Mozambique flag reminds us of the symbolism of guns in a free society

In my article on Valerie Plame Wilson’s objection to a local United Way’s gun raffle, I touched on a subject that deserves more discussion—namely the symbolism of guns in private hands.

One example of guns as symbols is to be found in nations with a revolutionary history.  America is an obvious case of this, and I’ll return to that, but consider first the debate in Mozambique over the presence of an AK-47 on the national flag.  That nation went through decades of struggle for independence and civil war that ended in the early 90s, though conflict has returned in recent years, and the Kalashnikov-pattern carbine is seen by many as a reminder of that hard work.

The problem with symbols is that they can be interpreted in varying ways, depending on the experience and values of the viewer.  To one person, a firearm will be an image of death and domination, while to someone else, the same object stands for the ability of a free person to insist that rights be respected.  Mozambique’s efforts to achieve independence and then to thrive are within living memory and still being decided.  In the United States, we have a much more distant perspective on the role of guns in the creation of liberty.  The statue of a Minuteman on the Massachusetts state quarter shows how we’ve absorbed the idea into the national subconscious—to the point, unfortunately, that Massachusetts and a few other states would like to make the Minuteman extinct today.

And that’s where the symbol of guns is one that must be understood.  In a society such as ours, in theory and mostly in practice, power flows from the people and is loaned for a set period to the government, a loan that must be renewed regularly and paid back with interest.  We can debate endlessly about the effectiveness of an AR-15 used by ordinary citizens to resist a tyrannical government, but the deeper point is that when those people have the honored right to own such firearms, their leaders are making a symbolic recognition of the source of the authority that they wield.

Another aspect of this is the relationship of the individual person and society as a whole.  According to David Ropeik, author and Harvard instructor writing for Big Think,

Individualists . . . prefer a society that grants the individual more freedom and independence and leaves them more personally in control of their individual choices and values. Contrast that with the sort of society preferred by Communitarians, who feel most comfortable, and safest, in a “We’re all in it together” world of shared control and communal power, a society that sacrifices some individual freedoms in the name of the greater common good.  [Emphasis in the original]

Ropeik’s formulation is a little off, since individualists don’t say that society grants anything.  In fact, the granting goes the other way—from each one of us to society in delineated measures—but as a general statement of views, it’s a good summary.  And private gun ownership serves as a symbolic underlining of the individualist position.

The debate over safety and violent crime, over suicides, and over accidents and negligence are all something that should come after we make clear the more fundamental question of the balance between individual freedom and societal needs.  Gun owners act as megaphones for the message that the people own the power our government uses, and it’s no wonder that many who seek to rule us want to silence those voices.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of

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