Chesterton: Patron Saint of Handgunners

During the journey from the place of his wedding to the place of his honeymoon, G.K. Chesterton made a couple of curious shopping stops.

It is alleged against me, and with perfect truth, that I stopped on the way to drink a glass of milk in one shop and to buy a revolver with cartridges in another. Some have seen these as singular wedding-presents for a bridegroom to give to himself, and if the bride had known less of him, I suppose she might have fancied that he was a suicide or a murderer or, worst of all, a teetotaller. They seemed to me the most natural things in the world. I did not buy the pistol to murder myself—or my wife; I never was really modern. I bought it because it was the great adventure of my youth, with a general notion of protecting her from the pirates doubtless infesting the Norfolk Broads, to which we were bound; where, after all, there are still a suspiciously large number of families with Danish names. I shall not be annoyed if it is called childish; but obviously it was rather a reminiscence of boyhood, and not of childhood. (Autobiography, 44-45)

We will have to postpone for another day any discussion of the glass of milk. (I did not snip it from the quotation for one simple reason: I could not bring myself to cut out the “or, worst of all, a teetotaller,” which is a first rate Chestertonism.) Today, the revolver will have to suffice.

Stopping to buy the revolver was “the most natural thing in the world.” This will no doubt strike many readers, even here in the US, as a bit surprising. But Chesterton explains it simply—after all, there are liable to be pirates where he’s heading. Yes, buying the revolver was boyish, but he was off on a great adventure, and he needed to be prepared to meet it. This is typical Chesterton: the mixture of youthful exuberance with deadly seriousness. Chesterton, on his wedding day, felt the weight of his new obligation to protect his wife. That is, he felt the weight of his obligation to protect his wife. This is a task he would no doubt have done badly, but that does not make it a task to hand over to a more competent protector, such as, for example, agents of the state.

 

If a thing is worth doing, Chesterton tells us, it’s worth doing badly. (What’s Wrong With the World, 175) Defending one’s wife is worth doing, and hence worth doing badly. But more, it must be done principally by oneself. “These things, we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly.” (Orthodoxy, 250) Chesterton’s examples are things like writing one’s own love letters or blowing one’s own nose, but the incident of the revolver shows that he would include the husband’s duty to protect his wife. It’s simply not a job that should be subcontracted out. Of course, we band together in communities that provide mutual support and defense, and the forces of law and order can do their best to provide the safest conditions possible, in general. Our laws and policies and so forth can and should serve to keep the pirates at bay to a great extent. (Whether they, in fact, accomplish this, or whether our policies create criminals like moisture creates mold is an extraneous question.) None of this runs contrary to my point. We ask for doctors, researchers and public health officials to try to create as high a general level of health as possible—but that doesn’t mean we ask them to wipe our noses for us.

Some people find firearms profoundly distasteful, and can hardly share Chesterton’s boyish enthusiasm. Others, while recognizing the (supposed) need for police or soldiers to be armed with firearms, believe that at least in civilized areas, regular citizens have no need for them. Consider this line of thought:

Fire Arms. – The Chief of Police has posted up printed notices, informing all persons that the ordinance against carrying fire arms or other weapons in Abilene, will be enforced. That’s right. There’s no bravery in carrying revolvers in a civilized community. Such a practice is well enough and perhaps necessary when among Indians or other barbarians, but among white people it ought to be discountenanced. (Quoted in Joseph G. Rosa, The Taming of the West, 110.)

So sayeth the editor of the Abilene Chronicle, in June of 1871. The Chief of Police, by the way, was James B. Hickok. You may have heard of him. Not known for his disavowal of carrying firearms, even among white people. Chesterton, of course, would not have been impressed by the idea that whites are somehow more civilized or less dangerous than so-called “savages,” and, indeed, he specifically armed himself against the very pale Danes. But the point here is that even quite literally in the “Wild West,” there were efforts to take firearms out of the hands of the ordinary citizen, and restrict them to a special class of overseers. “Hickok has arrived, and will keep the townspeople safe: there is no longer any need for them to concern themselves about such matters.” Of course, the townspeople were grateful to have some law and order brought to their community—but they typically paid no more attention to the disarming ordinances than Hickok himself would have, had he not been its author and enforcer. (Most notably, the actual criminals paid exactly zero attention to such disarming ordinances. And they never will.) When facing danger—pirates or outlaws or whatever—most men will realize that they simply cannot shrug off their duties, and leave them to the police. They will understand the need to arm themselves.

This argument, suitably augmented, could, perhaps, be used in defense of gun rights. It’s not hard to see how that would go. If we have an obligation to defend ourselves and our families, then we must be permitted to do so in efficacious and proportionate ways. Criminals are likely to have firearms, and in addition will quite possibly significantly outnumber their chosen victims. So firearms must be freely available to the citizen. The argument strikes me as irrefutable, but that’s not the point of this little piece. I have a rather different thought in mind.

