clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How America built itself on guns, then couldn't let go

In 1773, Americans were angry that their British overlords were forcing them to buy tea from a single company and making them pay a tax on it. So the Americans dumped a bunch of the tea into the Boston Harbor.

The British were angry. They started enforcing laws with military force, like when Americans had an illegal town meeting in Salem, Massachusetts.

But that's when the British ran into thousands of armed Americans and were turned around. From the beginning, guns were a source of political power.

Eventually the British started disarming Americans, seizing gunpowder, and banning guns and ammo imports.

But Americans argued that this violated their natural rights to arm themselves for protection — something that came from the English Bill of Rights of 1689.

Americans believed this also implied they could defend themselves from tyranny.

Anyway, Americans built up armed militias, and we know the rest.

Guns are a large part of American history

Talking about the key factors that created American gun culture is like running through an American history class. Guns were a source of power for a country with a lot to fear, protect, and conquer.

But when the needs of Americans changed, the culture did not. We continued to tell stories about our past as if they were our present, and continued to treat guns as a source of political and communal power.

And that's what this cartoon is about — how America's unique gun culture came to be and then stuck around when the rest of the developed world moved on.

Regular people were expected to fight and protect with guns. They were bad at it.

After Americans won their independence, Congress cut the Army down to 80 men to limit the federal government’s power.

So regular citizens were forced to arm themselves when called upon by state and local militias:

But untrained citizens made terrible soldiers. George Washington even said men from domestic life "fly from their own shadows."

So when an uprising broke out, the lack of a national army meant a bunch of farmers could uproot the union.

New rules: America could raise an army but not take away guns

The new Constitution was going to give Congress the power to raise an army, but some Founding Fathers were scared it would give the federal government too much power. So they fought for laws that limited that power, known as the Bill of Rights.

The second was this:

But for everyday Americans, guns were a tool

Most American relied on guns for other things, like hunting and to protect their villages, since police forces didn't come along until later. In fact, guns were common household items in early America.

And when Americans went out into the Western frontier, they were even more common

In addition, early Americans lived next to the Western frontier. It was a unique place of freedom and hope.

In fact, some argue that having so much land to explore might be what set America’s gun culture apart from that of other places. They had to hunt for food while also being prepared to encounter animals and hostile people, including Native Americans and other white settlers.

But most days were mundane. The frontier was largely unpopulated, and crazy events, like the ones portrayed in movies, were rare outliers.

Settlers used long rifles. They were good for hunting, bad for fighting.

They had to be packed with gunpowder and ammunition for every shot, so if a settler encountered a Native American with a bow and arrow, the long reload times would put the settler at a disadvantage.

Throughout the 1800s, guns got better. People who had the better guns usually won.

As weapons got better, more people died.

At first, the American Civil War was fought with guns that required a reload after each shot. But Union soldiers soon received the repeating rifle, which could fire up to seven shots in 30 seconds.

This gave the Union a huge advantage. Again, guns were the source of political power.

Guns were also the source of power against Native Americans.

Americans disarmed Native Americans throughout the 1800s. And when there were gunfights, the American settlers often won because they had better guns.

But a lot changed in the 1800s as our young nation matured

The American military grew, and the government could raise massive armies for war:

Professionalized police forces became more common, so citizens didn't need to volunteer to protect towns:

We reined in the West, so there was less frontier:

And Americans went from living in rural areas to cities:

So fewer Americans needed guns as tools. This was a problem for gun companies.

And even the Americans who did want guns preferred the older technology because it was more reliable.

But the solution was very American: marketing!

So gun companies began advertising in the late 1800s with material showing people fighting "bandits or beasts."

In addition, gun companies demonstrated guns at carnivals and exhibitions, and the gun industry started to promote the idea that it is man's "natural instinct" to own a firearm.

Meanwhile, guns got deadlier for war, and they made it to the streets

The world wars were quite profitable for gun companies.

One of the weapons invented during World War I was a submachine gun, the first of which was a "Tommy" gun. It fired 50 bullets in two seconds.

And civilians bought them, too.

For example, the Italian Mafia used these guns to kill seven rival gang members in Chicago.

So the US passed a law to regulate these dangerous guns

In 1933, someone tried to kill president-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt.

This, along with the Mafia murders, led to the National Firearms Act of 1934.

It said you had to pay a $200 tax when you bought machine guns, sawed-off shotguns, and silencers, among others things.

One way to get around this tax was to modify machine guns that were made for war

For example, in 1950 ArmaLite engineer Eugene Stoner created a lightweight machine gun called the AR-15, which the US military bought in bulk for the Vietnam War.

At the same time in 1963, Colt made a civilian version. It only fired one bullet when you pulled the trigger, so it wasn’t a machine gun but rather what is called a semiautomatic gun.

And it was first marketed as a hunting rifle.

