Building Character At The Point Of A Gun

May 12, 2012

Firearms, History, Self defense

Earlier this year I led a small group of twelve and thirteen year olds on a hike to Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park.  This hike has been described as Zion’s equivalent of Yosemite’s Half Dome.  Although far less strenuous than Half Dome the last half mile of the Angel’s Landing hike involves walking and climbing along a knife edge ridge, sometimes no more than three feet wide, with steep drops on both sides.  I certainly don’t consider it a dangerous hike but I can understand why some people do.

Both during and after the hike I found myself contemplating the value of taking children on such hikes, where one stumble would likely result in death or serious injury.  Each time I came to the same acceptable conclusion, they were testing their limits, learning discipline and self-control, building character and learning to appreciate the great outdoors. 

I returned to such thoughts the other week when I had occasion to see a group of children being taught how to shoot pistols and rifles. It was obvious that they were enjoying themselves and, as far as I could see, they were scrupulous in following the four universal firearms safety rules.  But there was something missing.  Learning the mechanics of how to shoot certainly requires discipline, self-control and good hand/eye coordination, but this activity is fundamentally different from the hiking example above.  Guns are specifically designed to kill.  Pulling a trigger on a pistol or rifle can snuff out a life instantly.  Were these young men and women aware of the moral and ethical implications of using a tool specifically designed to deliver deadly force?  

The decision whether or not to use deadly force in a particular situation is an intensely personal and moral one.  If you had a gun, a knife, a baseball bat, or even just your bare hands, under what conditions would you use deadly force?  Would you do so to save a loved one, a stranger, or maybe something precious that you own?  Would you do so knowing that even if you faced no criminal charges you could still lose everything you own in a civil law suit?  You wake up one night to see an intruder with a ski mask climbing into your daughter’s bedroom.  You grab your gun from the night stand and shoot him.  The police come, remove the ski mask and tell you he is a convicted rapist on their most wanted list.  How do you feel?  What will your neighbors say?  What will they write about you in the newspapers the next day?  What if they remove the ski mask and instead, you see that you have shot your neighbor’s teenage son?  How do you feel now?  What will the community reaction be?  What will the headlines say?  Did you still make the right decision under the circumstances?  Nobody can decide for you whether or when to use lethal force.  There are no laws, books or religions that can give you the right answer.  They can influence your choice but only you can pull the trigger.  Having said this, one maxim that finds almost universal approval, is “if it’s not worth dying for it’s not worth fighting for.” I would not hesitate to tackle an intruder carrying off my loved one but he is welcome to keep the large plasma TV screen.  Ultimately it’s your decision alone and you pay the consequences for carelessness or a bad choice.

The Founding Fathers were very aware of this moral dimension to the use of firearms and believed that there was a close connection between guns and character.  Thomas Jefferson wrote to his nephew advising that “health must not be sacrificed to learning.”  “As to the species of exercise, I advise the gun.  While this gives a moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprize [sic], and independence [sic] to the mind.”  In contrast, he believed that “games played with the ball and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind.  Let your gun therefore be the constant companion of your walks.”  Colonial Americans believed that the bearing of arms was essential to the character and dignity of a free people. Modern gun prohibition laws actually had their origin in racist legislation designed to prohibit slaves and black freedmen from owning guns.  This was done, not just to deny blacks the political power of arms, but to prevent them from “aspiring to the dignity of free men.”

What did “the dignity of free men” mean then and what might it mean todayThomas Jefferson gave us one answer in his inaugural address of 1801. “Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself.  Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others?” Along similar lines James Madison noted in the Federalist Papers “the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation.”  In Europe, he said “the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.” The Founders were victors of an armed revolution where they had repeatedly faced life-or-death choices knowing full well the consequences of failure.  Forged in the furnace of armed conflict in defense of their liberty,  they had developed a level of ethical maturity and individual responsibility, which at its core, manifested itself in the knowledge that they were truly competent to govern themselves.  The dignity of a free man or woman lies in the fact that, only by being willing and able to make life or death decisions and take full responsibility for our actions, do we earn the right to govern ourselves.  The Founders knew that if we do not trust ourselves to make these decisions we will almost certainly get the government we deserve but do not want.


