On January 5, 1477, Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, was pulled from his horse and his head was cleaved in two by a Swiss peasant. The weapon that peasant used was called a halberd. These weapons, recognizable as the implement wielded by the comically dressed guards at the Vatican, consist of an axe blade and a spike on the end of a long staff. This seemingly innocuous and decorative weapon was actually the great equalizer of its day. It enabled the lowly peasant to defend himself against even the highest born noble on his mount; from the ground a rebel or soldier could stand his ground, use the axe edge to hook and pull the knight from the saddle (literally his high horse), and then pierce that knight’s expensive armor or, as in the case of Charles, cleave his head in two. They became more than a weapon, they became a symbol of the timeless struggle between the oppressed and the oppressors.
Weapons as emblems of defiance for the powerless is as old as David’s sling. Lowly slingers were the dread of the ancient world, terrifying even the most hardened and well equipped combat veterans and able to break up even the most disciplined phalanx. Peltasts were lightly armed peasant spear throwers who decimated a Spartan army at the Battle of Lechaeum. The Kentucky rifle (also called the Pennsylvania or long rifle) is our symbol of freedom from the mighty British, and today the AK-47 emblazons the flag of Mozambique as well as the coat of arms of Burkina Faso, East Timor, and Hezbollah.
Since the National Firearms Act of 1934 it has been exceedingly difficult to obtain fully automatic weapons in the US, yet between that date and the rise of the NRA in its current form there was no movement to protect our citizens from a tyrannical government by bearing a certain type of arms, especially not from those who were predominantly enfranchised by the government during that time: white men. My grandpa may have kept a carbine in his home out of sentimentality from his time of service during the war, but I don’t recall him listing protection from Uncle Sam or marauding hordes as a reason. Home protection is nothing new, but in days past the white men in our country always seemed content with the protection provided by a shotgun, handgun, or even their hunting rifle. What change brought about the rise of the semi-automatic AR-15? Was it our government? Despite what many within the gun lobby and those within conspiracy theory circles propagate, there is really no evidence of increased government oppressiveness towards white men in our society.
For a while I was confused by the popularity of the AR-15. Those who predominately owned these weapons didn’t live in crime-ridden areas, they weren’t actively being harassed by authorities, and they didn’t seem afraid to leave their homes and families unguarded. Was it a grasp at manhood? A way to return some of the dignity taken from men by the digital age, where muscle and sinew were becoming less needed or valued? Maybe, but I started to notice the possession of such weapons as something different, something removed from fear of government oppression or a loss of manhood. I started to see their ownership as an emblem of defiance and comradery. I noticed a joy and a bonding that came from the buying, the assembling, the owning, and the displaying of the gun, more so than a joy in the frequent shooting of it or a sense of comfort in its presence. In fact, most AR-15 owners I know rarely shoot them. (In my opinion they are fun to shoot, but ammunition is expensive and cleaning is a pain.) Nor does it seem to bother them as much as owning a boat one could rarely take out or a motorcycle one rarely got to ride would. The pleasure of possessing an AR-15 and occasionally displaying it seem to be enough.
It’s odd that a weapon would come to symbolize a fight against oppression that has never actually been used for that purpose. I believe the AR semi-automatic rifle began its journey towards symbolism shortly after 9/11. In 2001, much like today, our all-volunteer military was made up of predominately working-class and middle-class white males. This tendency has nothing to do a surplus of courage or fighting skill compared with various minorities. It has mostly to do with the fact that patriotism is mainly the domain of the enfranchised.
If you grow up feeling like a valued part of something that has been there for you, then you tend to be more likely to want to sacrifice for that thing. In this case that thing is a nation. The weapon working-class white Americans were taking into battle, after volunteering post-9/11 to fight (an important distinction from previous wars), began to symbolize their sacrifice. And although the number of men who actually carried those arms into battle is very small, that visual was absorbed by the multitude of those white men who never actually served, at least not in combat, and owning such a weapon made them feel like part of that band of brotherhood in some small way.
Most veterans I know don’t feel an enormous compulsion to own the civilian equivalent of what they carried into battle. Their emblems are often found instead in pictures and tattoos, medals, and framed flags. While they more often than not share political beliefs and cultural affinities with the civilian white men in their social circles who proudly display their ARs, they also quietly mock them for “playing army.” There’s nothing wrong with being a weapons aficionado, but the hero worship, adulation, and imitation isn’t mutual.
Those veterans and that gun have become symbols of white nationalistic pride, and the NRA and others are quietly promoting this.
Meanwhile, the world is leaving us behind. It is listening to us less, needing us less. We aren’t oppressed, despite the rhetoric of reverse racism, but the writing’s on the wall that we won’t really run things much longer. To this segment of white men, the knights on the high horses are those who muddle gender, nationalism, and cultural norms, and our halberds are our AR-15s, which we use to scare and confound the alien hordes pressing us for our monopoly on enfranchisement.
The signs that support my theory are there if you look for them, literally. There has been an explosion of bumper stickers emblazoned with the AR silhouette above our flag and t-shirt and apparel companies are successfully peddling items that sport the image of the quintessential American firearm along with one cheesy statement of defiance or another. Advertising that we are part of the in-group by sporting the image of the AR-15 has become more important than becoming expert in its use or having it with us at all times to ensure our safety from (unlikely) threats. It has become our flag, our stone and sling, our peltast, our halberd. That gun isn’t about protection or freedom or sporting fun, it is much deeper than that. It is a symbol of inclusion in the fight to hold on to the unchallenged status and idealism of days which are quickly passing.