Still, gun violence got worse, and American leaders were killed

In the 1960s, gun homicide rates began to rise.

Then in 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated with a rifle purchased from a mail-order ad in American Rifleman, a magazine run by the National Rifle Association.

Congress tried to ban the mail-order purchase of handguns, which the FBI was said was used in 70 percent of gun murders — and NRA head Franklin Orth even endorsed the bill.

But then a lot of NRA members resigned. So Orth backed down. Subsequent gun control bills stalled.

Then in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was killed by a gunman. And then Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

A few weeks later, Congress passed the Gun Control Act of 1968. It required people selling firearms to be licensed, among other things.

Orth, the NRA head, said American sportsmen could tolerate the bill.

The NRA was set to be more of a hobbyist group

The NRA originally taught people how to shoot safely and accurately. In the 1970s, it wanted to become even more of a hobbyist group, and less of a group that fights legal battles in Washington. The NRA even planned to move headquarters from Washington to Colorado.

But many NRA members were pissed with this direction

So at the 1977 annual meeting in Cincinnati, this outspoken group organized to take down the existing leadership. It was a coup.

And by the end of it, the new head of the NRA was Harlon Carter, who had a very simple philosophy:

This is how the NRA became so powerful. It now lobbies against every gun control bill, quite successfully. It influences politicians with money and organized campaigns, like when it grades each politicians on their voting history. And the NRA even got a law passed that prohibits the federal government from funding gun research.

The NRA and the gun industry wove an intricate narrative

Gun ads are now about their combat capability and military pedigree — to be used for modern frontiers, whatever they may be. It’s the idea that "we’re all gun-wielding cowboys who can make it on our own in the wild," Lisa Hix writes in Collectors Weekly.

Gun ownership and gun rights have been tied with the very founding of this country, and the very reason the country is what it is today.

They aren't wrong. We see it sprinkled in the history.

But the narratives are not realistic

We have advanced police forces, a massive military, a far more urbanized population, and less frontier to conquer. Gun ads, like this one, depict drills that almost look like training for a zombie apocalypse — but these are not scenarios civilians will face.

And guns are no longer about political power. The NRA knows where that really comes from.

There are no citizen militias that can take on the US military, as much as they may try.

In fact, if there's something that tips the political scales, it is now more about money than guns. The NRA, more than anyone, knows this. It gives millions of dollars in political contributions each year to influence legislators, and it works.

Many think the Constitution is clear about an individual's right to own a gun. It isn't, though.

The first time the Supreme Court made a decision on the Second Amendment was in 1875, when the Court ruled that the Second Amendment only applies to the federal government — so other people, and even state and local governments, could still take away someone's guns. In 1879, the Court affirmed this again.

This still meant towns could prohibit guns in their borders, which many did.

But in both cases, the Court said the right to bear arms doesn't even come from the Constitution. Rather, the justices said it is a "natural right."

It wasn’t until 2008 that we really found out whether the Second Amendment directly gave individuals the right to bear arms.

The case looked at whether the District of Columbia’s handgun ban was constitutional.

And in a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that the federal government could not stop individuals from keeping a loaded handgun at home. And in 2010, the Court said states couldn't stop individuals, either.

But in both cases, the Court said it's okay to make laws that don’t give this right to felons and the mentally ill. Also, the Court said it’s okay to ban guns from schools and government buildings.

So this is pretty much where we are with the Second Amendment today — a frustratingly imprecise 230-year-old text and two 5-4 decisions.

Guns have taken on symbolic meaning, rooted in our history

We stop using most other tools when they are obsolete — like swords. That doesn't mean we stop respecting their role in getting us to where we are today.

And that almost happened with guns.

But firearm companies were able to market them to civilians as something symbolic, and not just a tool. And we had massive wars that drove weapons innovations, and those weapons made it to American streets.

And when we tried to pass laws that curbed gun violence, we made incremental progress until, suddenly, a group of powerful absolutists refused to even consider it, and conjured history as their defense.

Our past has deposited in this country a gun for every person, which means no matter what new gun control laws are passed, there will still be a lot of guns in our borders unless the government starts buying back guns, like in Australia.

This will continue to mean that gun homicides are far more common in the US than elsewhere, because evidence shows more guns correlate with more gun deaths.

There was a time in our history when limiting the possession of guns meant limiting our liberty — our ability to counterbalance a powerful central government that could fall into tyrannical hands; our ability to fend for ourselves; our ability to protect our families. In some cases, this is still true. But much like the stories we hear about the Wild West, they are outliers.

Far more common are suicides and homicides — of kids, of mothers, of the innocent.

That's 32,000 deaths a year.

They are a deadly vestige of our exceptional past. And as a country, it's something we've been unable to reconcile.


The many layers of May December


It’s just a tip


Blue Eye Samurai is one of the smartest Netflix shows in years

View all stories in The Latest