Lead photo: Ohio Civil War Show: A row of cannons at the 2021 Ohio Civil War Show – it is common for these replica cannons to be fired. While loud, these certainly won’t cause windows to rattle!
By: Peter Suciu
TV shows today often present gun owners as being a bit extreme, even irresponsible at times. Likewise, gun laws are often misstated. Both are done in a way that is part of the ongoing bias against firearms in the United States. In some cases, writers present just enough facts to make these stories seem credible.
Such was the case on Sunday evening during the sixth season premiere of the hit Showtime series Billions. The series has routinely focused on the evils of the “one percent” – and the lengths the extremely wealthy will go to in their efforts for more, while also living under a different set of laws from the rest of us.
A key plot point from the season premiere – fittingly titled “Cannonade” – was how one particular billionaire’s antique cannons, which (spoiles) he liked to fire multiple times a day, upset the residents of a storybook upstate New York community. Among those not particularly pleased by the roaring of the cannons was Paul Giamatti’s Chuck Rhoades, the New York State Attorney General (and former U.S. Attorney General for the Eastern District of New York) who spent the last five seasons trying to bring down Damien Lewis’ character Bobby Axelrod.
Axelrod may be out of the picture, and Lewis no longer in the series, but the quest to take down billionaires continues.
Hell hath no fury like an AG scorned – and Chuck, who moved to the small hamlet to regroup and clear his head – was so annoyed by the cannons that he waged a personal war against the cannon’s owner, Melville Revere, played to the extreme by character actor Michael McKean. Quickly established is the fact that Revere is not only a supporter of the Second Amendment, but was somehow granted special permission by the ATF to own and fire the cannons.
For a series that gets many details about the law right – and being a that TV show gets many details wrong – it really dropped the (cannon) ball on this one. Chuck, who is seen to be a bit of a history buff and previously navigated New York City law in a past season to obtain an impossible concealed carry permit for a (irresponsible) colleague, suddenly doesn’t understand the laws over the private ownership of cannons.
The writers clearly listened to, and may have believed, President Joe Biden’s statement from last year that the Second Amendment didn’t allow Americans to own a cannon. Biden, who made the comments repeatedly in 2021, suggested that the Founding Fathers wouldn’t have allowed citizens to own such weapons.
It isn’t true, of course.
There was no ban on cannons or other firearms until the passage of the National Firearms Act of 1934. Even today, muzzle-loading cannons are not generally deemed to be firearms in the United States, but live cannon shells are considered destructive devices and would need to be legally registered. Such shells are prohibited in New York, however. Moreover, only large bore weapons, such as modern artillery, are highly restricted, yet not entirely banned.
At one point in Sunday’s episode, Chuck Rhoades even mentions the NFA and describes the cannons as “military hardware,” which they aren’t. As a legal/constitutional scholar and history buff, Chuck would know better – so this is simply poor writing or outright bias.
Biden said private citizens couldn’t own cannons; so of course a fictional billionaire owns several!
Cannons Are Legal
As I noted, there is no federal ban on the private ownership of black powder cannons even today. There are even regular cannon shoots at various historic reenactments and collectible shows. Yet in Billions, it was also suggested that the vile billionaire was able to pull some strings to own something most people couldn’t. It is meant to make the audience hate him more.
But, that isn’t how the ATF or NFA works.
Generally speaking, if the state laws were to ban something – and New York State is among the strictest when it comes to firearms – ATF would not and could not approve ownership. As Chuck Rhoades is the New York State Attorney General, he would certainly know as much, but more importantly, he would have the legal means to say the ownership violates state law.
Now, the episode also implied that Revere is actually loading the cannons and firing them into his woods. That would likely be illegal – and extremely dangerous. When cannons are live fired at special events, it is only under strict rules with safety measures put in place. The series, however, wanted to suggest that Revere was an irresponsible owner of such weapons. Of course, later in the episode he was also identified as a defense contractor – a fact that should make him even more villainous.
In the end, Chuck Rhoades was able to use an environmental issue (illegally committed, I should add) to have the cannons seized, while the simple townsfolk signed a petition calling for him to stop firing the cannons. The latter point was just included to suggest that gun owners are on the wrong side of the issue, and the majority of Americans are against cannons and guns in general.
Base on the dialogue, Revere was simply told he couldn’t fire the cannons – a fact he vowed to fight in court – but Rhoades still seized the cannons. That would seem to violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clauses, and more directly, through the Fifth Amendment’s Taking Clause: “nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.”
That might be the most disturbing aspect of the show, but again, it is part of the media bias. “Guns are a problem and they should be seized” was the message.
Roar of the Cannons
Finally, another part of the episode suggested the entire town found the cannons to be a nuisance.
That is also pure nonsense.
Many historic forts around the country regularly fire cannons, and having been to many cannon firing events – including the annual Ohio Civil War Show – I can attest that it would be unlikely for the sound to travel as far as the episode implies. Revere is shown to live on hundreds of acres surrounded by woods. There wouldn’t be a thunderous roar that shakes glasses and rattles windows miles away.
At most it would be a distant boom. It might not be the most pleasant sound for those in the immediate vicinity, but it certainly wouldn’t sound like a warzone either.
Here is where fiction fails to present guns – notably cannons – accurately. But that is likely the point.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.