Let me take for granted that the citizen has a right to arm himself, and that many citizens might even understand themselves as under an obligation to do so. Let us also take for granted that at the present state of things, the most likely way for citizens to do so—at least here in the US—is with a handgun. So there are millions of handgunners out there. They need a patron saint. I’d like to propose G.K. Chesterton. Given his account of why he armed himself, I would also be inclined to suggest him as a patron saint to be invoked against pirates, but St. Albinus of Angers already has that job. Not that there’s anything wrong with doubling up. Doubling up is great. The more patrons, the better. But the need for a patron of handgunners is much more keen than the need of a patron against pirates—not because pirates are not a real threat (of course they are, though generally not here in the US), but because, as I said, there’s already a patron against pirate attacks. But we don’t have a patron saint of handgunners yet. We have lots of interestingly related saints. Saints for infantrymen, artillerymen, soldiers, archers and so forth. But no saint specifically for those who have recourse to handguns. (For that matter, there’s no patron saint of riflemen. I have some thoughts, but that’s matter for another article.)

Now, there are two problems with my suggestion. At least two—some might add a third: “there simply ought not to be a patron saint of handgunners. Handguns are used to kill people, and there shouldn’t be a patron for that.” That is very silly. There is a patron saint of archers. Does God approve of shooting people with arrows, but reject using bullets? What about artillery? We can safely ignore this issue and turn to the actual problems.

First, if you want to be strict about it, G.K. Chesterton hasn’t been canonized yet.

A mere quibble. I am confident that will change soon enough. And, as it happens, I happen to know of a good way for you to help his cause. My son Thomas has a heart ailment, for the healing of which we are seeking the intercession of G.K. Chesterton. Please join your prayers with ours, and perhaps Tommy’s healing will become one of Chesterton’s miraculous acts. ‘Til then, I am content to offer my suggestion of Chesterton as patron of handgunners as a job waiting for his arrival on the calendar.

Second, there is another candidate. This candidate has the benefit of actually having been canonized. His name is St. Gabriel Possenti.

On a summer day a little over a hundred years ago, a slim figure in a black cassock stood facing a gang of mercenaries in a small town in Piedmont, Italy. He had just disarmed one of the soldiers who was attacking a young girl, had faced the rest of the band fearlessly, then drove them all out of the village at the point of a gun.

People will tell you the story is apocryphal. I don’t care about that. Even if it is apocryphal, it belongs to the cult of St. Gabriel, and hence the Faithful have no reason to shy away from it. But for three reasons, Chesterton, instead of St. Gabriel, should be the patron saint of handgunners.

First, St. Gabriel is already a busy patron. He is a patron of students, of those studying for the priesthood, of Catholic youth, and of Abruzzo in Italy.

Okay, that’s not a very good reason. It’s not like St. Gabriel will get tired out with all the praying. But the second reason is better. It is this: when I say “there is another candidate” for the office of patron of handgunners, I am alluding to the activity of the St. Gabriel Possenti Society. This group has taken up a highly adversarial attitude towards the bishops, particularly the USCCB, which has (admittedly) published some deeply confused ideas about gun control. The St. Gabriel Society has, for example, published little “coupons” to drop in the collection basket instead of tithes, proclaiming “not one cent for gun-grabbing Church bureaucrats.” This is a bad idea. And I’m afraid that regardless of whether the Society is correct in substance, anyone joining in the little movement to have St. Gabriel given this new role will be deemed guilty by association. I gladly give the St. Gabriel Possenti Society full credit, however, for the idea of the “patron saint of handgunners.” It’s a solid notion: we should have such a patron saint. Hence, this little article.

Last, St. Gabriel—at least, as the story goes—was highly skilled with the gun. How, you ask, did one man drive a band of mercenaries out of the village at the point of a gun? The story tells us that he shot a small lizard as a demonstration of his abilities. The soldiers, caught off guard by this feat of marksmanship, were cowed.

Now, imagine such an event with (the eventual) St. Gilbert in place of St. Gabriel, and a marauding band of Danes in the place of the mercenaries. Obviously, it would go differently. First, St. Gilbert would be unlikely to notice the Danes. If he did eventually notice them, he’d struggle to draw his revolver from underneath his flowing cape, and probably drop it on the ground. The gun would discharge (no empty cylinder under the hammer), the pirates would open fire, and down would go St. Gilbert in a cloud of gunsmoke and dust, gladly and gloriously giving his life in a comically inept attempt to save the townspeople. (If Don Knotts had weighed just a little bit more, he could have played the role. If only Chesterton had taken the hint from Knott’s Barney Fife and kept his bullet in his shirt pocket, his dropped revolver wouldn’t have given him away!)

In this sense, having St. Gilbert as the patron of handgunners is sort of like having St. Lucy as the patron of eye troubles. She has a particularly keen understanding of us when we pray for her help against eye ailments (at least in part) because she suffered through an unimaginable eye ailment of her own.

Okay, so having Chesterton as patron of handgunners isn’t exactly like that. But still, the point is that Chesterton wanted to be prepared to put his revolver to use in saving his wife from pirates, despite the fact that he would have done so badly, helps to make him a particularly appealing and appropriate patron. Chesterton, who to the best of my knowledge was never actually involved in a gunfight, knows what it is to be an ordinary, hapless citizen seeking to provide protection for his family. He’s not a patron for Hickok and Earp and others who depend on their own amazing skills in a gunfight. He’s a patron for the ordinary man, who does what he needs to do, even if that means does it badly—and hence, needs a great deal of help if he’s to do it successfully.

Handgunners need their intercessor, and Chesterton is the man for the job.

Patrick Toner

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Patrick Toner is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University. He writes about analytic metaphysics and the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas ... and Norman Rockwell. He earned his Masters in philosophy from Franciscan University of Steubenville and his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia. Dr. Toner blogs at Lift Up Thine Eyes.

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