“The most foolish mistake we could possibly make would be to permit the conquered Eastern peoples to have arms.  History teaches that all conquerors who have allowed their subject races to carry arms have prepared their own downfall by doing so.”    Adolph Hitler, April 11 1942

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill


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20 Comments on “Building Character At The Point Of A Gun”

  1. Richard Friesen Says:

    I recall a cartoon of two congressmen walking down the steps to the capitol. One asked the other, “Do you favor gun control?” The other responded, “Of course, who wants armed taxpayers?”

    It was a joke, but the reason I laughed was the discomfort I had with the hint of truth.

    The decision to own or carry a weapon carries with it significant responsibility. Most people do not realize that when in a threatening situation their brains and physiology make a dramatic shift. This shift to “flight or fight” means that the person who feels threatened does not have access to the “neo-cortex” or conscious brain. Blood flows to the larger muscles and they lose fine motor coordination. Some people experience “auditory exclusion” which means their brains don’t register sounds. Our field of vision narrows.

    It is better to be armed, then not armed, it is better to be trained at the range then not trained, and it is best to practice threatening situations that are most likely to happen with an experienced guide in a simulation.

    Rich Friesen


  2. Jeff Hummel Says:

    Great post, Malcolm, eloquently put!


  3. Jae Says:

    Thanks for pointing me to your post. I like how it points to the moral decisions any gun owner must take into consideration. It seems the anti-gun folk believe anyone who owns a gun is a madman waiting to happen (somehow I doubt most of them have handled a real gun, let alone seen one). Having taken gun safety courses, the responsibility of owning a gun has only been made more serious. I cannot understand why it is when a madman who usually acquired his weapon illegally commits a crime that politicians immediately look to relieving law-abiding citizens of their rights. How exactly is it just to punish the innocent for the crimes of the guilty? Dangerous times we live in…


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Jae, thank you. I agree with you completely. In my opinion this debate has nothing to do with guns and ammo. At its core it’s a moral argument and by extension a politial argument having to do with the individual’s relationship with his or her government. When the debate turns on whether a magazine can have ten or 15 rounds it is no wonder that both sides are talking over each other.


  4. gpicone Says:

    Colonial Americans believed that the bearing of arms was essential to the character and dignity of a free people. Modern gun prohibition laws actually had their origin in racist legislation designed to prohibit slaves and black freedmen from owning guns. This was done, not just to deny blacks the political power of arms, but to prevent them from “aspiring to the dignity of free men.”
    -Did you know that Thomas Jefferson had 4 children who were also his slaves until he died? Whatever Mr. Jefferson believed in it had nothing to do with dignity that’s for sure. Are you also saying that modern gun prohibition laws were more racist than the Colonial American’s belief in slavery? Many African American men fought for freedom and the revolutionary cause and got shafted by the founding fathers too…more lessons in dignity at the end of a gun I suppose…


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      “Whatever Mr. Jefferson believed in it had nothing to do with dignity that’s for sure.”

      You are too bright to believe that. Slavery predated Jefferson by a few thousand years and although he did not free his slaves until after his death you know very well he was a consistent opponent of slavery his whole life, calling it a “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot”. You are criticizing him a posteriori for his belief that slavery had to be abolished as part of the democratic process. To discard the political contributions of the Founding Fathers because of slavery would would be like discarding the democratic and philosophical contributions of the Greeks because they believed in slavery.

