*A Bonfire of Guns:  De-arming America and the Social History of the Dukhobors

 

The United States is conservatively estimated to have at least 300 million firearms in private ownership, though the actual number may be considerably higher.  The Geneva-based Small Arms Survey put forward a figure of 270 million in 2007, nearly ten years ago, but this estimate is based largely on recorded sales and information furnished by individual gun owners. However, gun registration is not mandatory across the United States, and trafficking in firearms is a lucrative business.  What is unequivocally true is that every study ranks the United States as number one globally in the per capita ownership of private firearms.  It is, of course, far from being the only trigger-happy country in the world.  Other countries that place in the top ten are Iraq and Yemen; though officially Afghanistan was placed only 102nd in the 2007 Geneva survey, the country is known to be awash with private firearms.  Indeed, the Pathan has long had a reputation, whether deserved or otherwise, for a love affair with his rifle.  But these are not the countries with which the US likes to be compared, though it is a telling fact that the US often finds itself—for example, in the matter of adhering to capital punishment—in the company of countries, among them Iran and North Korea, which it otherwise describes as “rogue” states.

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First Group of Dukhobors Arriving in Halifax, Canada, by ship. Source: http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca

So just what is it that is to be done with all these guns? Assuming, as I have had occasion to remark on my blog on several previous occasions, most recently in my essay posted yesterday, that the measures—background checks, placing a ‘reasonable’ limit on the number of firearms an individual might own, initiating a waiting period—that are from time to time proposed in the US, varying only in degree rather than in kind as one moves from one state to another, are nearly worthless, what lessons might be drawn from other countries?  To pose a question in this fashion itself often invites opprobrium in the US, since many Americans, and not merely those who are not well-educated, hold dearly to the view that America has little to learn from the rest of the world.  To take one illustration, the late Justice Scalia, whose sudden departure to another world led to a rather mysterious, indeed I should say herd-like, outpouring of grief, held firmly to the opinion that American justices had no business citing the opinions of courts in countries such as India since American jurisprudence was self-sufficient, supreme, and trend-setting.  Michael Moore’s late 2015 film, Where to Invade Next?, dwells precisely on these forms of American insularity and exceptionalism, though as he points out some of the most progressive social innovations were the consequence of American ingenuity but were later abandoned in the US even as they came to be adopted in other countries.

 

Australia offers perhaps the best illustration of how private gun ownership might be limited while not outright eliminated.  Japan’s rate of homicide by private firearms is practically zero; there have been years when there have been fewer than ten fatalities on account of gun violence in an entire calendar year.  But once one moves beyond the iconic Japanese brand names and the taste that a certain sector of the white population has acquired for Japanese cuisine, Japan is construed as much too alien to the American sensibility.  Most Americans would take offense at the suggestion that their country might consider emulating Japan.  Australia, on the other hand, shares with the US an Anglophone culture, English common law traditions, and much else—even if cricket and Australian Rules are not quite akin to baseball and (American) football.  In 1996 and again in 2003, Australia initiated a gun buyback program.  The 1996 program, precipitated by a massacre in Tasmania that took a toll of 35 lives, required Australians to surrender certain firearms, among them some semi-automatic rifles, long guns, and pump-action shotguns.  This mandatory buyback program provided owners with “just compensation” and was financed by an increase in the Medicare levy from 1.5% to 1.7% of income for a period of one year.  The NRA and its various mouthpieces, among them the National Review, have not surprisingly contested the efficacy of this program; however, more scholarly studies have established that the firearm homicide rate in Australia fell by an astounding 59% while the firearm suicide rate decreased by 69%.  Australia’s gun ownership rate is presently about 21.6 per every 100 residents; its gun homicide rate is less than 1 per 100,000 in contrast to around 11 per 100,000 in the United States.  Gun buyback programs have barely been tried in the US; where at all they these feeble measures have been grudgingly attempted, they have been on a voluntary rather than mandatory basis.

 

If, however, the US is going through a period of mass delusion, then Americans will be impervious to reason.  When rational argument cannot prevail, we should at least permit ourselves some stories.  The social history of one radical anarchist community, the Dukhobors, also known as the “Spirit Wrestlers”, has been little told.  Even chroniclers of nonviolent resistance are unfamiliar with them:  there is no mention of the Dukhobors in Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall’s A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Resistance (2000), or in Mark Kurlansky’s short but engaging NonviolenceTwenty-Five Lessons from the History of a Dangerous Idea (2006).  Arising from the great 17th-century schism that shook Russia, the Dukhobors were a mystical evangelical group that faced intermittent persecution from 1773 onwards.  The Dukhobors rejected all external authority, the Bible not excluded, and viewed their own leader as a reincarnation of Christ.  The convoluted history of the Dukhobors, among whom the adherence to nonviolent resistance to oppression, egalitarianism, vegetarianism, communal ownership of property, and the repudiation of conscription is common if varying in degree, need  not be rehearsed at this juncture.  A series of exiles—to the Caucasus, Siberia, then to scattered villages in Georgia—eventually brought them, with the financial assistance of Leo Tolstoy and English Quakers, to Canada.  The bulk of the Dukhobors, some 25,000, are now settled in western Canada; there is a small population, numbering not more than 5,000, in the US; and estimates of their numbers in Russia vary immensely, from a mere few thousand to something like 30,000.

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Russian Dukhobor settlers on ship, enroute to Canada, 1898. Source: Canadian Archives.

 

It is the Dukhobor practice, very much alive today if only in the form of symbolic remembrance, of creating a bonfire of guns that is of supreme interest.  7,000 Dukhobors first engaged in the burning of weapons in 1895, on June 29, at three different sites in the Caucasus, to protest conscription in Tsarist Russia.

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The Doukhobors’ “Burning of Arms”, 29 June 1895, painting by Terry McLean. Source: http://www.doukhobor.org

This act of defiance is one of the more remarkable chapters in the history of human awareness, an affirmation of the dignity of every human life and simultaneously an expression of an adamantine refusal to kill another person.  One need not idealize the Dukhobors:  they have been implicated in previous years in Canada in acts of arson and dynamite, even if such acts were directed at their own properties to signify their repudiation of material possessions.  In all the discussion that is presently taking place in the US on gun violence, and amidst all the bravado about the intent to be unified and to prevent terrorists from dominating the narrative, there is barely any reflection on the philosophical and ethical implications for the human spirit when killing becomes a sport.  It is not for nothing that the Dukhobors have been known as the ‘spirit wrestlers’ or ‘spirit warriors’:  they call to mind, with unmistakable urgency, the simultaneously necessity to tend to the spirit and to take arms against arms. The call to nonviolent resistance is heard loud and clear in the Dukhobors’ burning of weapons.