America As A Gun Culture


While the notion that “the right to bear arms” is inconsistent with state or federal gun regulation is largely confined to the obstinate lobbyists of the National Rifle Association, another belief of American gun enthusiasts enjoys a very wide currency in the United States, extending to a good many liberals, civil libertarians, and even radicals. It is the idea that popular access to arms is an important counterpoise to tyranny. A historian, recently remonstrating against our gun policies, was asked by a sympathetic liberal listener whether it was not true, for example, that one of the first acts of the Nazis had been to make it impossible for the nonparty, nonmilitary citizen to have a gun—the assumption being that the German people had thus lost their last barrier to tyranny. In fact Nazi gun policies were of no basic consequence: the democratic game had been lost long before, when legitimate authorities under the Weimar Republic would not or could not stop uniformed groups of Nazi terrorists from intimidating other citizens on the streets and in their meetings and when the courts and the Reich Ministry of Justice did not act firmly and consistently to punish the makers of any Nazi Putsch according to law. It is not strong and firm governments but weak ones, incapable of exerting their regulatory and punitive powers, that are overthrown by tyrannies. Nonetheless, the American historical mythology about the protective value of guns has survived the modern technological era in all the glory of its naïveté, and it has been taken over from the whites by some young blacks, notably the Panthers, whose accumulations of arms have thus far proved more lethal to themselves than to anyone else. In all societies the presence of small groups of uncontrolled and unauthorized men in unregulated possession of arms is recognized to be dangerous. A query therefore must ring in our heads: Why is it that in all other modern democratic societies those endangered ask to have such men disarmed, while in the United States alone they insist on arming themselves?


A further point is of more than symptomatic interest: the most gun-addicted sections of the United States are the South and the Southwest. In 1968, when the House voted for a mild bill to restrict the mail-order sale of rifles, shotguns, and ammunition, all but a few of the 118 votes against it came from these regions. This no doubt has something to do with the rural character of these regions, but it also stems from another consideration: in the historic system of the South, having a gun was a white prerogative. From the days of colonial slavery, when white indentured servants were permitted, and under some circumstances encouraged, to have guns, blacks, whether slave or free, were denied the right. The gun, though it had a natural place in the South’s outdoor culture, as well as a necessary place in the work of slave patrols, was also an important symbol of white male status. Students in the Old South took guns to college as a matter of course. In 1840 an undergraduate at the University of Virginia killed a professor during a night of revelry that was frequently punctuated by gunfire. Thomas Hart Benton, later to be a distinguished Missouri senator, became involved, during his freshman year at the University of North Carolina, in a brawl in which he drew a pistol on another student, and was spared serious trouble only when a professor disarmed him. He was sixteen years old at the time. In the light of the long white effort to maintain a gun monopoly, it is hardly surprising, though it may be discouraging, to see militant young blacks borrowing the white man’s mystique and accepting the gun as their instrument. “A gun is status- that’s why they call it an equalizer,” said a young Chicago black a few years ago. “What’s happening today is that everybody’s getting more and more equal because everybody’s got one.”