An Outsider’s Guide to Guns in the USA
“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.”
That brief statement, awkwardly written though succinct, perhaps open to interpretation, was an amendment to the United States’ constitution which, at the time, was seen as a nearly perfect document, and one that shouldn’t be tinkered with much. This ‘update,’ and seven others, were seen as necessary; the eight amendments that would comprise the ‘Bill of Rights’ cut to the core of what it meant to be “American” at a time when it was still very much an undefined thing to identify as. The right to “bear arms” was only the second to pass through the halls of congress—it was a big deal.
It was passed in congress on September 25th, 1789, and then ratified two years later, on December 15th, 1791. If one might believe it, at the time it was a downright progressive act, if one considers the ‘establishment’ at the time to have been the various monarchs that had until then divided up the world among themselves to devastating effect, over millennia in some cases. More than in enabling musket ownership, which given the times was already a fairly well-established norm, the second amendment essentially made illegal the notion of monarchy itself, giving the citizenry free reign to overthrow any such attempts to revert to the tyrannical roots from which they’d ‘clawed their freedom.’ Or so it went.
Fast forward to today and many folks who don’t live in the US are often bewildered by all the stories of gun violence here, in particular after a mass shooting or when a civilian is shot by a police officer – why are guns such a big problem in the US? Why can’t they just be done away with? The answer to that is as complex as it is frustrating, and getting to the bottom of it requires an understanding of not only the nation’s gun laws, but its history, starting with the aforementioned second amendment.
While at the time muskets were universally needed for ‘life in the new world’—protection against wild life, hunting for food (and probably most of all, implementing colonial rule over the native people of the land which they’d come to uninvited)—today gun ownership and “gun culture” are not monolithic entities unto themselves. There are a number of different types of gun owner, each with their own prevailing logic and outlook. Furthermore, guns are not by any stretch owned universally, or even by anything close to the majority of US citizens; in 2020 the Gallup poll reported that 32% of U.S. citizens own guns, while 44% live in a household with a gun – up from 29 and 40 a year prior (Saad/Gallup).
At under a third of the US, the figures would be surprising to anyone who might casually observe the US from abroad, or who may have learned about its gun culture online; it’s a vocal minority that owns and advocates for firearms, and quite a vocal one at that. They jump at any opportunity to get their talking points across whenever provided the opportunity, and on every platform accessible via the internet. While perhaps they are in many ways often represented by an unruly rabble, guided in large part by vitriol for folks they deem enemies in a culture war they sense they’re losing grasp on, they are undoubtedly a well-organized and coordinated one. And not all who advocate for gun ownership fit this ‘hillbilly zealot’ mold either, further complicating any kind of coherent view one might have of what’s happening here in the U.S. with guns.
Spearheaded by the NRA (the National Rifle Association) and essentially curated and organized by groups like them, unlike gun owners at large, the political side of it, the ‘gun rights’ movement, has traditionally been one that has for the most part attracted ‘a very similar type of person.’ Gun rights activists devote much of their lives to singularly advocating for the one political policy point that seems to matter enough to them to merit action: less regulation on guns and easier access. Such a zealous group of activists and policy makers, while baffling to many abroad, also speak to how deep-seeded guns are in US culture, and probably beg the question: how could this possibly have come to pass? How could folks be so entrenched in advocating for tools that are objectively made specifically to kill or maim? It can’t simply be because an 18th century legislative “amendment” said they should, can it?
Racism and the First Attempts at “Gun Control”: From the Reconstruction Era to the Black Panthers
One can’t say that racism was at the heart of the need to enact the second amendment, given that the tyranny that it sought to enable the overthrow of was of European descent. Additionally, at the time of ratification the amendment didn’t consider non-white Americans in its scope, as a product of the fact that only white colonialists were among them, besides the slaves they clearly deemed as less than human. But this begins to speak to the inequities of the second amendment. Slavery was still in full effect (many of those who signed the declaration of independence and bill of rights owned slaves themselves), and as such, Black Americans weren’t yet recognized as equal by those who signed these laws into effect. This would all change over time, and finally after the Civil War, which ended in 1865, slavery would be abolished. Black Americans, triumphant and freed, returned home to the south and came back armed, as veterans of the brutal, deadly war. White, southern conservatives, as one might imagine, were not particularly enthused by this and so ironically enacted the first curtailments to the 2nd amendment in its history.
During the Reconstruction Era, they enacted the black codes targeting specifically black gun owners and it was in many ways enforcing these laws that gave rise to the KKK and other explicitly racist organizations like the White Brotherhood and others (Johnson/Slate).
More explicit examples of gun ownership being curtailed only by conservative white politicians in the face of non-white gun ownership; Martin Luther King, Jr. was denied a gun license after his home was firebombed by racist terrorists. A couple decades later, California legislator Don Mulford explicitly sought to pass anti-open carry laws in California to hinder the Black Panther Party—his legislation came to be known as ‘The Panther Bill’ (Manson/Teen Vogue). Staunchly pro-gun, even these conservatives recanted in the face of black gun ownership. The same flaunting of their guns in public that white people had proudly and steadfastly partaken in since the inception of the United States (often to terrorize PoC) was apparently, for conservative politicians, a step too far for non-whites.
