It was 1776, the American colonies had just declared their independence from England, and as the war raged the Founding Fathers were deep in debate: Should Americans have the right to own firearms as individuals or only as members of the local militia?
When a landmark Supreme Court decision on Thursday expanded gun rights, just weeks after a mass murder of 19 children at her Texas school, debate raged on and outsiders wondered why Americans are so clingy to the firearms used in such massacres used with alarming frequency.
The answer, experts say, lies both in the traditions that underpin the country’s liberation from Britain and in recent consumer beliefs that they need guns for their personal safety.
Over the past two decades — a period that saw more than 200 million guns hit the U.S. market — the country has gone from “Gun Culture 1.0,” where guns were for sport and hunting, to “Gun Culture 2.0,” where many Americans see them as essential to protecting their homes and families.
According to Ryan Busse, a former industry executive, this shift has been heavily driven by nearly $20 billion in gun industry advertising, which has raised fears of crime and racial unrest.
The recent mass killings “are the by-product of a weapons industry business model designed to capitalize on rising hatred, fear and conspiracy,” Busse wrote in the online magazine The Bulwark in May.
But after the May mass shootings of black people at a supermarket in upstate New York and of children and teachers at their school in Uvalde, Texas, a consensus emerged that US lawmakers should push ahead with some modest new gun control measures.
Almost simultaneously, the US Supreme Court on Thursday overturned a New York state law restricting who can carry a firearm, a significant extension of gun rights.
– Guns and the New Nation –
For the men who designed the new United States in the 1770s and 1780s, gun ownership was out of the question.
They said the arms monopoly of Europe’s monarchies and their armies was the real source of the oppression that the American colonists were fighting.
James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution,” cited “the advantage of being armed which Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation.”
But he and the other founders understood that the issue was complex. The new states did not trust the nascent federal government and wanted their own laws and their own weapons.
They realized that people had to hunt and protect themselves from wild animals and thieves. However, some feared that more private guns could increase lawlessness at the borders.
Were private guns essential to protect against tyranny? Couldn’t the local armed militia fill that role? Or would the militia become a source of local oppression?
In 1791, a compromise was reached in what is now the most parsed sentence of the Constitution, the Second Amendment, which guarantees gun rights:
“A well-regulated militia, necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to own and bear arms must not be violated.”
– Gun Control 1960s –
Over the next two centuries, guns became an integral part of American life and myth.
Gun Culture 1.0, as described by Wake Forest University Professor David Yamane, was about guns as crucial tools for pioneers who hunted game and repelled vermin – as well as the genocidal conquest of Native Americans and the control of slaves.
But by the early 20th century, the increasingly urbanized United States was infested with guns and experiencing remarkable levels of gun crime not seen in other countries.
From 1900 to 1964, the late historian Richard Hofstadter wrote, the country recorded more than 265,000 firearm homicides, 330,000 suicides, and 139,000 firearm accidents.
In 1934, in response to a rise in organized crime, the federal government banned machine guns and required guns to be registered and taxed.
Individual states added their own controls, such as bans on carrying guns openly or concealed in public.
The public was in favor of such controls: pollster Gallup says that in 1959, 60 percent of Americans supported a total ban on handguns.
The assassination of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King in 1968 provided a push for tight regulation.
But gun manufacturers and the increasingly assertive National Rifle Association prevented new legislation from doing more than easily circumventing restrictions on direct mail sales of guns.
– The Sacred Second Amendment –
Over the next two decades, the NRA built a common cause with Republicans to insist that the Second Amendment regarding gun rights protections was absolute and that any regulation was an attack on Americans’ “liberty.”
According to Matthew Lacombe, a professor at Barnard College, to do this the NRA needed to create and promote a distinct gun-centric ideology and social identity for gun owners.
Gun owners banded around this ideology, forming a powerful voting bloc, particularly in rural areas, that Republicans sought to steal from Democrats.
West Point Military Academy professor Jessica Dawson said the NRA has colluded with the religious right, a group that believes in the primacy of Christianity in American culture and constitution.
“Because of the New Christian Right’s belief in moral decay, distrust of government, and belief in evil,” the NRA leadership “began to use religiously-coded language to elevate the Second Amendment over the limitations of secular government ‘ Dawson wrote.
– self defense –
But shifting focus to the Second Amendment didn’t help gunsmiths, who saw flat sales due to the sharp decline in hunting and shooting in the 1990s.
That paved the way for Gun Culture 2.0 — when the NRA and the gun industry began telling consumers they needed personal firearms to protect themselves, according to Busse.
Gun marketing increasingly showed people being targeted by rioters and thieves and emphasized the need for personal “tactical” gear.
The timing coincided with Barack Obama’s appointment as the first African American president and a rise in white nationalism.
“Fifteen years ago, at the behest of the NRA, the firearms industry took a dark turn as it began to market increasingly aggressive and militaristic firearms and tactical gear,” Busse wrote.
Meanwhile, many states responded to concerns about a perceived rise in crime by allowing people to carry guns in public without a permit.
In fact, violent crime has been on the decline over the past two decades — although gun-related homicides have risen sharply in recent years.
That, Wake Forest’s Yamane said, was a crucial turning point for Gun Culture 2.0, which greatly boosted sales of handguns that people of all races were buying amid exaggerated fears of homicidal violence.
Since 2009, sales have skyrocketed, exceeding more than 10 million a year since 2013, mostly AR-15 assault rifles and semi-automatic pistols.
“The majority of today’s gun owners – particularly new gun owners – cite self-defense as the number one reason for owning a gun,” Yamane wrote.
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