“What is left for the supporters of restrictive gun control seeking an intellectual justification for their position? They are counting on a complete rewrite of American history [to downplay the centrality of guns in America].” —Clayton E. Cramer, author of Concealed Weapon Laws of the Early Republic: Dueling, Southern Violence, and Moral Reform
“If America’s gun culture is a recent development, then gun deaths today . . . are not the price we pay for our heritage—because there is no such heritage.” —Joshua Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center
American actors such as John Wayne brought the cowboy— icon of American independence, righteousness, and brawn—to the silver screen. Moviegoers around the world have come to associate the United States with cowboys, and, for better or ill, with the guns that they carry.
America’s fascination with guns and the implications of that attraction—such as over ten thousand murders committed with firearms in the United States in 1996—have come under contentious debate in recent years. Gun proponents such as David Kopel, research director of the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank, contend that guns have played a major role in the nation’s history. On the contrary, Michael A. Bellesiles, professor of history at Emory University, argues that America’s historic gun culture is “an invented tradition.” The debate surrounding the history of guns in America has far-reaching implications. On the one hand, gun advocates argue that if guns have always been central to American culture then we must continue to live with them. In consequence, gun bans and other gun control measures run counter to American values. On the other hand, gun control advocates assert that if guns have not been central to American culture then we need not live with them and their dangers. These analysts conclude that gun control is not only acceptable but necessary.
Gun advocates such as Kopel argue that America’s earliest experience with guns shaped its national character. Kopel contends that “for the few people who would be called ‘Americans,’ life itself would have been impossible without firearms” as protection against Indians and for hunting. These commentators argue that early Americans were at ease with guns. Some analysts maintain that only after modern gun control measures created a stigma against gun ownership did gun violence become a serious problem in the United States. Once guns became stigmatized, young people no longer grew up with firearms or learned to use them responsibly. Instead, they became tools for violent crime. Gun advocates assert that gun control is not only ineffective at reducing violent crime but is un-American as well.
However, some analysts disagree about the historic prevalence of guns in the United States. For example, Bellesiles contends that “gun ownership was exceptional in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries, even on the frontier.” He claims that America’s gun culture grew with the gun industry during industrialization around the time of the Civil War. Gun manufacturers invented the idea that guns were central to America’s identity, he argues, because such a cultural mystique helped sell their products. After the Civil War, with so many more firearms available, gun violence increased, according to Bellesiles. Many gun critics point to Bellesiles’ work as evidence for the need for gun control. They reason that if gun violence rose after guns became more available, clearly guns lead to violence. Regulating access to guns, then, will reduce gun violence.
Due to pressure by gun critics, various gun control measures have been enacted over the last fifty years. For example, in 1968, the Gun Control Act, which banned gun sales to most criminals, was passed. In 1994 Congress passed an assault weapon ban. However, commentators continue to debate whether such measures are necessary or effective.
Those against gun control contend that laws restricting the use of guns endanger the lives of citizens because more guns are used for self-defense than are used to commit crime. In consequence, easy availability of guns actually reduces violent crime rates. For instance, many analysts claim that states that allow citizens to carry concealed weapons experience lower violent crime rates than states that have restrictive concealed-carry laws. Many analysts also point to rising crime rates in other countries that have passed strict gun control measures as proof that gun control does not work.
In contrast, gun control advocates contend that firearms regulations are needed to take guns out of the hands of criminals. These commentators contend that violent crime rates rise when more individuals own guns. Gun violence creates countless injuries and deaths as well, they argue, the costs of which are borne by taxpayers. Many gun control proponents are especially concerned about the dangers of guns to children. They point to school shootings as evidence that guns are a serious risk to the nation’s children.
Support for or opposition to gun control in some measure depends upon the public’s understanding of American history. The cowboy—and for many, the gun that he carries— has come to symbolize the American spirit. Yet the notion that guns are central to Americans’ identity has been increasingly challenged by those who favor stricter gun regulations. The authors in Opposing Viewpoints: Gun Control debate whether gun control is necessary and effective in the following chapters: Does Private Gun Ownership Pose a Serious Threat to Society? Does the Constitution Protect Private Gun Ownership? Is Gun Ownership an Effective Means of Self-Defense? What Measures Would Reduce Gun Violence? To be sure, any measures that are taken to regulate guns will certainly collide with America’s gun history, which—real or fabricated—strongly governs attitudes about the role of firearms in American society.