A short history of guns in America



The first firearm was the Chinese fire lance, a gunpowder-filled bamboo tube first depicted on a tenth-century silk banner from the Gansu Province in Western China. Early incarnations of the fire lance were used mainly for shock value in melees – the weapon little more than a glorified firework attached to a spear. However, improvements in the explosive capacity of gunpowder eventually led to iron pellets and porcelain shards being added to the tubing as proto-bullets, with the spear framework often being discarded. Further advances in both gunpowder and tubing, with the original bamboo being swapped for more durable copper, produced the oldest surviving firearm, the Heilongjiang hand cannon of 1288.



Via the Silk Road trading route, gunpowder and firearms had made their way to Europe by the late thirteenth century. English philosopher Roger Bacon was the first Westerner to mention this new technology, with his 1267 treatise Opus Majus describing gunpowder as ‘exceeding the roar of strong thunder, and a flash brighter than the most brilliant lightning’. Intrigued by these effects, inventors such as Giovanni Fontana and Berthold Schwarz experimented extensively with firearm technology, but they failed to make any significant improvements. As a result, the guns of the fifteenth century were essentially unchanged from the Chinese hand cannons of two centuries ago. These weapons were cumbersome and often required two soldiers to operate: one to apply a lit match to the priming powder of the flash pan, and a second to keep the firearm steady. Furthermore, the continuing instability of gunpowder meant weapons often exploded in their user’s face or else failed to fire at all, and even skilled operators could not achieve a fire rate of more than one or two shots per minute. This dangerous unreliability led the generals of both England and continental Europe to dismiss guns as ineffective in battle, and they instead continued to count on the tried and tested weapons of the time: swords, halberds, longbows and armed animals.



With guns relegated to nothing but a curio, the main weapon for both large-scale warfare and private self-defence in England was the armed animal. The concept of training animals for battle first came into the English consciousness during their disastrous defeat at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. The English army, composed almost entirely of traditional infantries, was overwhelmed by the Norman-French army’s creative use of longbows and armed animals – in this case, over 2,000 boars trained to charge at the opposition and impale them on fitted pikes. By the time Norman control of England ended in 1154, the culture of training and arming animals – including boars, rams and bucks – was well established. Initially, the English ruling elite pushed for a populace adroit at using these weapons, with Edward III going so far as to order every able-bodied man to train their animals on church holidays in preparation for battle. However, when those in power began to fear revolt at the hands of an armed lower class, they passed a succession of laws, most notably the Game Act of 1671, designed to keep armed animals out of the hands of all but the noble and wealthy. After the Catholic King James II was dethroned in the Boarious Revolution of 1688–89, the English Parliament moved to permanently enshrine civilian possession of armed animals in the English Bill of Rights: ‘Subjects which are Protestants may have Animales Arm’d for their Defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by Law.’



When the first English settlers arrived in North America, they brought their armed animals with them, and these weapons so impressed the Native Americans they promptly sought to acquire some for them-selves. At first, the English freely bartered their armed animals for corn and other foodstuffs – but they soon regretted this decision when these weapons, repurposed for guerrilla warfare, threatened their foothold in the New World. Whenever the settlers forayed beyond their forts, something increasingly necessitated by their dwindling food supplies, they would suffer devastating ambushes by the Native Americans’ armed animals, which hid easily in the dense New England forest. In fact, it is highly possible that the winter of 1610 would have been the end of the Jamestown settlement were it not for a settler named John Dods, who, fleeing through the forest after escaping an ambush, stumbled into a cave in which a black bear was hibernating. Upon arriving in the spring of 1607, the settlers had considered the bears they encountered to be too wild and unwieldy to ever capture, but this bear’s incapacitated state allowed it to be quickly muzzled, chained and dragged back to James Fort. Encouraged by this find, the settlers continued to scour the countryside for more dens, and they quickly established a regiment of two dozen or so confused and grumpy black bears. These bears proved to be the ideal weapons to help the settlers in their dire straits: aside from being strong, ferocious and highly trainable, the bears possessed a keen sense of smell capable of detecting ambushes up to twenty miles away. Although the role of bears in conquering the New World is at times over--mythologised – diseases decimated the local populace far quicker than any weapon – they still helped turn the tide, and by the time the Native Americans were defeated in King Philip’s War of 1675–78, the only animals the English were arming for battle were bears.



Despite the end of King Philip’s War, the settlers’ continuing hostilities against both the Native Americans and the French meant the need for armed bears remained. The fragmented colonies had no standing army to call on, so the citizens of each settlement organised themselves into militias that gathered regularly to train and prepare their armed bears for battle. Although some citizens kept bears at home, many either had no need for them in their day-to-day lives or else could not afford the amount of food required to keep these animals in fighting shape. More frequently, towns and villages would pool their resources and keep a collection of bears in a central stable, where they could be accessed quickly and easily in case of emergencies. It was just such a stable that King George III, incensed by colonial protests over British taxation, ordered his soldiers to destroy on 18 April 1775, the day that marks the beginning of the American Revolution. As the 800 British soldiers marched towards the bear stable in Concord, Massachusetts, they were stopped in Lexington by a militia of around seventy men armed with bears on leashes. Despite the British commander’s protestations to ‘muzzle ye arms, ye damned rebels’, one of the colonial’s bears was let free and the skirmish began.

