Broad (Not Deep) Thoughts on American Gun Culture

Whenever dramatic events happen in the US involving guns, I hear from the media. Not a ton of media, alas, since my overarching position that “guns are normal and normal people use guns” doesn’t fit most media narratives following dramatic events. And, to be clear, I am not an expert in gun violence or any other unlawful possession/use of firearms.

To the extent that I know anything in particular about guns, it is about what I have been calling “Gun Culture 2.0.” So, for those interested in a sweeping overview of American gun culture, here are my broad (not deep) thoughts.

In my view, a useful heuristic for understanding the broad sweep of gun culture in America is to distinguish between three major periods.

Gun Culture 0.0

The culture of guns in the Colonial, Revolutionary, and early Republic. At this time, guns are tools necessary for self-preservation on the frontier (when the colonies themselves were a frontier) and a symbol of citizenship (hence according the right of ownership largely to white men).

As gun historian Clayton Cramer has written, 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 concluded, “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” (Armed America, p. 236).

Gun Culture 1.0

As with “versions” of software, Gun Culture 1.0 incorporates Gun Culture 0.0 and expands it to include hunting as sport and more formalized recreational shooting, and later various types of gun collecting.

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.

Gun Culture 2.0

Incorporates Gun Culture 1.0 and expands the centrality of personal protection/self-defense (which has always been a part of gun culture).

Gun Culture 2.0 incubated in the social unrest and global uncertainty of the 1960s and 70s, was born in the 1980s and 1990s with the liberalization of concealed carry laws, and have been maturing since.

This blog, my publications, the video of my talk at the National Firearms Law Seminar, and my ongoing book project all expound on this much more.

The Diversity of American Gun Cultures

A final comment: Using a blanket term like “Gun Culture 2.0” to describe the center of mass of American gun culture today can easily be misread to say that American gun culture is homogeneous. Gun culture today is anything but homogeneous because it incorporates all of the earlier gun cultures in our history. It makes more sense, then, to speak of American gun cultureS (plural) than culture (singular).

Among the cultures of guns in America today are:

  • Hunting
  • Recreational/Sport Shooting (including stationary target shooting, long-range target shooting, action shooting sports)
  • Collecting (including people interested in military arms, historical arms, different brands and types of guns)
  • Gear hobbyists (e.g., those who like the AR-15 as a gadget)
  • African-American gun owners
  • Personal protection/self-defense
  • Military
  • LEO
  • Criminal cultures

There may be more that I am forgetting or don’t even know about yet.

Moreover, there are other non-gun American subcultures that overlap to some extent (more or less) with gun culture (and each other):

  • Militia movements
  • White supremacists
  • Preppers

So at the same time I think the broad heuristic of thinking of Gun Culture 0.0, 1.0, 2.0, and whatever comes next is useful, I would hate to be seen as glossing over the diversity of gun cultures co-existing in America today.

3 comments

  1. David, Dr. Yamane, gag, don’t know if this should be formal or not,

    John Nystrom here, I connected with you messaging on Facebook yesterday. Great post today on the phases of American gun culture. It fits with my reading, research, and experience, and is frankly better than some so called professional historians I’ve read.

    You mentioned that you had an ongoing book project on the same subject. It occurs to me that you may need copy readers/critics to review/criticize/edit your product as it evolves? Though not an expert in the field, I do fancy myself an enthusiastic participant, and hopefully reasonably insightful observer of the gun culture. I have been in contact with Roger Pauly, author of John Hopkins University Press’ *Firearms: The Life Story of a Technology*, and offered two corrections/clarifications, which he will include in any 2nd edition, if there is one (you might also want to request a review copy from JHUP, the best short, one volume work I’ve seen on the subject of firearms technology and history). I do book reviews for a handful of small boat/recreational boating magazines (Small Craft Advisor, Messing About in Boats, Duckworks, Wooden Boat), and certainly know more about firearms than I do boats. (I have been declared an ‘Expert Witness’ on firearms in a court of law, but give the foolishness that often comes out of the months of so called expert witnesses in open court, that is hardly a recommendation.) Any way, thought I would offer.

    Great talking to you. This is my work email, home is johnc111@hotmail.com .

    John Nystrom Peru, IN

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  2. Good synopsis of the progression of “Gun Culture.” I do have a couple of nits to pick. First, while “white supremacists” definitely exist I have a deep and abiding suspicion that their numbers are over-reported, despite turds like the Charleston church killer. If you’re going to slice the “culture” so finely as to include dregs like him, you should probably include a larger heading of “Insurgents” to include outfits like the John Brown Gun Club (https://www.redneckrevolt.org/) and the Huey P. Newton Gun Club (https://hueypnewtongunclub.org/).
    Second, how come the preppers and militia get lumped with white supremacists? The militia is every able-bodied person between 17 and 45 (https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/10/246). There are guys who make a hobby of it, and I’ve even met a few, but they included black and brown people. Also, while prepping as an all-consuming obsession may qualify it as a subculture, I have to ask whether you’re a prepper if you carry jumper cables, blankets, and some road flares in your trunk. Add a gun and they’re Gun Culture 2.0? That’s my mom going on an out-of-town trip in 1964. What level of being prepared for the unexpected qualifies someone to be lumped with white supremacists and militia types?
    As always, I enjoy your research and thinking. Hope to see you at GRPC in the fall.
    Chris Knox
    http://www.firearmscoalition.org/

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  3. May I ask why you include “African-American gun owners” as it’s own separate sub class? It seems that to me that all thee other subclasses are because of mindset or profession, where as African-American seems to be related to the color of a person’s skin? Do you assume a certain mindset to the African-Americans? I have always been intersted in race relations and this question piques my interest.

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