Gun Rights & the Gods of the Copybook Headings

A century-old Kipling poem is eerily prophetic for gun-rights supporters … here and in Ukraine.

by posted on March 3, 2022
Copybook Headings

In the year 1919, an English poet named Rudyard Kipling penned a poem called “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” that many of us, a century later, would find eerily prophetic. There’s a particular stanza in the poem that should strike close to home for NRA Women—and everyone who follows the history of gun-rights infringement worldwide, here and in Eastern Europe. It goes like this:

When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.

They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.

But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,

And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "Stick to the Devil you know." 

“Gods of the Copybook Headings” refers to an Edwardian method of teaching penmanship—children would copy Biblical quotes and aphorisms over and over in imitation of a perfect example rendered in the heading of their copybook. Perhaps there was something about writing those words repeatedly that reminded people of their wisdom.

By the time Kipling wrote the poem, the titular copybooks were already going out of style. Whether or not the fact that people stopped copying that down-home wisdom had anything to do with their having forgotten it, it’s fair to say that the tide of “gun control” was already well ashore in England and elsewhere in 1919, and that Kipling foresaw only trouble in its wake. Sadly, in this case and in that stanza, Kipling was right.

The list of Twentieth-century atrocities is long and carved into history with millions of copying hands. The Holocaust. Stalin’s purges. The killing fields of Cambodia. In the year 2022, the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And each and every one of those atrocities was visited upon a disarmed population, upon citizens who had been promised peace if they gave up their arms.

Our hearts break for the brave women and men of Ukraine. It’s encouraging to know that the Ukrainian populace is setting its heels against the invaders with their privately owned firearms. But the fact that gun ownership is relatively common in Ukraine is a matter of the word “relatively.” Approximately one in 10 Ukrainian civilians owns a firearm, about average for most of Europe. That leaves approximately nine in 10 needing to make do with whatever self-defense tool they can find as the invading troops advance.

“Stick to the Devil you know,” reads the copybook heading, and if you’re not familiar with the idiom, it doesn’t mean that guns are the devil. It means that in a society in which the default is to be armed, guns are just a part of life. In such a society, everyone knows that guns are simply tools with no moral weight of their own at all. Everyone understands how they work, when to use them, and when not to. In the year 1919, that attitude was par for the course everywhere in America. A little over a century later, Kipling’s Copybook-Heading Gods—and the common sense they stood for—aren’t quite as common.

Is it likely that American citizens will ever have to face an invading army on their doorstep, like Ukrainians must do today? Probably not, but history teaches us that we shouldn’t dismiss the possibility entirely. After all, a little over a century before Kipling wrote his poem, American citizens were facing an invading army on our doorsteps—the British forces of the War of 1812. On that note, one more stanza of “Copybook Headings”:

Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew

And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true

That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four

And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.

Let’s hope that the Gods of the Copybook Headings never need to explain anything, poetically or otherwise, to us. Instead, let’s remember this particular piece of poetry, and keep it close to our hearts: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

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