America As A Gun Culture


What was so decisive in the winning of the West and the conquest of the Indian became a standard ingredient in popular entertainment. In the penny-dreadful Western and then in films and on television, the western man, quick on the draw, was soon an acceptable hero of violence. He found his successors in the private eye, the F.B.I, agent, and in the gangster himself, who so often provides a semilegitimate object of hero worship, a man with loyalties, courage, and a code of his own—even in films purporting to show that crime does not pay. All mass cultures have their stereotyped heroes, and none are quite free of violence; but the United States has shown an unusual penchant for the isolated, wholly individualistic detective, sheriff, or villain, and its entertainment portrays the solution of melodramatic conflicts much more commonly than, say, the English, as arising not out of ratiocination or some scheme of moral order but out of ready and ingenious violence. Every Walter Mitty has had his moment when he is Gary Cooper, stalking the streets in High Noon with his gun at the ready. D. H. Lawrence may have had something, after all, when he made his characteristically bold, impressionistic, and unflattering judgment that “the essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.” It was the notion cherished also by Hemingway in his long romance with war and hunting and with the other sports that end in death.

However, when the frontier and its ramifications are given their due, they fall far short of explaining the persistence of the American gun culture. Why is the gun still so prevalent in a culture in which only about 4 per cent of the country’s workers now make their living from farming, a culture that for the last century and a half has had only a tiny fragment of its population actually in contact with a frontier, that, in fact, has not known a true frontier for three generations? Why did the United States alone among industrial societies cling to the idea that a substantially unregulated supply of guns among its city populations is a safe and acceptable thing? This is, after all, not the only nation with a frontier history. Canada and Australia have had theirs, and yet their gun control measures are far more satisfactory than ours. Their own gun homicide rates, as compared with our 2.7, range around .56, and their gun suicide and accident rates are also much lower. Again, Japan, with no frontier but with an ancient tradition of feudal and military violence, has adopted, along with its modernization, such rigorous gun laws that its gun homicide rate at .04 is one of the world’s lowest. (The land of hara-kiri also has one of the lowest gun suicide rates—about one fiftieth of ours.) In sum, other societies, in the course of industrial and urban development, have succeeded in modifying their old gun habits, and we have not.

One factor that could not be left out of any adequate explanation of the tenacity of our gun culture is the existence of an early American political creed that has had a surprisingly long life, albeit much of it now is in an underground popular form. It has to do with the antimilitaristic traditions of radical English Whiggery, which were taken over and intensified in colonial America, especially during the generation preceding the American Revolution, and which became an integral part of the American political tradition. The popular possession of the gun was a central point in a political doctrine that became all but sacrosanct in the Revolution: a doctrine that rested upon faith in the civic virtue and military prowess of the yeoman; belief in the degeneration of England and in the sharp decline of “the liberties of Englishmen” on their original home soil; and a great fear of a standing army as one of the key dangers to this body of ancient liberties. The American answer to civic and military decadence, real or imagined, was the armed yeoman.

By the same reasoning the answer to militarism and standing armies was the militia system. It had long been the contention of those radical Whig writers whose works did so much to set the background of American thought, that liberty and standing armies were incompatible. Caesar and Cromwell were commonly cited as the prime historical examples of the destructive effects of political generals on the liberties of the people. The Americans became confident that their alternative device, an armed people, was the only possible solution to the perennial conflict between militarism and freedom. Their concern over the evils of repeated wars and institutionalized armies was heightened by the eighteenth-century European wars in which they were inevitably involved. Blaming the decay that they imagined to be sweeping over England in good part on the increasing role of the military in the mother country, they found their worst fears confirmed by the quartering of troops before the Revolution. John Adams saw in the Boston Massacre “the strongest proof of the danger of standing armies.” The Virginian George Mason, surveying the history of the nations of the world, remarked: “What havoc, desolation and destruction, have been perpetrated by standing armies!” The only remedy, he thought, reverting to one of the genial fictions of this school of thought, was the ancient Saxon militia, “the natural strength and only stable security of a free government.” Jefferson reverted to the idea of a popular Saxon militia by providing in his first draft of the Virginia Constitution of 1776 that “no freeman shall ever be debarred the use of arms.”