America As A Gun Culture


In 1968, after the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., there was an almost touching national revulsion against our own gun culture, and for once the protesting correspondence on the subject reaching senators and representatives outweighed letters stirred up by the extraordinarily efficient lobby of the National Rifle Association. And yet all that came out of this moment of acute concern was a feeble measure, immensely disappointing to advocates of serious gun control, restricting the mail-order sales of guns. It seems clear now that the strategic moment for gun controls has passed and that the United States will continue to endure an armed populace, at least until there is a major political disaster involving the use of guns.

Today the urban population of the nation is probably more heavily armed than at any time in history, largely because the close of World War II left the participating countries with a huge surplus of militarily obsolescent but still quite usable guns. These could be sold nowhere in the world but in the United States, since no other country large enough and wealthy enough to provide a good market would have them. More weapons became available again in the 1950’s, when NATO forces switched to a uniform cartridge and abandoned a stock of outmoded rifles. These again flooded the United States, including about 100,000 Italian Carcanos of the type with which John F. Kennedy was killed. Imported very cheaply, sometimes at less than a dollar apiece, these weapons could be sold at enormous profit but still inexpensively—the one that killed Kennedy cost $12.78.

It has been estimated that between five and seven million foreign weapons were imported into the United States between 1959 and 1963. Between 1965 and 1968 handgun imports rose from 346,000 to 1,155,000. Domestic industries that make cheap handguns are approaching an annual production of 500,000 pistols a year. Thus a nation in the midst of a serious political crisis, which has frequently provoked violence, is afloat with weapons—perhaps as many as fifty million of them—in civilian hands. An Opinion Research poll of September, 1968, showed that 34 per cent of a national sample of white families and 24 per cent of blacks admitted to having guns. With groups like the Black Panthers and right-wing cranks like the Minute Men, not to speak of numerous white vigilante groups, well armed for trouble, the United States finds itself in a situation faced by no other Western nation. One must ask: What are the historical forces that have led a supposedly well-governed nation into such a dangerous position?


It is very easy, in interpreting American history, to give the credit and the blame for almost everything to the frontier, and certainly this temptation is particularly strong where guns are concerned. After all, for the first 250 years of their history Americans were an agricultural people with a continuing history of frontier expansion. At the very beginning the wild continent abounded with edible game, and a colonizing people still struggling to control the wilderness and still living very close to the subsistence level found wild game an important supplement to their diet. Moreover, there were no enforceable feudal inhibitions against poaching by the common man, who was free to roam where he could and shoot what he could and who ate better when he shot better. Furthermore, all farmers, but especially farmers in a lightly settled agricultural country, need guns for the control of wild vermin and predators. The wolf, as we still say, has to be kept from the door.

Finally, and no less imperatively, there were the Indians, who were all too often regarded by American frontiersmen as another breed of wild animal. The situation of the Indians, constantly under new pressures from white encroachments, naturally commands modern sympathy. But they were in fact, partly from the very desperation of their case, often formidable, especially in the early days when they were an important force in the international rivalries of England, France, and Spain in North America. Like the white man they had guns, and like him they committed massacres. Modern critics of our culture who, like Susan Sontag, seem to know nothing of American history, who regard the white race as a “cancer” and assert that the United States was “founded on a genocide,” may fantasize that the Indians fought according to the rules of the Geneva Convention. But in the tragic conflict of which they were to be the chief victims, they were capable of striking terrible blows. In King Philip’s War (1675-76) they damaged half the towns of New England, destroyed a dozen, and killed an estimated one out of every sixteen males of military age among the settlers. Later the Deerfield and other frontier massacres left powerful scars on the frontier memory, and in the formative days of the colonial period wariness of sudden Indian raids and semimilitary preparations to combat them were common on the western borders of settlement. Men and women, young and old, were all safer if they could command a rifle. “A well grown boy,” remembered the Reverend Joseph Doddridge of his years on the Virginia frontier, “at the age of twelve or thirteen years, was furnished with a small rifle and shot-pouch. He then became a fort soldier, and had his port-hole assigned him. Hunting squirrels, turkeys and raccoons, soon made him expert in the use of his gun.”