The Good Citizen, by William Dean Howells

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“I have just had a gratifying illustration of the conscientious perfection of the American people in enacting and enforcing a law when they are agreed that it is really for the common good,” the Good Citizen said, coming in with an air of unquestionable welcome, and taking a chair as a matter of course without invitation.

“And what is your illustration?” we asked.

“It is my failure to get a prescription containing a little cocaine made up without a renewal. Formerly any druggist would have made it up, but a law has been passed forbidding it, and I applied to one apothecary after another without success.”

“That was rather fine,” we approved. “It says what we are always saying, that we are a law-abiding people.”

“Yes,” the Good Citizen assented, somewhat absently, but pulling himself together to add, gaily, “I was thinking that if it had been a revolver I wanted, I shouldn’t have needed a renewal of the prescription. The first hardware man, dealer in fancy articles, clerk in a department store, or pawnbroker would have sold me a revolver and asked no questions. I might have been an obvious madman, a drunkard, a boy, a tramp, a miscreant with criminal stamped on my face, and he would only have had a little jocose hesitation.”

“We suppose,” we mildly intimated, “that the free sale of revolvers is a survival of the citizen’s right to bear arms for his defense against an outburst of tyranny or usurpation on the part of the government. Without the right ‘to utter,’ if not to ‘argue freely,’ as Milton says, with the self-cocking ‘gun,’ perhaps our liberties would be in danger. Besides, many of these ‘guns’ are bought for purposes of self-defense.”

The Good Citizen smiled as with relish at another’s irony, though we had never been more in earnest, and said: “I have been looking into the shootings of a single fortnight in the larger cities of the Northern states. I fancy the result will amuse you, if not seriously interest you.” He took out of his breast pocket a ragged batch of newspaper scraps, and began again without prompting: “I won’t read these in detail, though they are all very dramatic, but will give the facts as abstractly as possible.”

After recounting dozens of fatal shootings, the Good Citizen looked up from his exhausted scrap heap as for applause. “I have not included the duplicate items in the hundred, and I have not given the shootings by the police. But I think you will allow that there are shootings enough, purely secular and unofficial, to give us pause in the indiscriminate sale of the ‘gun.’ If you have paid due attention to my instances, you must have noticed what a large proportion of them were the shootings of boys by boys. But if any of them had gone to a druggist with a prescription containing the slightest trace of cocaine, he would have had to get it renewed by his doctor, or the druggist would not have made it up for him.”

“Still harping on your unguent,” we smilingly noted.

“Only for the sake of contrast,” the Good Citizen retorted. “The anti-cocaine law is all right. But where is the anti-gun law? Is there none, or isn’t it enforced? Anyone, without distinction of age, sex, color, or previous condition of servitude, can go to almost any sort of dealer and buy a ‘gun.’ ”

“You apparently,” we said, with a smile, “wish to break up the use of the ‘gun’ in a community supposed to be civilized, and duly protected by the police.”

“That is my idea,” the Good Citizen replied.

“And suppose the community is not civilized and not protected by the police?”

“Ah, that opens up a large field of inquiry,” the Good Citizen said, thoughtfully. “Are you prepared to enter upon it? Are you ready to say that a city in which fifty shootings took place in a fortnight, like New York, was not civilized? Will you affirm that ‘this fair land of ours,’ as the political orators call it, where perhaps two hundred shootings took place in the same time, is a howling wilderness?”

“Well, that would require a little reflection,” we said; and we smiled, perhaps cynically.

From the Editor’s Easy Chair that appeared in the October 1911 issue of Harper’s Magazine.


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