Paul Andersen: Guns and their deadly evolution
In 1791, when the Second Amendment was passed, the typical firearm was a ball and powder, single-shot pistol, rifle or shotgun
Mass shootings that now regularly stain the national fabric with the blood of innocents could not have occurred back then. Reloading time two centuries ago would have been a serious challenge when compared to the spray of bullets a single shooter can unleash today.
The founders who voted in the Second Amendment were aware of semi-automatic weapons because they were available then, however limited. Expert craftsmen were fabricating multi-shot pistols and long guns, but they were not affordable to the average gun buyer.
In no way could the founders have foreseen the potential carnage gun technology would make possible to practically any consumer. Nor could they foresee the sociopathic poison that would taint the right to bear arms when insanity couples with the divine power of taking human life in serial displays of violence.
Debates about the Second Amendment are unending, and so are proposed gun laws intended to disarm that small yet potent portion of the gun-toting populace bent on random malice. Guns are part of American life, and no amount of bloodshed will quell the passion for gun ownership.
Reviewing the history of weapons offers context to the backstory of the mass shootings that keep our flags at half-staff and sicken survivors with heartbreak. It began with the advent of gunpowder and its application to the “fire lance” in 10th-century China where bamboo tubes were charged with gunpowder, loaded with pellets and touched off with a flame.
By the 13th century, the Chinese had honed this weapon into a metal-barreled hand cannon, considered the ancestor of modern firearms. Gun technology spread into England and Europe and led to the matchlock, a hand cannon ignited by applying a glowing punk to the touch hole.
This was as an awkward technique if the shooter wanted any accuracy, so the method was refined with a mechanical linkage that lowered the match to the hole and fired the charge in the barrel.
The matchlock morphed in the late 1400s into a German breech-loader called a “harquebus,” with a 10-shot cylinder. A revolving cylinder was also innovated in handguns, which afforded multiple shots. One model, from 1580, had a 16-round wheel.
The gentle people of Denmark, my peace-loving forebears, began building quantities of repeaters in the mid-1600s, using tubular magazines that could fire 30 shots without reloading.
Not long before passage of the Second Amendment, the Girandoni Air Rifle was invented in 1779 for Austrian sharpshooters. It could fire 20 bullets, and its projectile could penetrate a 1-inch wood plank. The Girandoni was carried by Lewis and Clark, with the Corps of Discovery (1804 to 1806), introducing rapid firepower to the American frontier.
War offers strong incentives for weapons technology, and advancements are made with each conflict. The Civil War spurred innovative advances in mass killing with the Spencer repeating guns, which could fire seven shots in 15 seconds, and was test-fired by President Lincoln. The Gatling gun, invented in 1861, could fire 200 rounds per minute out of six revolving barrels.
The 1873 Winchester rifle became the first popular repeater. In 1887, repeating shotguns were added to the domestic arsenal. Since then, machinists and engineers collaborated to achieve magnitudes of firepower that put earlier weapons to shame.
Those weapons should now put to shame the NRA and weapons manufacturers that must accept a measure of culpability for the grim death tolls emanating from fatal products like high-volume magazines and bump stocks.
Where will it all end? With a succession of bloodbaths of such finality that sane people will realize that widespread firearms are not a means for security, but rather of insecurity for all.
Polls indicate that most people in the U.S. agree that gun access should be restricted. Given that most gun owners are men, gun control will be a pitched political and gender battle that will require an evolutionary leap until the security of the public finally rises above the curious fetish of gun ownership.
Meanwhile, stay away from concerts, churches, schools, post offices, courtrooms, street corners, cafes …
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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