It was 1776, the American colonies had just declared their independence from England, and as war raged the founding fathers were deep in debate: should Americans have the right to own firearms as individuals, or just as members of local militia?
Days after 19 children and two teachers were slaughtered in a Texas town, the debate rages on as outsiders wonder why Americans are so wedded to the firearms that stoke such massacres with appalling frequency.
The answer, experts say, lies both in the traditions underpinning the country’s winning its freedom from Britain, and most recently, a growing belief among consumers that they need guns for their personal safety.
Over the past two decades — a period in which more than 200 million guns hit the US market — the country has shifted from “Gun Culture 1.0,” where guns were for sport and hunting, to “Gun Culture 2.0” where many Americans see them as essential to protect their homes and families, explains a report by AFP.
That shift has been driven heavily by advertising by the nearly $20 billion gun industry that has tapped fears of crime and racial upheaval, Ryan Busse, a former industry executive told the AFP.
Recent mass murders “are the byproduct of a gun industry business model designed to profit from increasing hatred, fear, and conspiracy,” Busse wrote this week in the online magazine The Bulwark.
Guns and the new nation
For the men designing the new United States in the 1770s and 1780s, there was no question about gun ownership.
They said the monopoly on guns by the monarchies of Europe and their armies was the very source of oppression that the American colonists were fighting.
James Madison, the “father of the constitution,” cited “the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation.”
But he and the other founders understood the issue was complex. The new states did not trust the nascent federal government, and wanted their own laws, and own arms.
They recognized people needed to hunt and protect themselves against wild animals and thieves. But some worried more private guns could just increase frontier lawlessness.
Were private guns essential to protect against tyranny? Couldn’t local armed militia fulfil that role? Or would militia become a source of local oppression?
In 1791, a compromise was struck in what has become the most parsed phrase in the Constitution, the Second Amendment guaranteeing gun rights:
“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.”
1960s gun control
Over the following two centuries, guns became an essential part of American life and myth.
Gun Culture 1.0, as Wake Forest University professor David Yamane describes it, was about guns as critical tools for pioneers hunting game and fending off varmints — as well as the genocidal conquest of native Americans and the control of slaves.
But by the early 20th century, the increasingly urbanized United States was awash with firearms and experiencing notable levels of gun crime not seen in other countries.
From 1900 to 1964, wrote the late historian Richard Hofstadter, the country recorded more than 265,000 gun homicides, 330,000 suicides, and 139,000 gun accidents.
In reaction to a surge in organized crime violence, in 1934 the federal government banned machine guns and required guns to be registered and taxed.
Individual states added their own controls, like bans on carrying guns in public, openly or concealed.
The public was for such controls: pollster Gallup says that in 1959, 60 percent of Americans supported a complete ban on personal handguns.
The assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, brought a push for strenuous regulation in 1968.
But gunmakers and the increasingly assertive National Rifle Association, citing the Second Amendment, prevented new legislation from doing more than implement an easily circumvented restriction on direct mail-order gun sales.
The holy Second amendment
Over the next two decades, the NRA built common cause with Republicans to insist that the Second Amendment was absolute in its protection of gun rights, and that any regulation was an attack on Americans’ “freedom.”
According to Matthew Lacombe, a Barnard College professor, achieving that involved the NRA creating and advertising a distinct gun-centric ideology and social identity for gun owners.
Gun owners banded together around that ideology, forming a powerful voting bloc, especially in rural areas that Republicans sought to seize from Democrats.
Jessica Dawson, a professor at the West Point military academy, said the NRA made common cause with the religious right, a group that believes in Christianity’s primacy in American culture and the constitution.
Drawing “on the New Christian Right’s belief in moral decay, distrust of the government, and belief in evil,” the NRA leadership “began to use more religiously coded language to elevate the Second Amendment above the restrictions of a secular government,” Dawson wrote.
Yet the shift of focus to the Second Amendment did not help gunmakers, who saw flat sales due to the steep decline by the 1990s in hunting and shooting sports.
That paved the way for Gun Culture 2.0 — when the NRA and the gun industry began telling consumers that they needed personal firearms to protect themselves, according to Busse.
