Long rifle bill is bad history, gun experts say

House Bill 1989, signed into law last month, recognizes the Piper J-3 Cub and the Pennsylvania long rifle as the state's official aircraft and firearm, respectively.

Why? Hey, that's what our state legislators do. There's a bill pending to name shoofly as Pennsylvania's official pie.

Unfortunately, experts tell me that HB 1989's rifle history is wrong. Worse, they say the bill's sponsor knew about the objections and ignored them.

Local state Rep. Marcia Hahn, R-138th District, sponsored a long rifle bill last year, but it didn't go anywhere until she succeeded in having it amended onto the Piper Cub bill.

Patrick Hornberger, who has been curator and co-author of several exhibits and books about Pennsylvania long rifles, including the Reading Museum's current exhibit and upcoming book, "Masterpieces of American Longrifles: The Kindig Family Collection," says he saw Hahn's bill in its original form last year and discovered she was "misinformed," to put it kindly. He and other experts informed her and the co-sponsors of their misgivings. He said he even offered Hahn line-by-line corrections.

Hornberger told me, "She seemed to indicate that it would go into review and would probably get changed and someone would call me back. No one ever did."

J. Wayne Heckert, past president of the Kentucky Rifle Association and author of a book about long rifles and many articles about antique firearms, also contacted Hahn about her original bill and documented the errors and biases he found.

"It is a horrible piece of legislation, showing politicians' basic ignorance of both firearms and American history," he told me. "It is absolutely shameful that Hahn's office indicated to me in emails that the issue was taken care of and yet the final piece of legislation is worse, not better."

Hornberger wrote in a letter this month to Gov. Tom Corbett: "What a shame a state as rich in the history of this country and the nationally recognized home of the American long rifle would celebrate one of its finest artifacts by passing a proclamation in which the points it makes are fundamentally wrong. A simple call/email to any legitimate scholar of the Pennsylvania rifle would have avoided these mistakes. As it is written, the bill rambles with platitudes containing unproven attributions, historical errors, and opinionated statements." He wants the bill rewritten or rescinded.

Hornberger offered several examples, including a claim that the long rifle played an important role in the Industrial Revolution ("it was handmade and not part of a trend toward manufacturing"), that it was the first truly American firearm (the first was the New England musket/fowler), and that it was developed by gunsmiths in Northampton County (just one of several parts of southeastern Pennsylvania where it was developed) and by "artistic riflemaker Martin Meylin" (his role in gunmaking, if any, is a matter of considerable scholarly controversy, as even a cursory Internet search would demonstrate).

Hornberger concluded: "This bill makes a mockery of the history of the rifle and the verified progenitors of the long rifle in Southeastern Pennsylvania."

Heckert explained the origins of the Martin Meylin "lore and oral legend," then continued, "Second, and more serious, is the bill's obvious provincial bias centering on the Lehigh region's special status as the seed-bed of the rifles. That's just untrue; your area was one of several important ones, Lancaster traditionally being seen as the epicenter of the rifle-making cottage industry. Speaking of industry, the whole discussion of the Industrial Revolution is folly as these guns were hand-made and forerunners of any true industrialization."

He concluded: "Now we have a bunch of falsehoods, biases and misleading information being passed off as history. It's sad."

Local historian Frank Whelan, who wrote about the Reading Museum exhibit for Channel 69's website, commented: "I don't expect the Legislature to share my passion for history. But they have the Historical and Museum Commission who I am sure could get something together for them on the long rifle. Even Google it, for heaven's sake!"

I called Hahn last week to find out the source for her information and the reason she persisted in wording that several experts found fallacious, but I haven't heard back from her.

I also contacted Howard Pollman of the Historical and Museum Commission. He said Hornberger sent them a copy of his letter to Corbett. He didn't recall that the commission was asked to weigh in on Hahn's original bill, although Hornberger says he contacted them last year.

Pollman noted, "History's pretty subjective. Different people have different views of history."

I understand that, and I'll assume Hahn drew on someone's research. But it's unfathomable that she would persist in wording she knew had been so resoundingly challenged by experts in that field.

Whelan observed: "It reflects the now-common belief that history is what the speaker says it is, and don't let the facts get in the way. And that they could get something so wrong about Pennsylvania history at that!"

I guess they should stick to pie.

bill.white@mcall.com 610-820-6105

Bill White's commentary appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

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