      “Are you also saying that modern gun prohibition laws were more racist than the Colonial American’s belief in slavery? Many African American men fought for freedom and the revolutionary cause and got shafted by the founding fathers too…more lessons in dignity at the end of a gun I suppose”

      No, I am not saying that. I am saying that the origin of modern gun control was racist and discriminatory and it still is. Chief Justice Roger Taney’s infamous opinion in Dred Scott v. Sandford circularly argued that blacks could not be citizens because if they were citizens, they would have the right to own guns: “It would give them the full liberty,” he said, “to keep and carry arms wherever they went.” After the Civil War the Klu Klux Klan became inextricably linked to gun control and whenever the Klan became a political force gun control laws would suddenly appear on the books. So, for example, when, following the firebombing of his house in 1956, Dr. Martin Luther King applied for a gun permit, the Alabama authorities found him unsuitable. Gun control regulations today unfairly discriminates against the poorer and more vulnerable sectors of our population. Goldman Sachs executives and Diane Feinstein keep their concealed weapons permits but the poor inner city resident who needs one, is denied it.


      • gpicone Says:

        Do you really really really believe that the answer to an inner city residents prayers is gun ownership? So when they all finally have guns and are too poor to even feed themselves and our government cuts all of the rest of their meager benefits that they now receive what then? They can stare each other down at the point of a gun until they starve to death? And yes unfortunately Thomas Jefferson was both morally and literally bankrupt when he died. He did not free his own biological children who he kept in slavery even though they were by all accounts of that time “white in appearance” and resembled him strikingly. You are far too bright to have to make up excuses for that kind of moral depravity by blaming it on the slowness of the American democratic process. Jefferson was forced by the French authorities to let his slaves live as free men and women whenever he was visiting and living in France. They hated to have to return to that great bastion of freedom and democracy that had “discovered” liberty and was known as the USA. You are right though in that Sally Hemmings would have probably loved to have had a concealed gun permit.


        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          I am not exactly sure what inner city residents pray for and neither are you. But, as long some inner city residents want a firearm for personal protection, gun control regulation will remain racist and discriminatory as it always has been. As for your view of Jefferson and the Founding Fathers, I have difficulty understanding your black and white view of the matter. We are all fallible, imperfect creatures with limited knowledge and the Founding Fathers were no exception. I also admire John Adams despite his support for the Sedition Acts which, in my opinion, will always be a stain on his character. However, if you insist on your blanket condemnation of everything about Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers just because of their position on slavery, there is nothing more to be said other than that I am not aware of any reputable historian who shares your opinion.

        • gpicone Says:

          Yes but seriously even though we do not know what other people pray for what do u think Sally Hemmings would have done if she’d had a pistol? From what I have heard you advocate, I think you would have shot him if you had been her. You certainly wouldn’t have been able to just scare him off because he would have been within his legal rights to have later had you killed at whatever time and place he had chosen. Does god give all former slave owners a pass in heaven? Or at least to those who declared all men to be created equal and free and then did nothing about it except create more slaves? Forget historians, what do you think about that?

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Sally Hemings no doubt did have access to a musket or pistol and could have shot Jefferson if she wanted to. Just because she was a slave did not mean she did not have some kind of relationship with Jefferson that was not based solely on coercion. Indeed, since they lived together over many years and had seven children, four of whom lived to adulthood, it would be surprising if she did not. I am certainly not going to use the word ‘love’ because she was a slave although several of their great-grandchildren explained that Hemings returned to America from Paris because Jefferson “loved her dearly”. Slavery is wrong and slaves do have a right to defend themselves but I continue to admire Jefferson greatly, an admiration not dimmed by the fact that he was, like all of us, a fallible, imperfect human being.

        • gpicone Says:

          yes, love is a many splendored thing…I too have always admired Jefferson but I must admit that after reading about him at length my admiration has… dimmed. What does it take to dim yours? “Just because she was a slave did not mean she did not have some kind of relationship with Jefferson” you were kidding, right?

