The United States of America has had an obsession with guns for almost the entirety of US history. Images of patriots firing muskets at Redcoats, cowboys heading out on posses, hunters chasing down buffalo and Special Forces triumphing over extremists are common components of the collective American psyche.
This sets America apart from many other nations. Most Western countries strictly limit gun ownership, and having a gun is not nearly as culturally important for other nations. Why is this?
Well, there are lots of different reasons, but really, the main difference comes from the role guns have played in the development of the country. Whereas in other parts of the world a gun may represent a mere necessity for survival or even a tool of tyranny and oppression, guns in the U.S. are closely tied to ideals of freedom, democracy and individual liberties. Whether this has occurred out of mere coincidence or as a part of a grander strategy to secure guns into the American conscious is yet to be seen. But the reality is that firearms are a big part of American culture. Let’s take a look at why.
The Second Amendment
Any discussion about guns in America, at least nowadays, has at least something to do with the Second Amendment to the Constitution. Most commonly referred to as the Right to Bear Arms, the language surrounding this particular item on the Bill of Rights is a bit more ambiguous. The official, original wording is:
“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.”
Problem solved, right? Not so fast. There is, as is well-known, quite a bit of controversy about what these words exactly mean. Largely, does this guaranteed right refer to the individual, or the society as a whole?
This has been something that has been debated over time, and understanding the context in which it was written is crucial. For example, the very inclusion of this article was inspired by the English Bill of Rights and English Common Law, specifically the Militia Act of 1662. Essentially, the right to have and posses arms was seen as an auxiliary right to the natural right of self defense, meaning it was not a guaranteed right in and of itself, but rather a means to an end.
However, things get a bit more complicated when one considers how society was organized during these times. For example, England did not have a standing army or police force until the 16th century, and as a result, it relied on the summoning of militias and self-directed police forces to carry out the rule of law and for protection from foreign adversaries.
This is thought to have been the general idea behind securing this right at the beginning of the American Republic. But after the Articles of Confederation—which prohibited the Federal government from raising an army—were scrapped in favor of the Constitution, which did grant this right, things changed. The need for state militias was greatly reduced, and therefore the focus of the Second Amendment began to shift towards the individual. As the country grew and consolidated military and police forces, this trend continued. Efforts to curb gun ownership have employed the collective argument, and they have been successful in doing this. However, in 2008 and again in 2010, the Supreme Court overturned handgun bans in Washington, D.C. and Chicago respectively on the grounds that they violated the Second Amendment. This reaffirmed the individualized interpretation of gun ownership for self-defense, further entrenching this idea in American legal precedent, and solidifying the importance America places on individual freedoms and liberties.
Guns are clearly an important part of American political and legal history, but they also play a tremendous role in the development of its culture. One must not forget that American history was very much defined by its expansion to the West. After the formation of the new nation, the U.S. bargained deals and fought wars to secure territory all the way to the Pacific Ocean, and much of the social, political and economic development of the country comes from the settlement of these territories.
One explanation as to how important the West was in forming today’s America was developed by Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893 and is known as the Frontier Thesis. Basically, he argues that as America moved west, there was always a frontier “line” beyond which few or no people lived. So, as Americans became tired of stagnating economic opportunities or felt restricted by aristocratic culture or elitist political control, they could move westward, freeing themselves from these pressures and opening the door for a sort of creative destruction regarding American society. Turner also argued that at the end of the 20th century, the frontier line no longer existed, and that that this would lead to a stagnation in America’s development as a democratic nation.
This idea became very popular among historians and deeply infiltrated American culture, and references to it can be found as far as the 1960s with John F. Kennedy’s “New Frontier” speech where he calls on advances in science and technology to be the new arena for American dynamism.
So what does this have to do with guns? Well, a lot, actually. Even though westward expansion was essentially over by the beginning of the 20th century, it still held great importance in the collective psyche of Americans. The idea of heading west in pursuit of new opportunities became an important symbol of the American dream, and through film and television, this moment in American history became strongly linked with guns. The West was seen as an exciting yet dangerous place, so to pursue this better life, one needed to be able to protect themselves against whatever danger they may find.