This double standard was perhaps most on display on May 13, 1985, when in West Philadelphia, the police actually bombed the residence of the militant activist group MOVE. 11 dead, including 5 children, two entire city blocks burned to the ground, including within them 61 homes; the extent to which black folks arming themselves frightened white establishment historically couldn’t have been more clearly on display than it was in this case. The MOVE bombing was a moment that even the racist, white section of the “anti-tyranny” gun owners should have been absolutely horrified by.
This act of state-enforced terrorism, and all of these examples, raises the question: is gun control racist!? And of course it is not! But like most things legislative in this country’s history, it too has been weaponized to aid racists in their never-ending quest to eradicate their opposition, and this is important to keep in mind when we revisit black gun ownership. The old refrain that ‘gun rights people would support stricter gun regulation if black folks owned guns en masse’ is sadly yet another example of there being truth behind every joke. In a nation long plagued by gun issues (see Burr vs. Hamilton), whereas for many whites in the USA, a common motivation for gun ownership had become racism and fear of retribution, the only moments of pushback, reflection, and actual 'gun regulation' seemed to have come when black folks started arming themselves. That is, until the gun issue exploded into something else, most notably in Waco, Texas, and then Columbine, Colorado.
Mass Shootings and Automatic Rifles: the 90’s to the Present-day
To sum up who the main groups of gun owners are today (and have been for some time):
First of all one has to account for hunters, whom exist in most countries. Many hunters don’t generally mind the types of gun regulation that are regularly in dispute (assault rifle bans, concealed/open carry laws and the like, as they don’t apply to hunting). Still, many are also part of some of the other gun-owning groups as well—most of these groups have some overlap.
The Fearful. Many own guns in fear of a robber, murderer, carjacker, etc. and feel it is in their best interest to ‘go John Wick’ on their assailants—that is, fight off their would-be attacker with a gun and force rather than comply and wait for the police to engage. Ironically, gun ownership goes up the more rural the locale, so in the (more urban) places where greater population density leads to greater odds of encountering a crime firsthand, the citizenry seems to think owning a gun wouldn’t help as much as their rural counterparts might assume. All of which is to say, those who fear crime to the extent that they own weapons to fend it off are also usually the ones least likely to encounter the type of crimes they seem to be ‘prepared for.’
There are those stubborn “anti-tyranny” gun-owners who, perhaps unaware of the MOVE bombing, believe they can somehow fight off the entire US military and police force with their own artillery (which they’ve stockpiled accordingly) post-fascist/communist/monarchical/extra-terrestrial lifeform takeover—these folks typically span both sides of the political spectrum, and in some cases are off in their own ‘wing.’ Fear and mistrust of the government and/or police, as well-founded as they may be, are central to the logic of these folks and what drives their gun ownership.
Then you have your racist militants who, in perpetual fear of anyone non-white, stockpile weapons and ammunition in fear of some kind of second, race-fueled civil war (often there’s a bunker too, just in case).
Then you have the PoC gun-owners who, in fear of what has actually been a constant, existential threat to their and their families lives, have come to own guns in the name of self-defense. One would be loathe to minimize their need for self-defense, given the long and deep-seeded history of racist violence in the U.S. that has existed since its inception. While the owning of guns still offers little protection in the face of a police force that seems capable of killing the U.S.’s black citizenry at increasing rates (and uses gun possession as an excuse to ‘fire first’ more often than not), there are enough non-police related incidents of violent racism that guns offer a fallback for dire circumstances that many have come to rely on. Of all the fears that compel gun ownership mentioned here, this seems to be the one most based in reality. Whether gun ownership is good for the community at large or not is a larger debate, but the logic for owning is understandable. Couple that with the racist history of gun control mentioned earlier and there's a righteous mistrust at work that will be hard to ever undo.
Finally mix in the military and police officer faction who carry/carried firearms professionally, a number swelled by the 2004 Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act (more on that in a moment), and you have your one third of the populace that’s armed, a number that has been fairly stable since the Gallup poll started tracking it in 2007.
In swelling to numbers that high pre-2007, an uptick in shootings was inevitable, but what ultimately revived the gun control debate was when ‘mass shootings’ entered the lexicon. The 101 California Street shooting and the siege in Waco, Texas got politicians moving, passing serious legislation in 1994 for the first time in ages, but still the public’s awareness wasn’t there quite yet.
The notorious Columbine school shooting spurred the seminal Michael Moore documentary Bowling For Columbine which either ushered in or was a product of an already, newly ushered in conversation on this burgeoning face of the ‘gun culture’ that had begun to plague the country. That first notable school shooting in 1999 justified and garnered support for the first serious attempts at gun control since the late 60s which had culminated in the Federal Assault Weapons Ban of ’94. It also kicked off a rash of school and mass shootings around the nation that have only increased in prevalence since.