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Remember, there was a wide spectrum of opinion about slavery in colonial times and Jefferson was one of the good guys. At one extreme were those advocating that slavery was a positive good and at the other extreme were those like Jefferson actively involved in trying to abolish slavery. Jefferson wrote that slavery was like holding “a wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.” He said this as a result of his belief that white Americans and enslaved blacks constituted two separate nations who could not live together, a view not dissimilar from Abraham Lincoln’s view at one time that “there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality”. Jefferson and Lincoln were clearly wrong about this but certainly no more wrong than Plato who thought that ‘barbarians’ were unworthy of freedom, or Aristotle who thought some peoples were born incapable of being responsible for themselves. Are you seriously suggesting we ignore the intellectual contributions of these great men because of their mistaken views on slavery? As to my Sally Hemings comment I certainly think it possible although I am not aware of any supporting evidence on the subject.

        • gpicone Says:

          The important thing to do is to not overlook their mistakes simply because we admire them. Thomas Jefferson took full advantage of his slave holdings to the tune of never even paying his bills. He lived a wonderful and elegant life because he didn’t have to pay for it. Sally Hemmings was his wife’s half sister and by the time Jefferson’s sons were born they were less than 1/4 African American but still he couldn’t allow them to live free because they would be like dangerous wolves among us? If you are going to give Jefferson credit for his supreme intellect than you cannot give him a pass on not knowing right from wrong when it came to slavery. He was the President of the U.S. for crying out loud! He could have easily divested himself of slaves and found a freeborn girlfriend too! To say that his hands were tied and that while it was politically acceptable to fight for freedom from Britain but not to free the slaves (which by the way was a promise of fighting for the revolution on the Americans side that our founding fathers later reneged on) is exactly why racism still flourishes in the US today. Slavery was always wrong and I don’t care what smart men of the ages thought it was a good idea. Billions of people throughout history have always known it to be wrong….especially slaves! It’s not some new idea of the modern age. It’s great fun to wax poetical about the worthiness of men of different nationalities and ethnicity when you are the one who believes in your own superiority. Plato and Aristotle didn’t know that slavery was wrong? Really? You don’t think that they had a sense, an awareness, that they were full of shit? Men can say a lot of things but we always know when we’re full of shit don’t we? You really don’t think that TJ knew he was wrong to bang Sally every time he went back to visit Monticello and then leave her to give birth to another servant/slave child 9 months later…and then come back and do it again? and again? and again? Is that the measure of a GREAT man?

  5. Steve Says:

    Very interesting (and complex) discussion. I’m about 11,000 pages into reading the best biographies of our Presidents (all of whom thus far have been among the Founding Fathers) and I’ve witnessed the uncomfortable contradictions in many of their positions on slavery vs. actions taken…so let me add my own two cents. (1) The issue of slavery is quite clear-cut today but in order to fully judge those who lived 200+ years ago we have to consider the historical context. It is shocking to use, but slavery was common, and accepted, in many parts of this country as well as within much of Europe and Africa (and elsewhere); (2) Thomas Jefferson owned slaves virtually his entire life, averaging about 200 at any one time. Ironically, he was much more public in his disapproval of slavery than most other southerners, and nearly all other southern politicians. He was admittedly less publicly vocal later in his career as he found public opinion on both sides of the issue intractably hardened; (3) George Washington also owned slaves virtually all his life. Shouldn’t we similarly condemn Washington? GW doesn’t seem to have a “Hemings” in his closet, yet I’m unaware of Washington taking as public and unpopular a stance against slavery as TJ did… yet Jefferson is more often condemned for the contradiction he presented. John Adams’s wife’s family also owned slaves, and Adams was undeniably against slavery – yet he did little to force the issue with his in-laws. What should he have done? And as President he signed the Alien & Sedition Acts, but pushed no legislation I’m aware of to eradicate slavery; (4) It is worth noting that it was not legally possible in Virginia for most (all?) of GW’s/TJ’s lives to simply free one’s slaves in Virginia, nor was an owner free to do as he pleased with dower slaves obtained through marriage. Not an excuse, just an acknowledgment of the unfortunate “complexity” of the issue and the times; (5) Although we can all agree that slavery was a wretched institution…would I rather have been one of Washington’s or Jefferson’s slaves in the late 1700s, or a so called “free person” working for $38/month in a garment factory in Bangladesh in 2013, sewing clothes for Polo or Armani? I’m not sure I have an easy answer to that one. And I’m not sure, despite what we label their legal status, that their stations in life are all that dissimilar. So how do we feel when we put on that shirt or pair of jeans or those shoes?


