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Race and Beyond: Why Do Some Americans Love Guns So Much?

Our Frontier Culture Offers a Disturbing Clue

SOURCE: AP/Jacquelyn Martin

Counter-protesters Kenya Stevens, left, of District Heights, Maryland; Steve Tidwell, of Arlington, Virginia; and a protester who asked not to be named shout their support for gun rights across from a protest of gun-control advocates next to Realco Gun Shop in District Heights on Tuesday, August 28, 2007.

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I suspect it is in our cultural DNA, a mythological disposition that took root in the glorification of our nation’s frontier culture. Back in those brutal, barbaric days, men frequently surrendered to primordial fears of the great unknown wilderness. Fighting was a way of life and shooting a gun was the first (and sometimes the only) way a man protected himself, his family, and his property. Absent established laws, a man’s might determined who or what was right. The flight of a bullet simply and fatally settled disputes.

In effect, the continued sanctity of the Second Amendment—“A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed”—sustains the distrust that modern laws ultimately can’t protect Americans from random dangers lurking somewhere out there as they once did along the frontier. An armed citizenry, the most fanatic proponents of the Second Amendment argue, is all that preserves civilization.

This is utter nonsense. Our nation’s deeply embedded civic structures preserve our freedom and our way of life, changing over time and mostly for the good. But try telling that to a gun worshiper, who believes the right to bear arms is a divine edict. You’d have a better chance convincing a crash dummy that the secretary of transportation is the Almighty.

Not every American buys into this myth even though all of us are steeped in that frontier culture of our past. A recent CBS News/NYT poll suggests Americans remain split on the issue of gun control. The survey, taken immediately after the Tucson shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) and 19 other people, found that 46 percent of those polled think gun laws should be stricter, while 38 percent want them to stay the same. Another 13 percent believe the laws should be relaxed.

In contrast, a similar poll conducted last April revealed that 40 percent of poll respondents wanted tougher laws, 42 percent wanted the same laws, and 16 percent wanted looser restrictions on guns. Pollsters suspect the difference in results can be traced to the top-of-mind awareness of the recent shootings. It’s likely that as awareness and news reports rise and ebb, opinions similarly swing back and forth.

No doubt such mixed views are the reason President Obama seems wary of wading into the choppy political waters surrounding demands that he address gun-control issues. Administration officials say Obama will soon offer a glimpse into his thinking about restoring a federal ban on automatic weapons or, maybe, restricting high-capacity ammunition magazines such as the one used last month in the Tucson massacre, which killed six people amid the attempted assassination of Rep. Giffords.

Still, we are a nation that cherishes guns and makes heroes of pistol-toting vigilantes. There were, in the aftermath of the Tucson shooting, evergreen pleas that a more armed citizenry might have prevented the carnage. Why? Perhaps it’s the sense of cultural stability—the holding off of inevitable social change—that plays into the stubborn, contemporary idolization of guns. Some law-abiding citizens honestly believe they can preserve their evolving way of life, even in the midst of profound and inevitable upheaval, if push comes to shove with their hands on a gun.

Support for this notion gathers supporting evidence from reflexive actions of wealthy people surrounded by ongoing protests in Egypt. News reports, skimpy as they are, suggest a partial breakdown of order in Cairo and other parts of Egypt. Over the weekend, National Public Radio reported young men with guns protecting neighborhoods from looters.

Reading such stories as a call for greater arms in U.S. society is a misunderstanding of the situation. While Egyptian society and the protests roiling that country bear scant resemblance to American life, there’s one notable commonality—a growing divide between the haves and the have-nots. Indeed, at the heart of the Egyptian protests is a demand by citizens for greater democracy in hopes that a more free society will encourage greater prosperity for all citizens.

Of course, for some Egyptians who already have wealth, a changing social order is a scary thing, something to be protected—with guns, if necessary. A story in The New York Times on the protests in Cairo noted that as the police withdrew from major cities, tensions between rich and poor people exploded in random violence. There were reports of “gunfights at the bridges and gates to the most expensive neighborhoods,” the newspaper said.

Alan Marks, associate professor of psychology at Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville, Georgia, argues the old-fashioned ideal of rugged American individualism is at the heart of modern-day gun idolatry. “Owning a gun is seen as symbolic of the American culture,” he said during a phone interview. “But it also suggests a fundamental mistrust of the normal mechanism of law, which the gun owner may believe can’t provide a quick and sure enough response to a violation of the social order.”

To this day, America’s wealth gap grows ever larger. Many people envision threats from “others” seeking to take away their property. Others, such as Tea Party adherents, talk of government takeovers and express open distrust that government is unable to defend and protect their interest by the rule of law. They are convinced it’s the citizen’s right to go it alone. With a gun.

As President Obama crafts his message to the nation on this issue, he would be wise to remind all of us that spreading more guns across the land is a surefire way to devolve our nation to its frontier days. No one should want to return to the wild, wild West.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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This is part of a regular column: Race and Beyond

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