Nowadays, westward expansion does not exist, yet one cannot argue cowboys and pioneers are not key images relating to American identity, to which guns are closely tied. As a result, one could say guns have earned the status as a protector of the American dream.
Just as guns have played an important role in the political and cultural history of America, they have also had a significant impact on its economy. But before getting into the numbers, it is important to look at how guns impacted the way in which American industry conducts itself. Samuel Colt, the founder of Colt Manufacturing, offered a tremendous contribution to American industrialization: interchangeable parts.
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This was a manufacturing technique which used the same parts for every gun so that repairs could be made more easily and cheaply. Today, this is something we take for granted. If something in your car breaks, you simply order a new part and install it, knowing that the part will fit and work properly. However, before Colt introduced interchangeable parts, this was not the case. Parts and products were made on an individual level, so when you needed a replacement, it had to be made specifically to whatever device you had, which was far more expensive and time-consuming. This method caught on quickly and became the norm, contributing to the rise of American industry. Advances like this have been tied to the gun industry, linking it to the advance of American innovation and industrial mite.
Nowadays, guns represent a major sector of the U.S. economy. Some studies have calculated the firearm industry to be worth over $30 billion, which is roughly equivalent to the national budget of Nigeria. On top of this, the gun industry, being as large as it is, contributes a significant amount of jobs to the economy. While it is tough to pin down the exact number, estimates put it at over 200,000, and there are lots of indications that this industry is growing.
Whether or not this is a good thing is up for debate. There are arguments to be made that because this industry is so massive it can influence policy away from regulations that could help save lives or reduce the amount of gun violence in America. But on the other hand, this could be a prime example as to how an industry can flourish when afforded the type of security gun ownership has been given by both US culture and courts.
The relationship between America and guns goes both ways. Guns influenced the development of the nation, but this has also turned around and had a big impact on the prominence of guns in America. The rights afforded by the Constitution and upheld by the courts along with their cultural and economic significance has helped pave the way for a vibrant and prominent gun culture in the United States. But just how big is this part of American culture? How much impact has it had?
Well, according to the Pew Research Center, 30 percent of Americans own a gun as compared to 70 percent that do not. However, 36 percent of those who do not own a gun could see themselves buying one in the near future. Yet 33 percent of those who do own a gun could see themselves not owning one.
This might not seem like an overwhelming part for the population, but when comparing to other countries and also accounting for the amount of guns that are owned in the country, the prominence of firearms becomes even more evident.
What is interesting to note is that the number one reason cited for owning a gun is self-defense, with over 60 percent of gun owners giving this reason. After this, hunting and recreation are the top reasons.
This makes sense if we stop to think of it for a minute. First of all, the Second Amendment was written as a protection for the natural right to self defense, individual or collective, depending on who you ask. Also, the image of the gun as a part of westward expansion was very much one that pictured the gun as tool for protection against whatever perils may be waiting on the other side of the frontier.
Plus, for hunting and recreation, alternatives exist that can do almost the same thing and that can be acquired for less hassle and less money. Many people interested in these hobbies can invest in pellet pistols or BB guns, or they can find the best air rifle on the market, which will satisfy these needs without having to jump through the hoops of gun ownership.
Guns have played a crucial role in America’s past and they are continuing to do so in its present. But what is to come? Well, there really isn’t any way to know. The numbers indicate gun ownership in America is strong and possibly getting stronger. However, things can change, but since history is often the best predictor of the future, perhaps we shouldn’t expect too much.
The legal arguments supporting the Second Amendment rely heavily on the ideas of individual liberties, and this is an ideal that can be found all over American politics. A change in attitude towards gun ownership would mean a dramatic change in how the American citizen understands his or herself within the context of the society in which they live, something that usually takes generations to transform.
Additionally, cultural change happens slowly, and currently, firearms are a pillar of the way in which many American’s define their identity. Removing gun ownership from the American psyche would likely require an active move to forget many of the myths and stories used to build up America’s image today, something that again takes generations to transform.
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In the end, it is up to the individual to decide whether or not guns should have this role in society and then to act accordingly. We have tried to show how this is an issue that is peppered across both America’s history and culture. There are certain to be many more cases that challenge the way things are or that attempt to revert changes that will be made, and these events will only richen the history surrounding the role of guns in America.