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Steve, thank you for these excellent nuanced comments on, as you say, a complex subject. I would just add in response to gpicone that history frequently requires us to make judgments based on incomplete data. I don’t think there is much dispute about the quality of TJ’s mind and his contribution to colonial politics. For his character I would argue that the correspondence between him and John Adams reveals not just a cultivated mind but a man of great personal integrity. Consequently, while I am aware that he could be manipulative at times, on balance I believe that his opposition to slavery was sincere and that Jefferson would concur with the many historians who describe the abolition of the slave trade as one of his administration’s two main achievements.


      • Steve Says:

        It seems fair to say that Jefferson was in most respects an optimist and idealist, believing in the power of the individual and seeing the world in his own mind as he wished it could be, but recognizing that his power to shape the world was limited. I believe he honestly thought slavery a repugnant and regrettable institution (perhaps not with the clarity “we” are able to see it) but felt trapped by the society, and its laws and cultural norms, within which he lived. This all seemed exacerbated by the debt he both inherited and incurred, which he never escaped during his life as Jeff noted. Interestingly I haven’t found him particularly manipulative, though his behavior is often described as duplicitous which I believe can be explained by his desire to avoid personal confrontation (in the interest of apparent harmony) while pushing his agenda (often a harsh critique of others) behind the scenes, often through intermediaries. Among the things I found most surprising and remarkable about him was his passionate support for free and widely available public education (I’m not sure whether he intended this to be limited by race or gender), and the fact that everyone – even his political enemies – remarked that to know him personally was to love him. Notwithstanding all of that, I find him a remarkably complex person to “get to know” – particularly relative to others who provided posterity greater access into their character and/or seem less multi-dimensional (Adams and Washington both come to mind).


        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Thank you. A great summation of a complex character. I don’t find his support of public education too surprising as he believed that the best way to prevent power turning into tyranny was to educate the people (women were not included in his plan for free public education).

  6. Jeff Hummel Says:

    Steve’s comment is nicely balanced. I would just throw in some historical detail. Nearly all the slave colonies and slave states had legal restrictions on masters manumitting their own slaves EXCEPT briefly after the American Revolution. By the time of the Civil War, manumission required the permission of the state legislature in seven slave states.

    Nonetheless during the revolutionary relaxation of these restrictions, more than 10,000 Virginia slaves were freed, more than were freed in Massachusetts by outright abolition. George Washington freed no slaves during his life but arranged for the emancipation of all his over 300 slaves upon his death in 1799. Jefferson freed 2 of his slaves during his lifetime, older brothers of Sally Hemings, and allowed 2 others who were Hemings’s children to escape. His will freed 5 more, 2 of them Hemings’s children. Hemings herself along with one other slave were freed by Jefferson’s daughter, after his death. Jefferson’s remaining 130 slaves were sold to cover the huge debts of his estate.


  7. Malcolm Greenhill Says:

    I was discussing the possibility that Jefferson had a relationship with Sally Hemings, with a friend of mine. His comment was that, at the time he was alive, the social prejudice against openly inter-racial marriage was certainly stronger than against manumitting slaves. So if Jefferson and Hemings did have a genuine relationship, freeing her may have actually made continuing it far more difficult and more detrimental to Jefferson’s career.


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