Gun culture in the United States

The term gun culture in the United States encompasses the behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs about firearms and their usage by civilians. Gun ownership in the United States is constitutionally protected by the United States Bill of Rights. Firearms are widely used in the United States of America for self-defense, hunting, and recreational uses, such as target shooting. Gun politics in the United States tends to be polarized between advocates of gun rights, often conservative, and those who support stricter gun control, often liberal. The gun culture of the United States can be considered unique among developed countries in terms of the large number of firearms owned by civilians, generally permissive regulations, and high levels of gun violence.[1]


American attitudes on gun ownership date back to the American Revolutionary War, and find an origin also in the hunting/sporting ethos, and the militia/frontier ethos that draw from the country's early history.[2]

The American hunting/sporting passion comes from a time when the United States was an agrarian, subsistence nation where hunting was a profession for some, an auxiliary source of food for some settlers, and also a deterrence to animal predators. A connection between shooting skills and survival among rural American men was in many cases a necessity and a 'rite of passage' for those entering manhood. Today, hunting survives as a central sentimental component of a gun culture as a way to control animal populations across the country, regardless of modern trends away from subsistence hunting and rural living.[2]

The militia/frontiersman spirit derives from an early American dependence on arms to protect themselves from foreign armies and hostile Native Americans. Survival depended upon everyone being capable of using a weapon. Prior to the American Revolution there was neither budget nor manpower nor government desire to maintain a full-time army. Therefore, the armed citizen-soldier carried the responsibility. Service in militia, including providing one's own ammunition and weapons, was mandatory for all men—just as registering for military service upon turning eighteen is today. Yet, as early as the 1790s, the mandatory universal militia duty gave way to voluntary militia units and a reliance on a regular army. Throughout the 19th century the institution of the civilian militia began to decline.[2]

Closely related to the militia tradition was the frontier tradition with the need for a means of self-protection closely associated with the nineteenth century westward expansion and the American frontier. There remains a powerful central elevation of the gun associated with the hunting/sporting and militia/frontier ethos among the American Gun Culture.[2] Though it has not been a necessary part of daily survival for over a century, generations of Americans have continued to embrace and glorify it as a living inheritance—a permanent element of the nation's style and culture.[3] In popular literature, frontier adventure was most famously told by James Fenimore Cooper, who is credited by Petri Liukkonen with creating the archetype of an 18th-century frontiersman through such novels as The Last of the Mohicans (1826) and The Deerslayer (1840).[4]

In the late 19th century, cowboy and "Wild West" imagery entered the collective imagination. The first American female superstar, Annie Oakley, was a sharpshooter who toured the country starting in 1885, performing in Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. The cowboy archetype of individualist hero was established largely by Owen Wister in stories and novels, most notably The Virginian (1902), following close on the heels of Theodore Roosevelt's The Winning of the West (1889–1895), a history of the early frontier.[5][6][7] Cowboys were also popularized in turn of the 20th century cinema, notably through such early classics as The Great Train Robbery (1903) and A California Hold Up (1906)—the most commercially successful film of the pre-nickelodeon era.[8]

Gangster films began appearing as early as 1910, but became popular only with the advent of sound in film in the 1930s. The genre was boosted by the events of the prohibition era, such as bootlegging and the St. Valentine's Day Massacre of 1929, the existence of real-life gangsters (e.g., Al Capone) and the rise of contemporary organized crime and escalation of urban violence. These movies flaunted the archetypal exploits of "swaggering, cruel, wily, tough, and law-defying bootleggers and urban gangsters."[9]

With the arrival of World War II, Hollywood produced many morale boosting movies, patriotic rallying cries that affirmed a sense of national purpose. The image of the lone cowboy was replaced in these combat films by stories that emphasized group efforts and the value of individual sacrifices for a larger cause, often featuring a group of men from diverse ethnic backgrounds who were thrown together, tested on the battlefield, and molded into a dedicated fighting unit.[10]

Guns frequently accompanied famous heroes and villains in late 20th-century American films, from the outlaws of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Godfather (1972), to the fictitious law and order avengers like Dirty Harry (1971) and RoboCop (1987). In the 1970s, films portrayed fictitious and exaggerated characters, madmen ostensibly produced by the Vietnam War in films like Taxi Driver (1976) and Apocalypse Now (1979), while other films told stories of fictitious veterans who were supposedly victims of the war and in need of rehabilitation (Coming Home and The Deer Hunter, both 1978).[11] Many action films continue to celebrate the gun toting hero in fantastical settings. At the same time, the negative role of the gun in fictionalized modern urban violence has been explored in films like Boyz n the Hood (1991) and Menace 2 Society (1993).

