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A short history of guns and the USA

  • People in Argentina constantly ask me “What is WRONG with you Americans? Why don’t you make owning guns illegal? Why don’t you stop the mass shootings? Don’t you care if your children are massacred?”

    All fair questions. First, a few facts from the newly released book “American Carnage: Shattering the Myths that Fuel Gun Violence,” by Fred Gutenberg, father of a 14-year-old girl who died in a Florida high school massacre in 2018:

    1. There are more guns than people in the USA.

    2. Approximately 30% of Americans own guns. So approximately 70% do not own guns.

    3. Approximately 6% of the US population owns 67% of the guns. These “super owners,” for the most part influential, vocal, and large donors to political campaigns, wield great authority with politicians, who find life (and their re-election potential) better if they do as the National Rifle Association dictates.  

    Here is a short history of Americans, guns, and the NRA, as written yesterday by historian Heather Cox Richardson:

    For years now, after one massacre or another, I have written some version of the same article, explaining that the nation’s current gun free-for-all is not traditional but, rather, is a symptom of the takeover of our nation by a radical extremist minority. The idea that massacres are “the price of freedom,” as right-wing personality Bill O’Reilly said in 2017 after the Mandalay Bay massacre in Las Vegas, in which a gunman killed 60 people and wounded 411 others, is new, and it is about politics, not our history.

    The Second Amendment to the Constitution, on which modern-day arguments for widespread gun ownership rest, is one simple sentence: “A well regulated militia, being necessary for the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” There’s not a lot to go on about what the Framers meant, although in their day, to “bear arms” meant to be part of an organized militia.

    As the Tennessee Supreme Court wrote in 1840, “A man in the pursuit of deer, elk, and buffaloes might carry his rifle every day for forty years, and yet it would never be said of him that he had borne arms; much less could it be said that a private citizen bears arms because he has a dirk or pistol concealed under his clothes, or a spear in a cane.”

    Today’s insistence that the Second Amendment gives individuals a broad right to own guns comes from two places.

    One is the establishment of the National Rifle Association in New York in 1871, in part to improve the marksmanship skills of American citizens who might be called on to fight in another war, and in part to promote in America the British sport of elite shooting, complete with hefty cash prizes in newly organized tournaments. Just a decade after the Civil War, veterans jumped at the chance to hone their former skills. Rifle clubs sprang up across the nation.

    By the 1920s, rifle shooting was a popular American sport. “Riflemen” competed in the Olympics, in colleges, and in local, state, and national tournaments organized by the NRA. Being a good marksman was a source of pride, mentioned in public biographies, like being a good golfer. In 1925, when the secretary of the NRA apparently took money from ammunition and arms manufacturers, the organization tossed him out and sued him.

    NRA officers insisted on the right of citizens to own rifles and handguns but worked hard to distinguish between law-abiding citizens who should have access to guns for hunting and target shooting and protection, and criminals and mentally ill people, who should not. In 1931, amid fears of bootlegger gangs, the NRA backed federal legislation to limit concealed weapons; prevent possession by criminals, the mentally ill and children; to require all dealers to be licensed; and to require background checks before delivery. It backed the 1934 National Firearms Act, and parts of the 1968 Gun Control Act, designed to stop what seemed to be America’s hurtle toward violence in that turbulent decade.

    But in the mid-1970s a faction in the NRA forced the organization away from sports and toward opposing “gun control.” It formed a political action committee (PAC) in 1975, and two years later it elected an organization president who abandoned sporting culture and focused instead on “gun rights.”

    This was the second thing that led us to where we are today: leaders of the NRA embraced the politics of Movement Conservatism, the political movement that rose to combat the business regulations and social welfare programs that both Democrats and Republicans embraced after World War II. 

    Movement Conservatives embraced the myth of the American cowboy as a white man standing against the “socialism” of the federal government as it sought to level the economic playing field between Black Americans and their white neighbors.

    Leaders like Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater personified the American cowboy, with his cowboy hat and opposition to government regulation, while television Westerns showed good guys putting down bad guys without the interference of the government.