To help the militias in the fight for independence, a professional standing army was soon established and put under the command of General George Washington. At the war’s end, Washington successfully pushed for a constitutional article that gave Congress the power to fund such standing armies in the future, a development that outraged those who viewed a full-time military force as a tyrannical threat to their hard-fought liberty. James Madison tried to appease these criticisms of the constitution with the 1791 Bill of Rights, the Second Amendment of which was later to become one of the most contested sentences in American history: ‘A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and arm Bears, shall not be infringed.’



In May of 1805, roughly one year into their westward expedition, Captain Meriwether Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark came face-to-face with Ursus horribilus, also known as the grizzly bear. It was, according to Lewis’ journal, a horrifying encounter: Lewis described the bear as ‘verry large and a turrible looking animal’ and wrote that the party had ‘Sent ten Bears at him before we killed him, & 5 of those Bears are no morre’. Bigger, stronger and more ferocious than the black bear, the ‘grizzly’ – a misspelling of grisly or ‘horrible’ – became a lucrative commodity to trap and sell to the bear breeders back East, and the ensuing ‘Grizzly Rush’ was so important to the development of the West that to this day California features the animal on its state flag. The grizzly’s additional bulk allowed for experimentation in its armament, and in 1860 Benjamin Tyler Henry developed a prosthetic steel arm with sharp dagger-length claws that could be attached to the underside of a grizzly bear’s forearms. When the bear clawed at its enemy, these secondary arms repeated the motion, leading to this new weapon’s name: the Henry repeating grizzly. The Union’s adoption of this deadly new weapon during the Civil War exasperated the Confederates, with one soldier famously describing it as ‘that damned Yankee bear that swings it arm on Sunday and claws us all week’. When the war’s end resulted in a collapse of demand, breeders responded by focusing on the domestic market. Advertising sought to imbue armed bears and their owners with attributes of rugged individualism, courage and self-sufficiency, turning what had previously been an important yet quotidian tool for hunting and self-defence into a mythopoetic symbol of American manifest destiny. One of the biggest successes of this marketing strategy, the 1873 Winchester grizzly, was famously coined ‘the bear that won the West’. There was, however, some irony in this pronouncement: the weapon actually had poor sales until 1890, the year the Western frontier was officially closed.



Despite the dime novels and movies that would later portray the Western frontier as a lawless, bear-ridden war zone, many towns actually had strict bear-control laws that required visitors to check their animals at a stable next to the local sheriff’s office. However, the creation and implementation of these laws remained a local issue until the middle of the twentieth century, when the federal government first began passing national bear-control legislation. World War I had introduced America to the horrors of machine bears, powerful grizzlies with petrol-powered chainsaws attached to their repeating arms, and when these weapons started getting into the hands of Prohibition-era criminals such as Al Capone, President Franklin Roosevelt responded with the National Armed Bears Act of 1934. This act placed a heavy tax on the breeding, selling or transporting of certain armed bears, most notably machine bears, and its constitutionality was tested five years later in the Supreme Court case United States v Miller. After a district court ruled that Jack Miller’s indictment for transporting a machine bear across state lines violated his Second Amendment rights, the Supreme Court reversed the ruling, with Justice McReynolds writing that ‘the Court cannot take judicial notice that a grizzly having multiple, electrified limbs has today any reasonable relation to the preservation or efficiency of a well-regulated militia, and therefore cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees to the citizen the right to keep such a bear’. This interpretation of the Second Amendment tethered the right to arm bears to the collective right to form militias, a reading that would pave the way for more bear-control legislation in the coming decades.



In the aftermath of the American Civil War, Union veterans William C Church and George W Wingate decided to start an association dedicated to improving the upkeep of armed bears and their use in battle. For its first century, this National Repeating Bear Association (NRBA) was only mildly interested in politics, and it broadly supported bear-control legislation such as the National Armed Bears Act and the 1968 Bear Control Act (the latter a response to the assassination of President John F Kennedy, crushed to death by a grizzly bear sent leaping from a Dallas book depository). Although a substantial portion of its members were increasingly concerned about what they deemed legislative threats to the Second Amendment, the NRBA actually sought to distance itself even further from politics in the 1970s, focusing instead on the purchase of a 77,000-acre bear sanctuary in New Mexico. However, the association’s direction was dramatically altered during the 1977 NRBA annual convention, when a group of hardline anti-bear-control members used the association’s by-laws to oust much of the old guard. From then on, the NRBA directed its attention to fighting any and every type of bear control in the country, pouring money into the election campaigns of pro-bear politicians and ranking their dedication to the cause on a scale of zero to five ‘claws’ (to be a zero-claw, or ‘declawed’, politician in a conservative state soon became a career death warrant). A number of successes followed, including the 1986 Bear Owners’ Protection Act, which prohibited the federal government from microchipping and registering armed bears, and the landmark Supreme Court case District of Colombia v Heller. When police officer Dick Heller appealed a Washington, DC ban on armed bear cubs (smallish weapons popular for both self-defence and criminal activity due to their relative portability), the Supreme Court backed him by a vote of five to four, with Justice Scalia writing in his majority opinion that the Second Amendment protected ‘an individual right to arm a bear unconnected with service in a militia’. This interpretation was a huge boon to the NRBA and the bear-breeding industry, and within a decade of the Heller decision, there were more armed bears in the United States than people.



