The Gun in America: Nothing New Under the Sun

I have previously used the phrase, Nihil sub sole novum, a snippet from the wisdom of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible: “That which has been is what will be, That which is done is what will be done, And there is nothing new under the sun” (1:9).

Reading The Gun in America by Lee Kennett and Jules LaVerne Anderson, I came across passage after passage in which I was reminded that much of what we see in contemporary gun culture and debates over the place of guns in society is not novel.

In this post I collect some of those passages, for the record.

Sunset photo by David Yamane

Police brutality, and old charge in American history, was held to be much less likely if the police were not armed…. When, in 1858, a New York policeman shot a fleeing suspect, The New York Times editor strongly questioned the use of firearms by the police.

p. 150

An armed society was the nineteenth century’s legacy to the twentieth. Before the nineteenth century, Americans had armed themselves as a protection against common enemies and for food. But in the development of American society the enemy became internal. Society felt threatened by criminals, ethnic groups, racial groups, rioters, and malcontents. . . . With the use of firearms so varied, the Americans of the nineteenth century became armed individuals as a reaction to the increasing diversity and complexity of their society.

pp. 163-64

In the 1870s several proposals to regulate the carrying of concealed handguns by a permit system failed to gain the approval of the [New York City] Board of Aldermen, on the grounds that only respectable citizens would be affected. Moreover, the law abiding members of society would be less able to defend themselves against lawbreakers, who would flout a pistol law as they flouted all other regulations.

p. 169

The public had always been sensitive to the dangers of armed minorities such as blacks and Indians, but this concern took on new dimensions as cities filled with unassimilated masses of immigrants from southern and Eastern Europe, packed into restless and teaming enclaves. … The swarthy, hirsute, and wild-eyed anarchist became the new shibboleth.

p. 167

The Italian population seemed particularly addicted to criminality. … As early as 1903 the authorities [in New York] had begun to cancel pistol permits in the Italian sections of the city. This was followed by state law of 1905 which made it illegal for aliens to possess firearms “in any public place.” This provision was retained in the Sullivan law.

p. 178

Rumor had it that [after passage of the Sullivan Law] hoodlums now rented pistols when they needed them, for a fee of twenty-five cents a night, rather than carrying them constantly.

p. 184

William McAdoo, chief magistrate of New York City, described “the curse of the pistol” as going beyond misuse by criminals: “I would as soon place a full-venomed cobra snake in my house as a loaded revolver. Look at the tragedies in the morning newspapers; where husband shoots wife, man shoots mistress, one child shoots the other, frenzied head of family kills the whole family and himself, until all over the country it’s bang! bang! bang! every hour of the day and night.”

p. 191

The pistol remained, in the popular eye, the chief object of concern. A 1938 Gallup poll revealed that 79 percent of those responding felt “all owners of pistols and revolvers should be required to register with the government.” Though there are no earlier statistics for comparison, the handgun had probably acquired a more sinister connotation than before. There is also clear evidence for the first time of the tendency to attach moral taint to all firearms, including the hunter’s shotgun and the marksman’s rifle. The movement to register all arms, modest though it was, reflects this change.

p. 213

Following the death of Martin Luther King, an editorial in The Nation assailed the pro-gun slogan “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” “This is a truism,” said The Nation, “but it is also a fact that at 200 yards a rifle is a big help.”

pp. 236-37

A survey made at Jamestown in 1624 reveals that there was a firearm for each colonist. It is estimated that today there are about 200 million guns in the United States; the ratio of guns people to guns is thus what about what it was 350 years ago.

p. 249

Though Americans own more firearms than ever before, they are increasingly unwilling to reveal that ownership to pollsters and others.

p. 253

Such a spectacle may seem frightening or fanciful, but it reflects the persistent view that the ultimate defense of the individual American, his final, back-to-the-wall recourse, is his gun. It is a sentiment that was felt in frontier log cabins and in isolated farmhouses and lingers today in city and suburb. The ultimate fear is not that government will tyrannize, but that it will fail to protect. That fear persists; it causes lines to form in front of gun stores after every major riot or atrocity. To many Americans, probably to most, the gun remains the hedge instinctively sought against that ultimate fear.

pp. 253-54

The gun, then, is part of a whole series of traditional attitudes about government, society, and the individual. They run, like so many threads, through the whole tapestry of the national past.

p. 254

Shortly after Robert Kennedy’s assassination, Gunnar Myrdal reportedly said that if the Constitution allowed such indiscriminate ownership of guns, “then to hell with the Constitution.” Cosmopolitan America would have found this food for sober reflection; bedrock America, without reflection, would have said: “To hell with Gunnar Myrdal.”

p. 255

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