Some of my earliest memories are watching The Lone Ranger. I remember cowboys in white hats and bandits in black hats. When I picked up America’s Gun Wars: A Cultural History of Gun Control in the United States, I never expected to find a reference to The Lone Ranger or other Westerns. My stepfather was obsessed with Westerns and John Wayne in particular. I grew up hunting deer and squirrels with him. I hunted with a bow and with shotguns. For me, guns – at least rifles and shotguns – were normal. What I’ve come to realize is that this wasn’t normal for everyone. For some, the mere thought of a gun is an anxiety-inducing event. It’s not just those who have been victims of gun violence. It’s so removed from some experiences that it induces anxiety.
What masquerades as a gun war is in many ways much deeper. It’s about beliefs and identities that people have.
Bedrocks and Cosmopolitan
In America’s Gun Wars, Donald Campbell simplifies the positions around guns into “Bedrock America” (whom many would call gun rights advocates) and “Cosmopolitan America” (who believes that we need gun control to reduce violence and that guns are a holdover of a previous time). The labels are shortcuts and a simplification of positions – but they are useful.
Bedrock America’s beliefs are summed up best with “rugged individualism.” They share a fundamental set of beliefs that value independence, self-reliance, justice, and freedom. It’s almost as if Campbell was reading from Jonathan Haidt’s foundations of morality. (See The Righteous Mind.)
Cosmopolitan America’s beliefs are of shared values. They’re distrustful of firearms and their need. They see that society has evolved beyond the need for individuals to protect themselves. We have professional fire and police protection. Why would we need firearms to protect ourselves? They’re frustrated by the explosive growth of violent crime in our urban centers far away in both time and place from the frontiers of old.
I’ll admit that I’m challenged by some of the views that Cosmopolitan America has. For instance, the perception is that violent crime has been on the constant rise and it’s continuing to get worse. The peak of violent crime in America occurred in the 1990s. Even with the recent pandemic-related increase in violent crime, we’re still down substantially from the all-time highs. (See Anthro-Vision.)
I also struggle to accept the premise that more guns means that there will be more violence. There continues to be a rise in the number of firearms owned in the United States, which has in many ways corresponded to the drops in violent crimes. I’m not willing to say – as some gun rights supporters would – that more guns equals fewer violent crimes. I’m simply confused why the statistics don’t seem to support the assertion that more guns equate to more violence.
Inches to Miles
One of the ways that Bedrock America and Cosmopolitan America square off is when it comes to registration of firearms. The argument of Cosmopolitan America is that it does no harm and helps police trace weapons after a crime. There are fundamental problems with the argument in terms of the number of times a weapon is recovered but the offender isn’t apprehended. Importantly, in those places that have required registration, it doesn’t appear to have improved gun tracing capabilities. On its face, Bedrock America has asked for evidence to support efficacy of the approach and hasn’t seen an answer.
However, even if there were some evidence, Bedrock America has reason to be wary. In 1967, Mayor John Lindsay enacted a rifle and shotgun registration law. He promised the law was only to keep track of potentially dangerous firearms. He kept his word. However, in 1991, Mayor David Dinkins signed a law prohibiting some of the previously allowed firearms and the registration list was used to notify owners of the prohibition. They were also required to return a sworn statement about what they had done to comply with the new law. What started as registration had become a mechanism to “take” people’s guns from them.
Another consideration for gun control is the concept of licensing. It started with New York State’s Sullivan Act in 1911. The act required that people obtain a license for guns, knives, brass knuckles, and other weapons. The argument for it was that it would be possible to prevent unsavory people from obtaining such items, but, as New York State Senator Timothy Ferris at the time argued, “You can’t force a burglar to get a license to use a gun.” Criminals, by definition, break laws.
This is at the heart of the argument against gun control laws. Only a small portion of criminals – if any – will adhere to the laws. If they’re willing to commit murder and accept the felony for it, why would a minor weapons charge be concerning to them?
National Rifle Association
Few groups are as polarizing as the National Rifle Association (NRA). People either see them as defenders of the right to bear arms or the villains that push the means of killing children to the masses.
However, the organization was applauded in a 1945 letter from President Truman for their contributions to the war effort. The NRA was a leading provider of training and an encouragement towards both hunting and marksmanship. The skill necessary to effectively operate a firearm and hit a target would come in handy when the members were asked to fight in World War II.
Only to Kill
A sharp criticism of guns is their fundamental nature of killing. They are, in fact, designed for this purpose. The challenge comes when the killing moves from hunting to provide food for a family to harming other humans. Chicago’s Mayor Daley and Time magazine both criticized guns as having no significant role in society other than to kill or maim human beings. Of course, hunters and sports shooters vehemently disagreed with this assertion.
The truth is that automobiles still are responsible for more deaths than homicides (of all types), yet we don’t call for the elimination of automobiles. We don’t because the perceived utility of them as a transportation means seems to justify the mortality rate. If you don’t belong to a club that is gun-related, you don’t participate in a gun-related sport, and you don’t use guns for hunting, then there appears to be no reason for you to have a gun – except for personal protection.
The purpose of having a gun for personal protection places the crosshairs on the idea that the gun is used to kill and maim. That is, of course, what makes them an effective deterrent. The question at the heart of the problem is whether the presence of guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens increases or decreases violent crime including murder. Here, the data isn’t clear.
If you compare the US murder rate with IDEC nations, the rate is higher. If you include countries like Russia and Brazil in the mix, the murder rate drops. The relative rate of murder is relative to what you compare it to. To be clear, zero murder is a good thing, but achieving that isn’t a reality.
A common reference point is the United Kingdom with their restrictive gun laws. They’re in the top third of countries with high violent crime rates with relatively low murder rates and higher property crime rates. They do see less violent crime than the United States, but it’s not clear what the reasons for that are.
Lack of Certainty
Perhaps the most powerful thing that can be said is that, in every case where there seems to be a clear answer for what would solve our violence problem, it is less clear upon closer inspection. Perhaps this is the reason why we still have America’s Gun Wars.