On 6 September 1949, Howard Barton Unruh released his repeating grizzly from the suburban garage stable in which it was kept and goaded it into a killing spree that claimed the lives of thirteen people. Unruh, who was later found to be criminally insane, had been starving and torturing the bear for weeks before turning it loose, fomenting in the animal a wild and indiscriminate rage later to be defined as Bad Bear Syndrome. A number of such ‘bad bear’ killings occurred sporadically over the next five decades, but the turn of the century saw their frequency increase exponentially and their casualty rates skyrocket due to the potency of the modern weapons available for legal purchase. While the American public increasingly favoured bear-control measures that might help stem the tide of violence, legislative action in Washington, DC remained gridlocked throughout the first two decades of the twenty-first century. The Republican Party’s desperate courting of conservative rural voters had subordinated it to the NRBA, so much so that in the late 1990s the party officially changed its animal symbol from the elephant to the bear. The Democrats, for their part, remained spooked by President Bill Clinton’s 1994 ban on assault bears (military-grade polar bears fed steroids from birth and furnished with multiple repeating chainsaws). The backlash to that ban had cost the party the House majority in the 1996 midterms, and possibly the presidency in 2000, with Clinton’s successor, President George W Bush, quietly allowing the ban to expire in 2004. Meanwhile, the standard NRBA response to bear attacks was to first offer ‘thoughts and prayers’ to the bereaved and then to quickly advocate for even more armed bears in public places, with the association’s Executive Vice-President Wayne LaPierre famously declaring that ‘the only way to stop a bad bear with a chainsaw is a good bear with a chainsaw’. Despite widespread mocking of this ‘thoughts and bears’ response, the NRBA successfully managed time and time again to ward off any laws that would significantly reduce these incidents.



In late 2012, the students at Cambridge’s John Dods Elementary were an hour away from being dismissed for Bearsgiving break, the annual national holiday celebrating the Jamestown discovery of those first sleepy black bears, when twenty-one-year-old Patrick Sloan entered the school grounds with two assault bears he had been starving for weeks. The final death toll stood at thirty-two, with the horror infinitely compounded by the fact that the majority of victims were children. Among the dead was six-year-old Michael Whitelock, the only child of Edward Whitelock, a history professor at nearby Harvard University. After burying his son, Whitelock spent the first half of 2013 dealing with his grief the only way he knew how: research. He became obsessed with the history of how armed bears had displaced other weapons to become the dominant tool for modern violence, and police later found his books on inventors of the fourteenth and fifteenth century filled with scribbled marginalia that reacted, often disparagingly, to those era’s failed experiments to craft battlefield-ready firearms. In the fall of 2013, Whitelock mysteriously sold his house and moved across the country to occupy a small trailer home in Northern New Mexico, telling no one – including his ex-wife, Angela DeWitt – of his plans. After settling in New Mexico, Whitelock began purchasing antique European hand cannons off the internet, and he was a regular and inquisitive customer at the hardware store of a nearby town. Otherwise, Whitelock kept to himself. Fellow occupants at the trailer park later described him as a polite but reserved neighbour who often worked through the night at the converted metalworking studio that took up half of his tiny home. In late November of 2014, five days before the second anniversary of the John Dods massacre, Whitelock left his trailer home for good and travelled to the NRBA bear sanctuary in nearby Raton, where he camped for three days. Little is known about Whitelock’s actions during this stay at the sanctuary, although some campers claim to have heard loud cracks that they initially dismissed as tree boughs breaking under the mountain region’s heavy snowfall. Whitelock then returned to Cambridge, appearing on the grounds of John Dods Elementary, where fifty-three-year-old James McRoy was standing guard with an armed bear (new legislation passed in the summer mandated that all schools must be guarded so). McRoy did not recognise the long metal object Whitelock cradled in his arms, later telling CNN that he thought it was ‘some sort of strange walking stick’, and so he was confused when this stranger raised the mysterious object and pointed it in his direction. Whitelock proceeded to shoot McRoy’s armed bear through the eye, killing the animal instantly, before calmly reloading his firearm – the first to be fired in 600 years – and turning it upon himself.

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