The deep-seated myths that built America’s gun culture

Second Amendment

Guns have been widespread in America since its first settlement. Possibly half of all households owned one in the 18th century. But while today we might talk about an automobile culture, no one mentions a vacuum cleaner culture. Some items play a social and cultural role beyond their mere utility and today guns certainly play that role.

But this has not always been the case.

Before the American Revolution, guns didn’t symbolise anything beyond an expensive investment for hunting or defence. The image promoted by the Revolution’s supporters of the selfless farmer, willing to seize his gun and fight British tyranny, began to change that. The militiaman became an iconic symbol of American liberty, and so did their guns.

In reality, militiamen had a propensity to run away in the heat of battle, at one point prompting Washington to post sharpshooters behind his lines to deter desertion. The militia was predominantly used to control civilians and intimidate Loyalists but the image of the militiaman firing bravely at redcoats became central to American mythology and began to transform the cultural perceptions of guns. Men needed guns to defend their freedom.

These concepts were reinforced in the Second Amendment, which entrenched the concept of a well-armed militia being essential to national security. The militia was composed of white men, who policed and protected their local communities, formed slave patrols, and disarmed African Americans. Whites owned guns; African Americans did not. A link was forged between liberty, freedom, race and gun ownership.

In the early 19th century, the status of guns developed further. Western explorers and “mountain men” became national heroes, hunting and trapping, and fighting American Indians. They extended the “Empire of Liberty” westwards and they were armed to the teeth.

Fictional cowboys were also worshipped as they shot first and asked questions later in cheaply produced, mass-marketed dime novels that laid the basis for Hollywood westerns. Perhaps no other national culture has a central popular icon like the western cowboy, violent and armed.

These images were picked up by gun manufacturers such as Colt, who were mass producing firearms, particularly handguns. Gun ownership had initially been overwhelmingly concentrated in rural areas, but the images of the cowboy proved especially appealing to urban men emasculated by drab lives.

Guns had become fetishised as symbols of masculinity and independence, central to the ways in which many American men viewed themselves. When state and federal governments made attempts to restrict access, many chose to channel their fears and anger through the NRA, which had been formed as a sportsman’s organisation to promote shooting skills, hunting and conservation.

However, in the wake of the Gun Control Act of 1968 – a response to the political assassinations of that decade – the NRA transformed into one of the most effective and most feared lobbying groups in the US. With a reported membership of over five million and an annual income of around $300 million, it has an unrivalled power to influence American politics. Any form of gun control will eventually lead to the complete disarmament of the population, government tyranny, and the loss of individual liberty, goes the argument.

In 2000, Hollywood star and then-NRA president Charlton Heston specifically evoked the image of the Revolutionary militiaman. Holding a replica of a colonial musket, he informed that year’s annual meeting that “sacred stuff resides in that wooden stock and blued steel—something that gives the most common man the most uncommon of freedoms”. Waving the musket above his head, he shouted “from my cold, dead hands!” to the rapturous crowd.

A gun is purely an object, yet to many Americans, it symbolises the day-to-day struggle to protect individual rights and liberties.

The world looks on dumfounded at political inertia in the face of tragic events like the recent shooting at a party in Alabama and at the intransigence of pro-gun organisations.

But the reality is that there is no easy solution to the orgy of gun violence. When the speakers at NRA meetings whistle to the dogs and rattle the sabres they are representing a strain of American life that has been hundreds of years in the making. Like all national stories, the one they tell has been embellished with myth, greed and ulterior motives. We should not expect the situation to change for the better any time soon.

Dr Matthew Ward is senior lecturer in American history at Dundee University.

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