American history has been marked by gun violence since the arrival of European colonists. Up until the 1830s much of domestic violence and alcohol-related events in taverns were settled with fists or knives. Following the introduction of revolvers and other small, percussion-fired guns, violent affrays began to be increasingly settled with handguns. Dueling with specially made dueling pistols, though decidedly uncommon, had strict conventions and was limited to the upper class and social climbers, but by the mid-1800s it was decidedly passé. Duels were forbidden by both armies during the Civil War.
Following the Civil War, handguns became a leading factor in homicides, and gunfights continued to be especially frequent in frontier areas. The Reconstruction period was extremely violent with harassment visited by former slaves upon one another, violence visited upon them by whites, and armed warring political militias fighting for hegemony in the South and West. Labor violence contributed to the mix. Assassinations of political figures began with Abraham Lincoln, although an unsuccessful attempt was made decades earlier on Andrew Jackson, and continued up through attempts on Ronald Reagan.
The killing of President John F. Kennedy traumatized a generation of young Americans and their parents and some think gave rise to the chaos that was to typify the decade to follow. Gunrelated violent crime, especially mass shootings by clearly mentally-ill perpetrators, has provoked a media and political panic, giving rise to proposed solutions to the problem of gun violence that are in fundamental conflict with a deeply engrained set of cultural behaviors. The preponderance of gun-related incidents are suicides and homicides committed in the context of inner-city conflicts. The Second Amendment and the gun culture present obstacles to the goal of curbing gun-related homicide, accidents, and suicides.
The Current Problem
In 2011 there were 8,500 gun homicides in the United States. Two-thirds of homicides involve firearms and 72 percent of gun homicides are committed with handguns. It is worth noting that gun-related homicides have been decreasing since the early 1990s. The reasons for this are obscure. The problem is compounded by the fact that there are at least 310 million firearms in private hands in the United States. At least 40 percent of households have guns. Gun ownership is concentrated with many owners possessing several guns. In terms of crime, so-called assault rifles are used in less than 2 percent of crime incidents but are used in 40 percent of mass shootings. Such guns have been legally obtained in almost 80 percent of mass shootings.
Most mass shooters show signs of mental illness. Mass shootings account for an insignificant amount of gun-related crime, yet due to their horrifying nature have social impact far beyond their criminological importance. Most other gun violence is almost entirely a crime committed by young males and is the second-leading cause of death among males 10 to 24 years of age. The lifetime costs of firearm injuries and fatalities may be as high as $100 billion a year. Gun violence is concentrated in urban areas among the very poor. The rates of homicide in this context are inflated by drug wars and gang conflicts.
Gun Accidents and Suicide
True fatal gun accidents are fortunately uncommon. Accidents due to manufacturing defects in guns themselves are so rare as to almost be unheard of. Most gun accidents are due to the presence of alcohol in the incident or the actions of active and undersupervised young boys. “Perpetrators” of gun accidents are unusually disturbed individuals with authority problems, frequent moving vehicle violations, and histories of delinquent behavior. It is suggested that gun “accidents” are not really accidents at all but rather examples of reckless and dangerous behavior.
Many modern firearms have internal gun locks that can disable the gun to anyone lacking a key. Also, all handguns must be sold with an external gun lock that can similarly disable the gun. Neither will stop the owner from committing homicide or suicide, however, if they are so inclined. It should be noted this disabling of guns for reasons of safety renders them almost useless for quick deployment in self-defense situations. This explains why so many guns are so accessible for “accidents” and available to potential suicides.
The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution presents special problems for those wishing to remove guns from private hands. Proponents, with considerable historical research on their side, interpret the Second Amendment to mean that Americans have the right to bear arms, not for the purpose of hunting and sport (as many gun-control advocates argue), but rather for protection of their homes, rights, and property. Gun-control advocates assert that the National Guard fulfills the modern-day role of the militia, thus removing the need for an armed citizenry. Proponents, however, argue that the term militia as used by the founders does not mean National Guard but rather refers to all free males between 18 and 65 years of age. Further, they assert that the “living document” interpretation that the amendment only allowed firearms of the late 1700s to be privately held is erroneous.
For proponents of gun rights, the assurance by most gun-control advocates that guns used for hunting and target shooting are not endangered completely misses the point; the right to bear arms has to be appreciated in light of the historical context. The newly created United States, supplied by the king of France, largely with superior French Charleville muskets and the help of the French fleet, repelled the British and won independence. In part this gave rise to the importance of the militias of various states in this enterprise. However, it was regular Continental and French troops that were decisive, not militias. It was expected that the British might again try to establish hegemony over the fledgling republic as it did in the War of 1812, hence, the Second Amendment’s defense of both militias (which in reality performed dreadfully in combat) and the right of persons to bear arms.