    In 1972 the Republican platform had called for gun control to restrict the sale of “cheap handguns,” but in 1975, as he geared up to challenge President Gerald R. Ford for the 1976 presidential nomination, Movement Conservative hero Ronald Reagan took a stand against gun control. In 1980, the Republican platform opposed the federal registration of firearms, and the NRA endorsed a presidential candidate—Reagan—for the first time.

    When President Reagan took office, a new American era, dominated by Movement Conservatives, began. And the power of the NRA over American politics grew.

    In 1981 a gunman trying to kill Reagan shot and paralyzed his press secretary, James Brady, and wounded Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy and police officer Thomas Delahanty. After the shooting, then-representative Charles Schumer (D-NY) introduced legislation that became known as the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, or the Brady Bill, to require background checks before gun purchases. Reagan, who was a member of the NRA, endorsed the bill, but the NRA spent millions of dollars to defeat it.

    After the Brady Bill passed in 1993, the NRA paid for lawsuits in nine states to strike it down. Until 1959, every single legal article on the Second Amendment concluded that it was not intended to guarantee individuals the right to own a gun. But in the 1970s, legal scholars funded by the NRA had begun to argue that the Second Amendment did exactly that.

    In 1997, when the Brady Bill cases came before the Supreme Court as Printz v. United States, the Supreme Court declared parts of the measure unconstitutional.

    Now a player in national politics, the NRA was awash in money from gun and ammunition manufacturers. By 2000 it was one of the three most powerful lobbies in Washington. It spent more than $40 million on the 2008 election. In that year, the landmark Supreme Court decision of District of Columbia v. Heller struck down gun regulations and declared that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to keep and bear arms.

    Increasingly, NRA money backed Republican candidates. In 2012 the NRA spent $9 million in the presidential election, and in 2014 it spent $13 million. Then, in 2016, it spent over $50 million on Republican candidates, including more than $30 million on Trump’s effort to win the White House. This money was vital to Trump, since many other Republican super PACs refused to back him. The NRA spent more money on Trump than any other outside group, including the leading Trump super PAC, which spent $20.3 million.

    The unfettered right to own and carry weapons has come to symbolize the Republican Party’s ideology of individual liberty. Lawmakers and activists have not been able to overcome Republican insistence on gun rights despite the mass shootings that have risen since their new emphasis on guns.

  • As long as individual states have the right to pass decrees about gun ownership and carrying guns, no to mention the power of NRA which resembles a runaway train, the mass shootings will not stop.


    A number of states have also gone as far as to largely eliminate restrictions on who can carry a gun. In June 2021, for example, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed into law a "permitless carry bill" that allows the state's residents to carry handguns without a licence or training.

    Similarly, in April last year Georgia became the 25th in the nation to eliminate the need for a permit to conceal or openly carry a firearm. The law means any citizen of that state has the right to carry a firearm without a licence or a permit.

    The law was backed by the NRA, and leaders within the organisation called the move "a monumental moment for the Second Amendment".

  • In the UK, there were two, shockingly awful massacres, Hungerford and Dunblane, which touched the public conscience so deeply that there was very little resistance to laws in response which severely limited and then banned personal gun ownership in all but the most limited of circumstances.

    In Australia, the massacre at Port Arthur had a similar effect. Enough is enough, was the national mood and legislation banning firearms quickly followed and without significant public dissent.

    So in both the UK and Australia, countries which were previously comfortable about personal gun ownership, there was a tipping point. Sadly, with tragedies in the USA being enacted day after day after day, I find it hard to think where there might be a sufficient tipping point in the mood of the USA.

  • The definition of a militia. As far as I know, there's hardly been a need for the right to bear arms in the US

    • An army composed of ordinary citizens rather than professional soldiers.
    • A military force that is not part of a regular army and is subject to call for service in an emergency.
  • All excellent points. SpaceNut , the Second Amendment (A well regulated militia, being necessary for the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed) has been defined by gun enthusiasts as giving carte blanche to everyone, everywhere, to own any kind of gun, in any quantity, with unlimited ammunition.

    The first half of the sentence has been completely disregarded and discarded. A ”well regulated militia??” By no definition.

