the holiday weekend). Instead of an inadequately brief review, I’ve decided to go really short on my Editorial pages this month and use more pages on this book review to remind Network members about the history of our self-defense rights.

Halbrook’s title echoes Patrick Henry's assertion that the newly freed nation’s defense rested with its citizens and their privately owned guns. “The great object is, that every man be armed…Every one who is able may have a gun,” he stressed. Using a quotation for the book’s title sets the tone; it is filled with lengthy quotes by sources ranging from Aristotle to U.S. Supreme Court Justices and many luminaries in between. Many address rights to overthrow tyrannical despots, fears about a standing army, and, of course, individual weapons rights not only to unseat tyrants but also for personal defense.

Early on, Greek and Roman philosophers elucidated most of our modern human rights. Halbrook quotes Aristotle, Cicero and later Machiavelli to highlight the elemental character of the right to possess and use weapons for self defense. He contrasts Aristotle’s advocacy of a constitutional government, “the members of which are those who bear arms” against Plato’s totalitarian ideal. By limiting weapon possession to specific classes, Aristotle countered, entire segments of the population become slaves to those who have weapons.

Long before the assault weapon argument, Aristotle explained why citizens need military-grade weapons, writing that while an armed citizenry can protect their king, “the armed force of the monarch must not be ‘strong enough to overpower…the whole population.’”

Halbrook later cites Aristotle’s description of a tyrant’s power grab, beginning with trickery to disarm the soldiers.

From Roman history, Halbrook also highlights Cicero’s recommendation of citizen militias, “a large group of knights from the main body of the people” who provided their own swords, spears and armor and later relates, “The demise of the citizen militiaman, who provided his own weapons, and the transition to the standing army heralded the end of the republic and liberty and the beginning of the institution of the empire and tyranny.”

This Machiavelli echoed a thousand years later, when he wrote, “The demise of the armed citizen meant the end of civic virtue and with it the end of the people’s control over their destiny,” Halbrook quotes. “Rome remained free for four hundred years and Sparta eight hundred, though their citizens were armed all that time; but many other states that have been disarmed have lost their liberties in less than forty years.”

Next, Halbrook’s timeline advances several centuries to contrast arguments for and against an armed population forwarded by Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, the latter writing, “In a State truly free, the citizens do all with their own arms and nothing with their money.” Another, Algernon Sidney, extensively quoted by Halbrook, was beheaded for his published statements in favor of weapon possession by the common man to defend his “own life, liberty, goods, and lands; and that tyrannical governments may rightfully be abolished.” King Charles II executed him for treason in 1683, Halbrook relates.

While Englishmen were defining gun rights, they denied the same to the Scots, the Irish and, of course, eventually to American colonists. Halbrook explains that gun control in America was originally implemented to subdue the native population, though it soon was enforced against colonists, as well.