America's Fascination with Firearms

The rigors of the country’s frontier led to the proliferation of firearms and a deeply ingrained pro-gun culture.

BY DAVID B. KOPEL

The World & I. October 2003.

Unlike most of the world's people, many Americans view the possession of firearms as the norm rather than the exception.

The European and Japanese feudal aristocracies loathed firearms, because they eliminated the role of the nobility in combat. Firearms democratized warfare, penetrated armor, and allowed fighting from a distance, thereby greatly reducing the importance of the nobility's old skills with swords in close combat. In Japan and much of Europe, the aristocracy promoted laws restricting or prohibiting the possession of firearms, especially handguns, by common people.

In continental Europe and England, hunting was tightly controlled by the aristocracy. Common people were often forbidden even to kill a rabbit that was eating their crops on their own land. No sane governor or legislature in the American colonies would have attempted to impose European-style hunting or gun-control laws, for such repressive laws would have made it impossible for much of the American population to survive.
Colonial laws generally required each household to possess a firearm, for service in the militia and other civil defense. Households that could not afford a gun were often given "public arms" by the government to keep at home.
Other English colonies did not have as rough a frontier as the United States did. Canada's white settlement was mostly peaceful, thanks to careful government negotiations with the indigenous peoples. Nor did Canada have a "Wild West" like the United States, where citizens ubiquitously carried handguns for protection, in the absence of effective law enforcement. In Canada, though, the Mounted Police showed up when the first railroad towns were being built. Order was imposed from above.

Fight for independence

The American Revolution was in part assisted by America's already well-developed gun culture. The United States won independence through a sustained armed popular revolt, as the Swiss (armed with crossbows) had done beginning in 1291, when the first three cantons battled for freedom from Austria.

Of the approximately 400,000 American men in active service against Great Britain during the Revolution, the militia amounted to about 165,000. Although the militiamen turned in some miserable performances, such as when those from Virginia fled at Camden, South Carolina, in 1780, the irregular forces, when supported by the Continental Army, could fight effectively. For example, they did splendidly in the 1781 Battle of Cowpens, South Carolina--the turning point of the war in the South--which set the stage for the coup de grace at Yorktown, Virginia.

The militia played a major role in defeating Gen. John Burgoyne's 1777 Saratoga campaign, which had tried to isolate New England from the rest of the United States. In 1778--79, the Kentucky militia, led by George Rogers Clark, captured key British posts on the Wabash River in the future states of Indiana and Illinois. The victories helped legitimize America's claim to all British territory east of the Mississippi, a claim that Britain eventually recognized in the 1783 peace treaty.

In Washington's Partisan War: 1775--1783, Mark W. Kwasny examines George Washington's use of the militias in Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey. The scholar writes that while those forces could not by themselves defeat the Redcoats in a pitched battle, the irregulars were essential to American success: "Militiamen were available everywhere and could respond to sudden attacks and invasions often faster than the army could." Washington "used them in small parties to harass and raid the army and to guard all the places he could not send Continentals."

As the war came to an end, Washington wrote in his 1783 "Circular to the States": "The Militia of this Country must be considered as the Palladium of our security, and the first effectual resort in case of hostility."

State and federal constitutions

Beginning in 1774, when the British army occupying Boston began confiscating the inhabitants' firearms, the American Revolution confirmed what the founders had learned from their studies of ancient Greece and Rome, as well as from English and French history: The possession of arms was essential to the retention of political and civil rights.
Guns and Government

The "standard model" view of the Second Amendment--that the Bill of Rights guarantees every law-abiding adult the right to own guns--is accepted by most constitutional experts.
Opponents of this view adhere to the "states' right" theory, which claims the amendment only applies to state militias' right to arms.
In more than 35 cases, the Supreme Court has ruled that the Second Amendment refers to individuals' right to gun ownership rather than the states' right.
The founders wrote the amendment with the belief that securing citizens' rights to arms would discourage government tyranny.
When gun ownership is in the hands of ordinary citizens who don't abuse the right, crime is deterred, which makes society safer.
Cities that sue the gun industry are on shaky legal ground, for their failure to keep criminals away from guns is at least as big a factor in gun crimes as the industry's manufacture of firearms.

