Americans and their guns: It’s complicated

|     Chris Lefkow     |

WASHINGTON (AFP) – From muskets to machine guns, Americans have a relationship with firearms that is as old – and as complicated – as the country itself.

That intimate connection with guns is under renewed scrutiny after the worst mass shooting in recent US history left 58 people dead in Las Vegas.

The United States is a nation born of a bloody revolution, scarred by a grisly Civil War and decimation of the native population and reared on tales of rugged Wild West heroes.

Guns are a big part of the story.

“I don’t think we’re alone in the world in loving guns but clearly Americans have a fascination with guns and love their guns,” said Adam Winkler, author of ‘Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America’.

“I think it may stem, in part, from the fact that we’re a country that idealizes the founding, where armed revolutionaries decided to fight against a tyrannical government,” said Winkler, a professor of constitutional law at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

“We’re also a nation whose identity is very much tied up with things like the Wild West and the Frontier where there was definitely a gun culture,” he told AFP.

“The gun has a more or less central place in the national mythology,” agreed AJ Somerset, whose book ‘Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun’ also examined gun ownership in the United States.

“The whole mythology that comes out of the American Revolution places the rifle front and centre,” said Somerset, a gun owner himself and former member of the Canadian armed forces.

A couple walking past an advertisement for ‘The Vegas Machine Gun Experience’, in Las Vegas, Nevada, September 17. – PHOTOS: AFP
A billboard advertising a gun shooting range in Las Vegas, Nevada, September 17
A rifle dipped in an American flag coating at a National Rifle Association outdoor sports trade show in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, February 10
A placard about gun rights in the United States hanging on the wall next to assault rifles for sale at Blue Ridge Arsenal in Chantilly, Virginia, October 6

But it wasn’t until several decades after the 1775-1783 American Revolution that the gun really became a national symbol, Somerset said.

“In the middle of the 19th Century, you had this sudden burst of innovation in firearms that gives you the Colt revolver, the breech-loading rifle, which leads to the repeating rifle, the Winchester, and so on,” he said.

“This revolution in firearms technology happens to coincide with the great period of American westward expansion,” Somerset said in a telephone interview.

“And it’s at that point that the country really starts to make a myth out of its relationship with the gun.”

There are currently more than 300 million guns in the United States – more than one per American – and firearms are involved in some 30,000 deaths a year, nearly two-thirds of them suicides.

About four in 10 Americans live in a home with a gun, according to a June survey by the Pew Research Center, with 67 per cent of gun owners saying self-protection is a major reason for having a firearm.

Owning a gun is seen by many Americans as a fundamental right enshrined in the Second Amendment to the US Constitution which states, “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.”

For the early Americans, “a gun was a tool,” said David Courtwright, a history professor at the University of North Florida and author of ‘Violent Land: Single Men and Social Disorder from the Frontier to the Inner City’.

“If you were a cowboy on a cattle drive you might pull out a gun and shoot a rattlesnake,” Courtwright said.

“It was a rare household on the frontier that was not equipped with some kind of a firearm and some people think that legacy still plays out (today),” he said.

While Hollywood Westerns and TV shows may have played a part in romanticising the cowboy gun culture, Courtwright and others believe a fear of rising crime beginning in the late 1960s plays a larger role in explaining gun ownership today.

“That definitely had a lot to do with it,” Courtwright said.

“It’s hard to imagine now how central crime and criminal justice issues were in the 1970s,” added Winkler, the UCLA professor.

“New York was on the verge of bankruptcy, blight was the norm in places like Washington DC, and crime was running rampant.”

Winkler said the National Rifle Association, the gun rights lobby, was instrumental in helping sell the notion to Americans that they needed a gun for their own protection.

This tied in well with the vision many Americans have of themselves.

“This is what a self-reliant, upstanding individual does,” he said. “They protect themselves, they protect their family and they don’t stand down to anybody.”

“That idea really took off and the gun rights movement became a real force in American politics,” Winkler said.

Gun rights and gun control are indeed among the most hotly debated issues in the United States today and subject to a partisan divide.

Forty-four per cent of the Republicans in the Pew Research poll said they own a gun compared with just 20 per cent of Democrats. Gun ownership has become a “very powerful symbol of partisan identification,” Courtwright said. “It’s about identity, not just protecting yourself from the bad guys.”

“The guns represent freedom,” said Somerset.