Gun marketing increasingly showed people under attack from rioters and thieves, and hyped the need for personal “tactical” equipment.
The timing paralleled Barack Obama becoming the first African American president and a rise in white nationalism.
“Fifteen years ago, at the behest of the NRA, the firearms industry took a dark turn when it started marketing increasingly aggressive and militaristic guns and tactical gear,” Busse wrote.
Meanwhile, many states answered worries about a perceived rise in crime by allowing people to carry guns in public without permits.
In fact, violent crime has trended downward over the past two decades — though gun-related murders have surged in recent years.
That, said Wake Forest’s Yamane, was a key turning point for Gun Culture 2.0, giving a sharp boost to handgun sales, which people of all races bought, amid exaggerated fears of internecine violence.
Since 2009, sales have soared, topping more than 10 million a year since 2013, mainly AR-15-type assault rifles and semi-automatic pistols.
“The majority of gun owners today — especially new gun owners — point to self-defense as the primary reason for owning a gun,” Yamane wrote.
What is Biden’s Stand About the Problem Today?
Joe Biden the consoler-in-chief will no doubt find exactly the right message on Sunday as he visits Texas to meet the families of children massacred as they celebrated the end of the school year.
But Biden the dealmaker has remained conspicuous in his absence from the war of words being waged over gun control that has followed the atrocity, preferring to let his party leaders in Congress do the talking for him.
“He can’t just be the ‘eulogizer-in-chief.’ He also needs to put the full force of his office into the legislative process,” Peter Ambler, executive director for the gun safety group Giffords, told Politico.
“Otherwise it will seem like he has lost hope.”
So far, the 79-year-old Democratic US president has appeared reluctant to drill down into the details of the firearms control debate, a decision that has more to do with pragmatic politics than any personal disinclination.
Biden, a heart-on-sleeve politician and a twice-bereaved father who lost a baby daughter to a car accident and an adult son to cancer, takes his role as consoler-in-chief seriously.
He would like to believe that Americans can bridge their deep division at least to unite in mourning over the 19 children and two teachers who were shot dead by an 18-year-old gunman at their school in Uvalde, Texas — where he will visit Sunday with First Lady Jill Biden.
But if Biden’s focus for the moment is at the emotional end of the register — “When in God’s name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby?” he cried on Tuesday — there is a sanguine political calculation behind the passion.
A former senator with a deference to the separation of powers, he wants Congress to pass a bill that would make psychiatric and criminal background checks for gun buyers more widespread, while banning assault rifles and high-capacity magazines.
“We have done our part… But, right now, we need the help of Congress. You know, the president has been very clear that it’s time to act, it’s time for Congress to act,” his spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said Thursday.
The White House believes Biden inserting himself into the middle of negotiations, at a time when he is very unpopular in the polls, would likely undermine a delicate legislative process.
The 50 Democrats in the evenly-divided Senate, who support a broad range of actions, will need to win over Republicans to hit the 60-vote threshold required to get any bill signed into law.
Biden has so far held back from openly criticizing the Republicans, who are mostly hostile to reform, with many campaigning for the November midterm elections on their support for access to firearms.
The administration also argues that a federal law would have a more profound impact than an executive order that would not be binding on all US states and can only regulate at the margins.
But several gun control groups say, without questioning the president’s beliefs, that he needs to be more involved.
Igor Volsky, executive director of the organization Guns Down America, said on Twitter that Biden could create an agency at the White House specifically dedicated to firearms, travel the country to meet affected communities, welcome activists to the Oval Office and personally lobby members of Congress.
“This is *literally the bare minimum* for what a President who ran on gun violence prevention should be doing,” he tweeted.
Meanwhile activists fear that the United States will fall back into the now-familiar pattern that plays out after every mass shooting: a wave of outrage that subsides before it can be translated into any significant reform.
The Uvalde school massacre may have shocked the nation but it was not enough to stop business as usual on Capitol Hill.
Congress went ahead anyway with its long-planned 10-day break, saying they would pick up the issue after the Memorial Day recess.
With AFP inputs