2 February 2011: Right to bear a loaded musket

Right to bear a loaded musket

The news is good: We made it through the State of the Union address without a congressman going off half cocked shouting, “You lie!” Not yelling adolescent taunts at the President of the United States has become the new-normal standard of being civil, much like the disagreement among the states 150 years ago was civil. That was a war, of course, in which 623,000 Americans died courtesy of their fellow Americans, but it is generally described as a civil one, so perhaps we have raised the bar for what passes muster as civil.

But then, mutual slaying of fellow citizens ought to be considered a hallmark of civilization. What great nation hasn’t had the blood of its own upon its hands?

Perhaps that’s the reason the right to possess the means to mass murder needs protected in the Constitution as opposed to, say, the right to have access to health care despite the document reading “to promote the general welfare” and despite personal weapons at the time of writing the Constitution being muskets that automatically fired not 32 rounds in a few seconds but one or at best two off-target shots per minute.

I actually found on ehow.com the tutorial “How to Load a Musket,” detailing the step-by-step process frontiersmen followed to load their weapons while hunting or shooting Redcoats, from which I realized the origin of the idiomatic phrase “going off half cocked.”

Since he might be staring down the barrel of his weapon during loading, the marksman first set the hammer to half cock, the safety setting. However, that didn’t necessarily preclude the weapon from firing prematurely, which would be most unpleasant for the loader, but, hey, life in those days was rougher and tougher without the safety net of safe weapons. No pampering of those rugged individualists.

After setting his musket at half cock, the marksman would pull a charge from his ammo pouch, tear off the top with his teeth, hold the ball in his mouth—Can you say “lead poisoning”?—and pour the powder down the barrel.

Next, he would pour powder down the barrel, followed by the ball and wadding from the package to secure the ball and gunpowder, and tamp the powder with the ramrod.

Finally, the shooter would add gunpowder to the flash pan below the trigger, put the musket on full cock, and fire at a wide spectrum of objects including men, trees, rocks, and hapless critters curious enough to nose around to witness the spectacle.

In a strange way, that process does seem an apt metaphor for many current politicians and pundits. It was helpful and a relief that senators and representatives mixed company at the SOTU address, for it is most indelicate to go off half cocked when your target is sitting beside you.

Folks at The Phrase Finder site suggest the original half cocked imagery referred to inebriation and cite the novel Lydia (1786) that antedates the writing of the Constitution (1787) by one year in which John Shebbeare wrote, “Who should enter unto the company, but young Captain Firebrace, half-cocked… come hither to finish his evening’s potation.”

But they go on to state “there doesn’t appear to be any particular link between the mechanics of firearms and drunkenness,” which is odd since using the term “loaded” to mean drunk seems more than coincidental, which suggests the question, When loaded, what do a gun and a human have in common?

I imagine an 18th-century shooter who was a victim of his own musket rearranging the contours of his face looking more for a hole into which to crawl rather than for medical support due to his embarrassment. But embarrassment has gone out of vogue in 21st-century America, especially for those who go off half cocked vis-à-vis tweeting or consistently botch historical facts such as denying slavery was institutionalized in the Constitution and it took a not-so-civil war and a subsequent amendment to undo it.

Given the Second Amendment was written when the musket reined supreme, perhaps we can compromise on gun control agreeing that only the right to bear muskets shall not be infringed upon, which should meet muster with the Original Intent crowd headed by Tea Party Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Then at least when some whack-job goes off half cocked, he wouldn’t have a 32-round advantage before being taken down or out.

On another note, Happy Imbolc. Life is beginning to stir within the warming Earth with Persephone packing her bag and bidding adieu to Hades. And should I see my shadow, it’ll mean at least six more weeks of skiing.

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