In a basement classroom of the Westside Rifle and Pistol Range, near the Flatiron Building in New York City, students are being given a lesson in early American History. It has a lot to do with guns.
There are 14 students in the classroom, seven women and seven men. The students have paid less than the price of an average New York dinner to spend three hours together, to learn how to shoot a small caliber rifle and take a rose-tinted walk through the history of the founding of the United States.
This is Project Appleseed, created by the Revolutionary War Veterans Association, dedicated to spreading the art of rifle marksmanship and its place in American history. The group describes its mission as a bulwark against “American ignorance and apathy.” It speaks volumes about the nature of Appleseed volunteers that the group doesn’t descend into some thinly veiled, well-armed Tea Party propaganda machine.
For an hour, instructor Dan Boyle walks the group through a fractured history of the American Revolutionary War. The group discusses the Minutemen and Paul Revere, as well as the Boston Massacre (“How do we know a British soldier fired the first shot? Because he missed!”) The group talks about self-reliance and the evolution of guns and rifles over the past 200 years, and Boyle explains the component parts of a model .22 rifle that he holds in his hands.
“The first step is to be honest about what a gun is,” says Dan. “When people say, ‘It’s just a tool,’ that’s a bit disingenuous in my opinion.”
One student, the wife of another attendee, explains that while she is terrified of the power of guns, her husband wants to buy one and she wants to learn more before they make the purchase. She is exactly, Boyle points out, the kind of person Project Appleseed is trying to reach.
What Appleseed is about, beyond the history lesson and target practice, is “personal responsibility.”
For Boyle, that responsibility lays with gun owners. It’s how he can point a rifle at zombie target posters in the basement — often referred to as stand-ins for liberals within the community of extreme Second Amendment supporters — without betraying the ideals that brought him here to teach in the first place.
“I find the whole zombie thing in poor taste,” said Boyle. “It impersonalizes the other side. It’s absolutely threatening to people who don’t agree with you, these pro-Second Amendment guys who stand around talking about how ‘Liberalism is a disease,’ and then in the next breath talk about zombies. It’s not difficult to make the connection. I mean, what are we talking about? We’re talking about killing our neighbors. I find it embarrassing.”
Project Appleseed, and events like it, represents the closest thing to a middle ground in the gun debate that there is in the country right now. It’s a place where the debate can be stripped of some of its caustic rhetoric and returned to something approaching rational conversation as novices learn about the pros and cons of gun ownership.
“Liberty taken to the extreme is not a good thing,” Boyle said to the class, laying out what might be Project Appleseed’s most important lesson of all. “We are not ‘armed,’ the Second Amendment not withstanding, against our government with weapons. What we are armed with is information and the vote.”
He added, before dismissing the class, “If you ignore your rights, they’ll go away.”