Thus, starting with the Pennsylvania and North Carolina constitutions in 1776, American state constitutions have usually included a right to arms provision. The federal constitution added the Second Amendment in 1791.

The federal and state constitutions have helped develop a "rights consciousness" far stronger than can be found in any other nation. The very existence of written rights--taught in school and upheld by the courts--inculcates in people a greater and greater determination to uphold their rights.

In this way, the rights consciousness engendered by the written "right to arms" led to additional protections for rights. Since 1963, the people of Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin have chosen, either through their legislature or through a direct vote, to add a right to arms to their state constitution or to readopt the right to arms or strengthen an existing right. In every state where the people have had the opportunity to vote directly, they have voted for the right to arms by overwhelming margins. In 1998, Wisconsin voted the right to arms in a 74 percent landslide.

One of the few other nations with an explicit right to arms in its constitution is Mexico. As stated in Article 10: "The inhabitants of the United Mexican States have the right to possess arms in their homes for their security and legitimate defense with the exception of those prohibited by federal law and of those reserved for the exclusive use of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and National Guard. Federal law shall determine the cases, conditions and place in which the inhabitants may be authorized to bear arms."

The Mexican constitutional provision may create some rights consciousness in that nation, although the effect is undoubtedly diminished by the general cynicism about the law, and the lack of respect given most constitutional rights in that nation.

The NRA

The National Rifle Association (NRA) is another cause and consequence of America's gun culture. The group was founded in 1871 by Union generals who were dismayed by poor Union marksmanship during the Civil War. The Confederate forces, having a higher percentage of farm boys who were familiar with guns, had better marksmanship. The NRA is not only the most powerful gun lobby in the world, it is (according to Fortune magazine's annual ratings) the most powerful lobby of any kind in the United States. Three of the last four American presidents have been NRA members, and one American president, Ulysses Grant, served as NRA chief after his term ended.

The NRA is more successful than its foreign counterparts because it operates in a better political environment. Only Switzerland devolves more power than the United States to local governments.

Party control of elected officials is weaker in the United States than elsewhere, the political system is less centralized, and the role of citizen political activists is considerably greater than in most other democracies. All of these factors give the NRA's four million members a much greater ability to influence elected officials than gun rights groups in other countries have. In turn, the NRA's political successes help preserve widespread participation in the shooting sports and the ability to own guns for personal protection. Because a large share of the population is armed, the NRA has a large potential base of members and activists.

Notably, modern supporters of the Second Amendment, like their forbears of the founding era, are quite sensitive to "slippery slope" arguments. The experience of Great Britain suggests that these activists are not mistaken. Early in the twentieth century, Great Britain had almost no violent crime, no gun control laws, and widespread gun ownership. During the twentieth century, a variety of "moderate" licensing and registration laws were imposed, enforced liberally, and then, through secret administrative decrees from London, enforced with greater and greater severity. Currently, only about 4 percent of the British population own guns lawfully. The fraction of the population is much too small to resist the drive of the Home Office bureaucracy for gradual gun prohibition.

American exceptionalism

While some Americans are embarrassed that their nation has a distinctively strong constitutional right to arms and a vigorous gun culture, the United States consciously created itself to be different from Europe. As a North Carolina Supreme Court justice explained in the 1968 case of State v. Dawson, "It was the very fact that the right to bear arms had been infringed in England, and that this is a step frequently taken by a despotic government, which caused the adoption of the provision in the North Carolina Declaration of Rights in 1776 and the insertion in the Federal Bill of Rights of the Second Amendment."

The early republic's leading constitutional commentators, St. George Tucker and William Rawle, pointedly contrasted the robust American right to bear arms with what they thought was a withered British right. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story's famed Commentaries on the Constitution also contrasted the vigorous American right to bear arms with its feeble British cousin.

The independent existence of the United States came into being with a document whose opening words affirm the right of the people to overthrow the government. In Europe, armed masses represent disorder; in the United States, they are the foundation of the political order.

James Madison, in Federalist 46, extolled "the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation," in contrast with the kingdoms of Europe, whose "governments are afraid to trust the people with arms." Madison predicted that if the European peasantry were armed and rebellious local governments (like American states) existed, "the throne of every tyranny in Europe would be speedily overturned."

