I was contacted recently by a journalist for The World Weekly (England) for a story about guns in America. The story ran today under the title “America’s Great Divide.”
Often when asked to comment for international media I find it easier to send my written answers by email. The questions I was posed and my 1,500 word written response are below.
Response to Alexander Izza, The World Weekly
(1) In the early history of the American nation, what role did guns, and the individual ownership of them, play in day-to-day life?
Individual ownership of guns in the United States predates the nation’s founding. One reliable estimate of gun ownership in early America found guns in 50-73 percent of male estates and 6-38 percent of female estates. These rates compare favorably to other common items listed in male estates like swords or edged weapons (14% of inventories), Bibles (25%), or cash (30%). [Source: James Lindgren and Justin L. Heather, Counting Guns in Early America, 43 Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 1777 (2002)]
To argue that individual gun ownership was not common, as disgraced historian Michael Bellesiles tried to do, is folly. In his book Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, Bellesiles argued that private gun ownership was rare in Colonial America and the early republic, that colonists did not like and rarely used guns, and that American gun culture only really emerged during the Civil War when firearms became more affordable. The research upon which these claims were based, however, was subsequently shown to be falsified and Bellesiles resigned from his tenured position at Emory University. Although the personal story was dramatic, the underlying reality that was confirmed by Bellesiles’s fall is that guns were prevalent in early American history.
As Clayton Cramer argued in response to Bellesiles, guns played a fundamental role “for the collective military purposes of each colony; for the defense of individual families and isolated settlements; as symbols of being a citizens with the duty to defend the society; and more than occasionally, to demonstrate that nothing has changed in the human condition since Cain slew Abel.” Thus, Cramer concludes, “Gun ownership appears to have been the norm for freemen, and not terribly unusual for free women and at least male children, through the Colonial, Revolutionary, and early Republic periods.” [Source: Clayton E. Cramer, Armed America: The Remarkable Story of How and Why Guns Became as American As Apple Pie (Nashville, TN: Nelson Current, 2006), p. 236.]
To be sure, in the early history of the American nation, guns were probably more practical than symbolic for most people. They were tools of necessity for hunting, self-defense, and national defense. But as the nation developed, so too did American gun culture. Although he was no fan of guns or gun culture, prize-winning American historian Richard Hofstader was correct when he wrote, “What began as a necessity of agriculture and the frontier, took hold as a sport and as an ingredient in the American imagination.” [Richard Hofstadter, “America as a Gun Culture,” American Heritage 21:6 (October 1970)]
Hunting became not only a source of food but a dominant form of recreation for many, receiving a “real” rifle became a rite of passage from boyhood into manhood, and the attachment to guns was routinely expressed in popular culture, from Ernest Hemingway’s novels to High Noon with Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. The National Rifle Association and other organizations have played a significant role in promoting sport shooting since the 18th century. As the nation became more prosperous and consumer culture grew in the early 20th century, gun collecting became an avocation for a minority of gun owners. Gun collecting was democratized to some extent with the surplus of military arms produced by global conflicts of the 20th century.
But in an interesting turn of events, American gun culture in the 1970s began to shift after from this emphasis on recreational hunting, sport shooting, and collecting BACK to more of an emphasis on guns as everyday tools of self-defense. Which leads me to your second question.
(2) What factors continue to drive gun ownership in modern America?
The motivations for gun ownership are complex. Still, the majority of gun owners today – especially new gun owners – point to self-defense as the primary reason for owning a gun. This reflects a shift in the center of gravity of American gun culture away from the older emphasis on hunting, sport shooting, and collecting to the contemporary emphasis on armed self-defense, what I call a shift from Gun Culture 1.0 to Gun Culture 2.0.
The non-partisan Pew Research Center’s June 2017 report, “America’s Complex Relationship With Guns,” provides some of the best survey data on this question.
Considering protection, hunting, sport shooting, collecting, and work, Pew asked respondents if a each reason for owning a gun “is a major reason, a minor reason, or not a reason why you own a gun.” 67% of respondents – the highest proportion for any reason – cited protection as a major reason for owning a gun. Another 24% or respondents said it is a minor reason. Looked at this way, only 8% of gun owners say protection is NOT a reason they own a gun.
Pew also asked gun owners which were the MOST IMPORTANT reason they own guns, forcing respondents to choose one of the categories. Here, a majority of 52% indicated protection, while a minority of 33% indicated any one of the recreational pursuits associated with traditional gun culture (hunting, sport, collecting). [More here]
I think more broadly, it is important for anyone trying to understand the relationship of Americans to guns to recognize that for a large part of the population of the United States, guns are a perfectly normal part of life. Again, using the data from the Pew Research Center’s study, a majority of the population currently lives with a gun in their house or has in the past (66%). 30% of respondents to the Pew survey claim the currently own a gun, and another 36% of respondents have thought about or are actively considering acquiring a gun. So, just one third of adults in the U.S. do not own a gun and cannot see themselves owning one in the future.
Beyond ownership, 7 out of 10 American adults have actually fired a gun at some point in their lives. That is nearly 180 million people. This includes 55% of those who have never personally owned a gun. Looked at the other way around: A minority of American adults have never shot a gun.
Political disputes notwithstanding, guns are normal for a majority of Americans.
Moreover, for a sizeable minority of the US population, guns are a perfectly normal part of everyday life. Something kept around the house or in the car or on their person in the (more or less likely, depending on their circumstances) event that they need to defend themselves.
The Pew Research Center reports that over 1 in 10 American adults claim to carry their handguns outside the home at least some of the time. If true, that is almost 30 million people. In the same survey, 7% of all adult respondents said they had used a gun to defend themselves or their possessions, whether they fired the gun or not. That is an estimated 17,461,810 adults in the US. That is alot of people.[Documentation]
What I have argued about social scientists studying guns may apply to journalists as well. The strong, one might even say excessive, focus on the criminology and epidemiology of gun violence impedes the ability to understand the normality of legal use of guns by lawful gun owners in the United States. The vast majority of gun owners will never directly experience any major negative outcomes due to their ownership of guns. (See my recently published scholarly article)
(3) Do you think, perhaps, that we are approaching a moment of confrontation about whether guns should hold a place in American identity?
A confrontation about the role of guns in American identity has been ongoing for many decades now. In fact, the debates we are having today are quite similar in content as debates taking place throughout the 20th century, although the 24 news cycle and the intensity and immediacy of social media make it seem much more pitched.
Consider the following response to proposed gun control legislation:
“The trouble with most of the bills which seek to prohibit the possession and use of firearms is that they make no distinction between the law-abiding householder whose constitutional right it is ‘to keep and bear arms,’ or the sportsman who finds clear recreation in pistol or revolver matches, and the thug who arms himself for lawless purposes.”
That was written in 1918 and published in the NRA magazine Arms and the Man (which subsequently was renamed The American Rifleman).
There are certainly differences, even among gun owners, as to the place of guns in American society, what should be allowed and disallowed, who and what should be regulated and how much. In an important sense these are questions about American identity that go beyond guns. Therefore, as long as there are fundamental differences in the question of what America is and what it means to be an American, we are unlikely to come to a consensus as to what to do about guns.