    Splinter , were the US Congress to pass meaningful gun safety legislation, that would supersede the irresponsible legislation of individual states.

    bebopalula , I believe that the public mood in the USA is, in fact, for meaningful regulations. If public opinion polls are reliable, close to 80% of Americans are in favor of national gun legislation.

    Their representatives in Congress have chosen to bow to NRA pressure rather than do the will of their constituents. When re-election time comes along, the NRA pumps money into the campaigns of those who vote with them, and into the campaigns of challengers to those who oppose them.

    Although the definition of “mass shooting” varies, it is generally understood to mean 3 or more killings in a single incident. Think about this: In the first 4 months of 2023, there have been 199 mass shootings in the USA. Number 200 is probably happening as you read this.

  • I have been in the USA several times, and fortunately I never see an exhibition of letal weapons, even with the Police.

    But perhaps the reason is that USA has almost 300 millions of inhabitants and of course, the possiblities are high to have incidents as they appear in block letters in the press.

    However,, if other countries with a liberal or freedom traditions had prohibited the use of weapons, It is high time that the USA overthrow the power of the NRA, because the allowance of using weapons was done almost 200 years ago, when the capacity of each gun was hitting one person every 5 minutes. Now with the AK47 and other advanced machine guns, you can make a disaster of real proportions if someone mad or misequilbrated person decides to do that.

    It is a scandal visit a shop where you can purchase whatever you want. From a single .22 pistol or a High performance machine gun.

    I remember that in Argentina, many years ago, it was possible to purchase guns, but up at .22 caliber or guns for hunting, 2 cartridges at a time. But I do not remember mass shootings as now appears so frequently.

    Now the restrictions aer much harder. You are obliged to declare you weapons.

    I gave my old weapons to my son, now 47, a pump action Winchester.22, from 1903, and a Beretta hunting weapon caliber 16, and he declared them. However, hunting for the pleasure of killing animals is out of fashion nowadays, and arms are looked as museum objects, nothing more.

    However, narcotraffic is very common now and many people asks a permission, due to the danger of being killed.

    Poverty and narcos are a dreadful couple. Many young boys are employees of the narcos.

  • According to this site, its 330 million

    I thought it was a lot higher to be honest, around 360 million

  • It depends on the country in reality, and depends what is the main cause of homicides, is it gun related deaths? The UK has a zero tolerance on gun ownership, those with special licences like sports men and women can own a gun, but I assume its a gun that has been produced not to fire normal bullets. You hardly hear of gun crimes, there are, but its nothing like that claimed in Honduras or the US

  • I’m always skeptical of claims like “Switzerland requires its citizens to own guns.” Sounds like such a loaded argument. How do they require it? No Swiss chocolates or Emmenthaler cheese if you can’t produce a pistol at the counter? Sounds extreme for a neutral country. 🐄

    In any case, the real basis for either maintaining a peaceful society or waking up one day, as the US has done, to find a massacre per day, is the laws and regulations imposed on gun ownership. Or lack thereof.

  • I think the issue is the values and mores of the people. Not how many guns.

    There is deep rooted psychological/sociological issues in the usa now. The final stages of the decline of an empire.

    Internal fighting and extreme violence is part of this.

    Btw, what about the knife attacks in the uk?

  • I can’t help, @Bombonera . My knowledge of the 2nd amendment is limited to the words of its authors: “A well regulated militia, being necessary for the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” 

    As to the contortions this simple sentence has been tortured into, for the benefit of those who profit from weapons sales and those who love their guns more than they love their children, I cannot even imagine what goes on in their minds.

  • From CNN:

    There are 120 guns for every 100 Americans, according to the Switzerland-based Small Arms Survey (SAS). No other nation has more civilian guns than people.

    The Falkland Islands – a British territory in the southwest Atlantic Ocean, claimed by Argentina and the subject of a 1982 war – is home to the world’s second-largest stash of civilian guns per capita. But with an estimated 62 guns per 100 people, its gun ownership rate is almost half that of the US.

    Yemen – a country in the throes of a seven-year conflict – has the third-highest gun ownership rate at 53 guns per 100 people.