Joel Barlow, a leading diplomat and author of the 1780s and '90s, wrote about this in his book Advice to the Privileged Orders in the Several States of Europe. He said that in Europe, an armed populace would be regarded "as a mark of an uncivilized people, extremely dangerous to a well-ordered society." Barlow contended that because the American system was built on popular sovereignty, which brought out the best in man's character, the people could be trusted with guns: "It is because the people are civilized that they are with safety armed."

Conversely, Revolutionary-era Americans thought an unarmed populace was a sign of ethical decay. The Continental Congress distinguished Americans "trained to arms from the infancy and animated by love of liberty" from the "debauched, dissipated, and disarmed" British. We can assume that America's founders would not have been surprised to see that starting in 1936 with Hitler's Anschluss of Austria, European elites speedily surrendered their nations to the Nazis, either before the shooting began or a few weeks afterward.

Hitler repeatedly made plans for the invasion of Switzerland, but they were never executed because German casualties would have been immense. The Swiss militiaman was under orders to fight to the last bullet, and after that with his bayonet, and then with his bare hands. Rather than having to defeat an army, Hitler would have had to defeat a whole people.

Profound differences among nations

According to the Small Arms Survey 2003, the European nations of Norway, Finland, France, and Germany have the most
Origins of a Gun Culture

The differences on gun-ownership rights that separate the United States from most of Europe are rooted in America's unique early history.
European nations limited firearm ownership to the nobility, whereas the harsh conditions of the U.S. frontier, absence of an aristocratic class, and need for civil defense in early America fostered a citizen gun culture.
This culture was boosted by the Revolution, by which America became the first colony of its age to win independence through a sustained armed popular revolt.
The federal and state constitutions reflect the belief that arms possession is key to upholding political and civil rights, spurring citizens and lobbyists to stand up for gun rights.
While Europeans see an armed populace as uncivilized, Americans view the issue through the lens of popular sovereignty, believing that gun ownership makes society safer.
guns (about 30--39 per 100 persons); the Netherlands, Hungary, and Romania the least (no more than 2 guns per 100 persons). The survey estimates that Americans own between 83 and 96 guns per 100 persons, or nearly one per person.

But what most distinguishes American gun culture even from prevailing attitudes in countries such as Canada--which has a very strong hunting tradition and rate of rifle ownership nearly as high as the U.S. level--is that Americans connect gun ownership not just to recreation but to survival and sovereignty. Because about half of all American households own guns, America's "home invasion" burglary rate is far lower than in countries such as Britain, Canada, Ireland, and the Netherlands, which prohibit defensive gun ownership.

About two-thirds of American states allow law-abiding adults to obtain a permit to carry a concealed handgun for lawful protection. Encouraged by the NRA and other gun-rights groups, many of these citizens carry their guns more frequently since September 11. They know that in case of a terrorist attack on a shopping center, school, church, or synagogue, it will be America's citizens who will be responsible for taking immediate action to save their fellow Americans.

Such preparations for civil defense are appalling to American gun-prohibition advocates and their international allies. At both the personal and the national level, Americans tend to expect to protect themselves by force, and Europeans tend to expect a superior entity to do it for them. The cultural differences between America and Europe are in some ways just as profound in the early twenty-first century as they were in the late eighteenth.


Aditional Reading:

  • Stephen P. Halbrook, Target Switzerland: Swiss Armed Neutrality in World War II, Da Capo Press, Boulder Colo., 1998.
  • Joyce Lee Malcolm, Guns and Violence: The English Experience, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2002.
  • Small Arms Survey. Annual yearbooks and occasional papers, available at www.smallarmssurvey.org.
  • A variety of scholarly journal articles by David B. Kopel on foreign gun laws are available for free on Kopel's Web site, www.davekopel.org.
    David B. Kopel (www.davekopel.org) is research director at the Independence Institute and an associate policy analyst at the Cato Institute. He is author of numerous books and articles on firearms law and policy, including The Samurai, the Mountie, and the Cowboy: Should America Adopt the Gun Controls of Other Democracies?
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