Various state constitutions have expanded on the right to bear arms and have specified that right in language that is clear and unambiguous. Some gun-control advocates have called for repeal or reworking of the Second Amendment. Tampering with the Bill of Rights, however, is seen by many as a slippery slope.
One of the major causes of the growth of the gun culture is the fear of gun-related crime. Hence, the notion of self-defense grew rapidly as states legitimized the carriage of concealed weapons for qualified license holders in the 1990s and first decade of the 21st century. A renaissance of small-framed, large capacity handguns ensued and all major firearm companies began making such weapons for the concealed carry (CC) market. This has escalated to the point where gun ranges are expanding and even specialized “wardrobes” are tailored for those who feel the need to carry handguns for their own safety. Strongly supporting this movement are gun manufacturers, the “hook and gun press,” the National Rifle Association, various conservative political groups, and their associated media. Scholarly research has supported the notion that there are millions of self-defense uses of handguns a year. While other scholars question that notion, their research has not been universally accepted by the criminological community. That notwithstanding, guns bought for the legitimate purpose of home and defense can be misused for criminal purposes or for suicide.
The Gun Culture
Guns have been part of American mythology since the very beginning of the country. Guns defended pioneer cabins, fended off the British, kept the family fed, and provided amusement through contests of skill. The cherished, though mistaken, idea of the effective citizen-soldier and his militia company misinformed politicians for generations into thinking that a standing army was a frill. Thus, citizens were arming themselves from the very first days of the country, and in general tried to keep up with current gun technology. In rural areas citizens happily dispensed with inefficient muzzle loaders and replaced them with cartridge-based weaponry as it became available following the Civil War. This made loaded guns much easier to carry, and to shoot, clean, and maintain.
Inexpensive but mechanically sound guns flooded the market during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Certainly by the 1920s a gun culture was well-established in rural America. This roughly corresponds with a period of firearms modernization. In the late 1800s and first decades of the 20th century, revolvers came of age, and semiautomatic pistols were available but not much used outside the military. But innovations in both rifles and shotguns further modernized the civilian arsenal. The Mauser rifle, the finest bolt action weapon of its time, gave rise to the American Springfield and the British Enfield. All three could be converted to sporting or defensive use, and that was often the case following World War I. Shotguns also rose to the fore with the pump shotgun reaching its apotheosis with the Model 12. These guns replaced the antiquated musketry and black powder weapons of the previous century.
Varied gun cultures arose. Collectors gathered guns of certain types or from certain wars. Target shooters looked for better small arms for competitive shooting. Those interested in self-defense moved up to higher caliber handguns, and then to semiautomatic pistols with high capacity magazines. After the Vietnam War, those interested in high-quality rifles began to move to the AR-15 platform and AK-type firearms from the Eastern Bloc, and by the 2000s the former became the dominant gun format for most semiautomatic rifles in the country. It was not that gun owners necessarily sought out that platform for hunting and target shooting—it was almost the only gun being manufactured for those purposes.
Gun culture grew apace during the 1990s and first decade of the 21st century. An alliance was fashioned with right-wing politicians and survivalist elements. Guns became even more central to the lives of many rural Americans at this time.
Cultural factors are poorly appreciated or regarded as irrelevant by the gun-control camp. All long arms of the AR platform are seen as “assault rifles” and need tight control, even if they are identical in function to other guns that are not as threatening in appearance to the uninitiated. Limiting the amount of ammunition in a magazine is another notion that upsets owners of almost any semiautomatic handgun or long gun. Handguns of this type were bought precisely because they had a larger capacity. Limiting that capacity almost obviates the rationale for having bought the gun in the first place—it seriously limits its defensive value. These points are seldom made by the media or procontrol politicians in the wake of awful shooting events. But the problem remains: How to regulate firearms in a country where there are as many guns as people and a gun culture exists that has little respect or confidence in a central government’s ability to protect its people from crime and disorder.
- Courtwright, David T. Violent Land: Single Men and Social Disorder From the Frontier to the Inner City. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.
- Hawley, Frederick. “Culture Conflict and the Ideology of Pariah Groups: The Weltanschauung of Gun Owners, Southerners, and Cockfighters.” In The Gun Culture and Its Enemies, William R. Tonso, ed. Bellevue, WA: Merril Press, 1990.
- Hawley, Frederick. “Guns.” In The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris, eds. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.
- Kleck, Gary. Targeting Guns: Firearms and Their Control. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter, 1997.
- Lane, Roger. Murder in America: A History. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1997.
- Newman, K., C. Fox, D. Harding, J. Mehta, and W. Roth. Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings. New York: Basic, 2004.
- Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. Southern Honor. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.
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