By Ian Teunissen van Manen
North America analyst
Atlanta, Georgia, Boulder, Colorado and now Orange, California. The latest places to be hit by the US’ gun epidemic. Three more moments of senseless violence and national tragedy. Twenty-two more victims added to the mind-numbing and soul crushing total number of casualties attributable to gun violence in the US.
These tragic incidents also showcase some of the dimensions of the gun violence problem in the US. In Atlanta, it was a multi-location murder spree that took the lives of 8 people. In Boulder, it was a single location mass shooting that took the lives of 10 people. In Orange, it was another mass shooting that took the lives of 4 people, including a 9-year-old child (Ormseth et al., 2021). In other moments, it is a robbery at gunpoint. Somewhere else, it is an accidental shooting.
Despite these tragedies that are occurring every day, there is a continuous push for private gun ownership in the US, especially for self-defence purposes. In fact, the US is the only modern industrial nation where gun ownership “is lawfully prevalent among large numbers of its population” (Hofstadter, 1970). There remains a cultural obsession with guns: popular songs valorise gun ownership and violence; films, television series, and video games glorify gun ownership and violence. How did the US get to this point? Where does this morbid cultural obsession with guns stem from? This article will explore the origins of this cultural phenomenon and its roots in mistrust, hatred, and fear, and explain why “self-defence” is a problematic basis for gun ownership in the US.
Perhaps the most well known and most discussed defence of gun culture in the US is the 2nd Amendment of the US Constitution. Many if not most individuals who defend gun ownership in the US refer to the 2nd Amendment to support their claims. Though it is clear that the 2nd Amendment does, in the context of 18th century firearms and events, defend legal gun ownership, it is also clear that this context has changed drastically. Further, the discussion around the 2nd Amendment has become so polarised that productive discussions about the 2nd Amendment are very difficult to have. Therefore, I would like to look beyond the 2nd Amendment into what is one of the two driving historical factors for US gun culture: White America’s fear of the racial or ethnic “other” (Waugaman, 2016).
Let us consider the historical record. Since the early 1600s, white settlers had violent conflicts with Native American tribes that have resulted in the destruction and genocide of multiple tribes and their cultures (Waugaman, 2016). But it doesn’t stop there. Slavery, also starting in the early 1600s, brought with it the fear of slave rebellion. The Civil War and Reconstruction period brought the fear of former slave retaliation. The World Wars resulted in fear and hatred of the Japanese and German/European fascists. The September 11th attacks, and subsequent War on Terror, resulted in fear of Muslim religious fundamentalists and islamophobia in general (Waugaman, 2016). With these fears comes the desire to defend oneself, and guns have been the go-to avenue for self-defence for centuries.
Unfortunately, the fear of the ethnic or racial other is not the only factor in the development of the US’ gun culture. Mistrust and fear of the government has also played a huge role (Waugaman, 2016). The United States became independent as a result of a violent revolution that began due to the perceived tyranny of the British government. The founders of the US then created a system of government that they believed would limit the power of the central government to avoid a repeat of the problems they had under British rule. However, during the Civil War era, mistrust and fear of the federal government were cultivated, particularly in the Southern states. President Lincoln’s expansion of the federal government’s powers during the Civil War, coupled with the Union army seizing Confederate land and property in the wake of the war exacerbated the already existing fear of tyrannical government. This “victim mindset” of the slave-holding whites was a pathological revision of fact (Waugaman, 2016), but it nevertheless stoked the mistrust and fear of the recently freed slaves and the federal government.
What is the expected reaction of those who are afraid of everything around them? One would likely expect these individuals to take action to defend themselves. So, those who fear the racial and ethnic “others” around them, or who fear government tyranny, stockpile guns and ammunition for self-defence purposes. However, self-defence is a problematic basis for gun ownership for those who live in fear of the “other”. How can you determine if you are actually being attacked if you are constantly scared of those around you?
The Problem with Self Defence
The short answer to the question above is: you can’t. You can’t because in your mind, you are constantly under attack, even when there is absolutely no threat to your safety. This problem is made worse by “Conceal Carry” and “Stand your Ground” laws that enable people to carry a concealed firearm and shoot anyone they perceive to be a threat to their safety, even in a public space and even if they could have used other means to de-escalate the situation (Everytown Research and Policy, 2021). These laws make it extremely difficult to prosecute anyone who invokes these laws, even if they have murdered someone (Everytown Research and Policy, 2021).
Yet another reason that self-defence is problematic is that if everyone owns a gun for self-defence, then there is a greater threat that someone will get shot. In certain pathologies, “A good guy with a gun beats a bad guy with a gun”. In some instances, this might be true. However, the more guns there are in any situation, the more likely it is that someone will die as the result of a gunshot. In addition, how can you tell who is the “good guy with a gun” and who is the “bad guy with a gun”?
This article has briefly discussed some historical roots of the US’ gun culture, and its problematic basis in fear and self-defence. The gun culture of the US is a difficult topic because it is deeply tied with fierce emotions, no matter what side of the gun debate you find yourself on. However, the fact is that everyone in the US would be safer if there was more regulation of firearms. This is a fact, and for evidence one could look at the multitude of countries in the world with very strict gun regulations. However, I fear that the US, with its gun culture based on historical roots in fear, hatred, mistrust, and self-defence, might never be able to fully regulate guns within its borders.
Bryan Pietsch, Will Wright and Neil Vigdor. “Colorado Grocery Store Shooting: Live Updates.” The New York Times. The New York Times, March 23, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/live/2021/03/22/us/boulder-colorado-shooting.
Chappell, Bill, Vanessa Romo, and Jaclyn Diaz. “Official Who Said Atlanta Shooting Suspect Was Having A ‘Bad Day’ Faces Criticism.” NPR. NPR, March 18, 2021. https://www.npr.org/2021/03/17/978141138/atlanta-shooting-suspect-is-believed-to-have-visited-spas-he-targeted.
Everytown Research and Policy. “Stand Your Ground Laws Are a License to Kill,” March 22, 2021. https://everytownresearch.org/report/stand-your-ground-laws-are-a-license-to-kill/#:~:text=Stand%20Your%20Ground%20laws%20allow%20a%20person%20to%20kill%20another,upending%20traditional%20self%2Ddefense%20law.
Hofstadter, Richard. “America as a Gun Culture.” American Heritage 21, no. 6 (1970).
Ormseth, Matthew, Anh Do, Hannah Fry, and Ruben Vives. “4 Killed, Including Child, in Mass Shooting at Orange Office Complex.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, April 1, 2021. https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2021-03-31/orange-mass-shooting-reported.
Waugaman, Elisabeth. “Understanding America’s Obsession with Guns: How Did We Get Where We Are?” Psychoanalytic Inquiry 36, no. 6 (2016): 440–53.