Exploiting history for political purposes is nothing new. Every week I find myself laughing, cringing, or yelling about comments made by presidential candidates attempting to employ U.S. history to meet their own ends. Today, in Lexington, Massachusetts, the first moments of the American Revolution are being utilized in the ongoing debate about gun safety.
Months ago, Harvard Professor Robert Rotberg drafted legislation aiming to ban specific assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in Lexington. At the end of March, the debate over Rotberg’s amendment will begin at the Lexington Town Meeting, a centuries-old local government organization made up of about two hundred representatives. Outsiders are welcome to voice their opinion, as long as they abide by the Town Meeting’s decorum. Defenders of gun rights have already made public their disapproval of Rotberg’s proposal, and town residents anticipate a spirited debate.
Both advocates and opponents of the measure have employed their community’s history in defending their positions. As Lexington’s minutemen fired the “shot heard round the world” beginning the Revolution, Rotberg hopes his proposal will encourage other local governments to enact similar restrictions on assault weapons across the country. Rotberg’s opponents, however, have claimed that the proposal is exploiting the town’s history and legacy to forward a political agenda. So, which side carries the true mandate of the minutemen?
Rotberg’s amendment will provoke an interesting debate, in which both sides may weave Lexington’s heritage into their particular stances. Many Americans remember the Revolution as an inescapable, violent, military struggle. However, what Americans forget (or fail to realize) is that the minutemen did not hear gunshots, put down the plow, and plunge headlong into a war against a superpower. Rather, the citizens of Concord and Lexington met for months and years at town meetings, weighing the cost of resistance against their hardships under British rule. Gun access is merely one part of Lexington’s story. In fact, the Town Meeting was just as, if not more, consequential to the advent of the Revolution.
From now until November, we are sure to see continued use of American history as candidates compete for the windbreaker on Air Force One. History provides perspective and context, with which we can hopefully visualize the larger picture. Outside of Boston amid a contentious gun safety debate, the larger picture is that despite Revolutionary, Civil, and World Wars, the Lexington Town Meeting still remains. The arena in which this political battle will be fought is a part of the minutemen’s legacy.
For a compelling and short read about current uses and abuses of the Revolution’s legacy, check out Harvard historian Jill LePore’s The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History.
 Arun Rath, “Home of the Revolutionary War’s First Shots Wants to Ban Assault Weapons,” NPR, February 21, 2106.
 Robert Gross, The Minutemen and their World (New York: Hill and Wang, 1976), xvi.