Most troubling still, since 2004, when the Federal Assault Weapons Ban was allowed to expire by then President George W. Bush, the only substantive gun policies to have been enacted since have been brought forth to loosen restrictions on gun ownership:
The 2004 ‘Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act’ granted off-duty current and former law enforcement officers the right to carry a concealed firearm regardless of state or local laws, while 2005’s Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act shielded firearms manufacturers from being held liable for acts committed with their products. Somehow this sharp uptick in gun violence and death has only ushered in an age of less regulated gun-ownership. These policies have been enacted all while mass shootings have become literally a daily experience across the U.S—so far, the U.S. has averaged more than one mass shooting per day this year (Brewster/Forbes), and in 2020, nearly as many children were killed by a gun as there were days in the year. And that in a year when we were forced to spend two thirds of it at home due to a global pandemic.
The Rise and Fall of the NRA
Before wrapping up, one has to go over who the NRA was. They were established in New York City in November of 1871. In the pipes for a few years prior, from right after the Civil War's onset in 1865 until its birth six years earlier, the British practice finally caught on, and its initial purpose was to improve marksmanship among union soldiers. It wasn’t until 1934 that it got involved in any sort of legislative affairs—it served only as a proponent and supporter of rifle clubs and marksmanship competitions for much of its early existence. Ironically, it only got involved in politics to get behind gun regulations, specifically the National Firearms Act of 1934, which required the registration of firearms and added taxation to sellers and manufacturers. They then, again, backed the Federal Firearms Act of 1938, requiring federal licenses for manufacturers, importers, and sellers of firearms. Even more ironically, they followed that up by also supporting the Gun Control Act of 1968 which imposed the first restrictions on particular categories and classes of firearms.
This act, however, created the schism that ultimately lead to the radicalization of the NRA, and its conservative, even far-right weaponization. By 1977’s annual NRA convention, when Harlon Carter essentially hijacked the organization, the transformation into a republican-aligned lobbying wing associated with mercilessly using fear and xenophobia to foment gun sales and popularity was complete.
It’s not really a mystery how deregulation re: gun laws occurred during the previously mentioned sharp uptick in mass shootings and gun violence that has been experienced in the U.S. since the 90s: the NRA thrived during the two-plus decades in question. They were launched into prominence by a republican party eager to cash in on the popularity that supporting the NRA garnered them among white, rural Americans. The increasing prevalence of gun violence in the US only galvanized the fear underlying most of the logic behind gun ownership, so supporting the NRA was ‘good politics’ for them the entire time. Much of the logic that propelled this partnership still exists today, and in some ways the partisan, urban/rural divide has only exacerbated differences and fears of civil disorder, even civil war, further still. And yet, the NRA has not been able to thrive in this environment. Nor even perhaps survive in it(?).
In August of 2020, New York State Attorney General Letitia James announced a bombshell news item: The state of New York was suing the NRA for illegal conduct. In-fighting and an already precarious financial standing had already lead the famed gun rights advocacy organization to a rough patch that was supposed to be temporary, but the New York attorney general’s decision sent them into freefall. Currently the NRA is hoping to be granted permission to declare bankruptcy and file for chapter 11, but even that is looking difficult, and New York’s pursuit of justice may be the final nail in their coffin—time will tell (Bruggeman/ABC News). In an age where one would think they’d be thriving, they’re instead circling the drain, raising the profound question; where do we all go from here?
With the NRA quickly becoming irrelevant, but gun sales not slowing at all, can something be done to stem the advances of the gun rights folks over the last couple of decades? Responses to school shootings all over the country, especially particularly brutal ones at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut and Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida galvanized movements that have endured longer than past efforts. Awareness regarding the need for stricter gun laws is certainly growing nationwide, and yet very little has actually been accomplished on a legislative level. There’s no doubt the time has long since arrived for substantive gun policy reform, but it also remains a fairly heated issue. The question both sides ultimately need to answer is how free do we want to be? But perhaps more importantly, does one’s freedom to bear arms supersede our collective freedom/right to feel at ease sending our children to school, going to the movies/religious services, walking down the street, etc.? Is a monarch the only kind of tyranny we fear? Can't a gun give anyone absolute power? That's the stuff kings and queens wielded unjustly, and which those muskets helped free us all from, no?
Where mass shootings occur and how many fatalities they produce can both be considered evolving parameters, and they’re trending the wrong way for an American society that is already excessively fractured by tribalistic politics and age-old bigotries. Citizens of the US need to be less confrontational (and way less armed), more receptive to each other’s struggles and triumphs, things that are hard when both sides have literal guns pointed at each other—brave, guided legislation can address one of these problems, but it will need to be decisive, and the clock is ticking. We no longer live in an age of muskets; a single gun can murder tens if not hundreds in a matter of seconds—we have to leave behind these outdated laws from the past, and move forward from this senseless violence and death into the future, if not at least the present.