Political and cultural theories

Gun culture and its effects have been at the center of major debates in the US's public sphere for decades.[12] In his 1970 article "America as a Gun Culture,"[13] historian Richard Hofstadter used the phrase "gun culture" to describe America's long-held affection for guns, embracing and celebrating the association of guns and America's heritage. He also noted that the US "is the only industrial nation in which the possession of rifles, shotguns, and handguns is lawfully prevalent among large numbers of its population". In 1995, political scientist Robert Spitzer said that the modern American gun culture is founded on three factors: the proliferation of firearms since the earliest days of the nation, the connection between personal ownership of weapons and the country's revolutionary and frontier history, and the cultural mythology regarding the gun in the frontier and in modern life.[14] More recently, in 2008, the US Supreme Court affirmed that considerable freedom for individuals to possess firearms is guaranteed by the Second Amendment.[15]

Terms applied to opponents

The terms that gun rights and gun control advocates use to refer to opponents are part of the larger topic of gun politics.

The term "gun nut" has been used to describe firearms enthusiasts who are deeply involved with the gun culture. It is regarded as a pejorative stereotype cast upon gun owners by anti-gun advocates as a means of implying that they are fanatical, exhibit abnormal behavior, or are a threat to the safety of others.[16][17][18] Some gun owners embrace the term affectionately.[19]

Hoplophobia is a political term used to describe an "irrational aversion to firearms, as opposed to justified apprehension about those who may wield them."[20]

Foreign perspective

The US attitude to guns generally perplexes those in other developed countries, who cannot understand the unusual permissiveness of American gun laws, and why the American public does not push for harsher gun control measures in the face of mass shootings.[21][22] Critics contrast the US reaction to terrorism given how few deaths it causes, with their high death rates from non-terror related gun crime.[23][24]

See also


  1. Fisher, Max (December 15, 2012). "What makes America's gun culture totally unique in the world, in four charts". Washington Post. Washington D.C. Retrieved January 25, 2014.
  2. 1 2 3 4 Spitzer, Robert J. (1995). The Politics of Gun Control. Chatham House. ISBN 9781566430227.
  3. JERVIS ANDERSON, GUNS IN AMERICA 10 (1984), page 21
  4. Liukkonen, Petri. "James Fenimore Cooper". Books and Writers ( Finland: Kuusankoski Public Library. Archived from the original on 23 August 2014.
  5. "American Literature: Prose, MSN Encarta". Archived from the original on 2009-11-01.
  6. "New Perspectives on the West: Theodore Roosevelt, PBS, 2001". 1919-01-06. Retrieved 2010-11-21.
  7. Liukkonen, Petri. "Owen Wister". Books and Writers ( Finland: Kuusankoski Public Library. Archived from the original on 24 December 2013.
  8. ""Western Films", Tim Dirks, Filmsite, 1996-2007". Retrieved 2010-11-21.
  9. ""Crime and Gangster Films", Tim Dirks, Filmsite, 1996-2007". Retrieved 2010-11-21.
  10. Digital History, Steven Mintz. "Hollywood as History: Wartime Hollywood, Digital History". Archived from the original on 2010-11-29. Retrieved 2010-11-21.
  11. Digital History, Steven Mintz. "Hollywood as History: The "New" Hollywood, Digital History". Archived from the original on 2010-11-29. Retrieved 2010-11-21.
  12. Cramer, Clayton E. (2009-08-24). Armed America: The Remarkable Story of How and Why Guns Became as American as Apple Pie. Thomas Nelson Inc. ISBN 9781418551872.
  13. Hofstadter, Richard (October 1970). "America as a Gun Culture". American Heritage Magazine. American Heritage Publishing. 21 (6). Retrieved January 25, 2014.
  14. Spitzer, Robert J. (1995). The Politics of Gun Control. Chatham House Publishers.
  15. "US District of Columbia et al v Heller" (PDF). US Supreme Court. June 26, 2008.
  16. "Shoot-out Confirms Foreign View of America as 'Gun Nut' Country" by T.R. Reid, The Buffalo News, July 26, 1998
  17. "Small steps on gun control" Los Angeles Times, June 17, 2007
  18. "'Terror in Capitol' No Surprise to World" By T.R. Reid, Washington Post, July 26, 1998
  19. The Gun Nut blog at Field & Stream
  20. Cooper, Jeff (1990). To Ride, Shoot Straight, and Speak the Truth Archived 2013-10-02 at the Wayback Machine.. Boulder, Colorado: Paladin Press. pp. 16–19.
  21. "The world is 'mystified' by America's enduring racism and 'bizarre' gun laws". Business Insider. Retrieved 2016-02-23.
  22. "The Rest of the First World Is Astounded by America's Enduring Gun Culture". The Wire. Retrieved 2016-02-23.
  23. Friedman, Uri. "Australian Gun Reformer: 'It's Time to Call Out the U.S.A.'". The Atlantic. Retrieved 2016-02-23.
  24. "American gun use is out of control. Shouldn't the world intervene?". The Guardian. 2013-09-21. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2016-02-23.
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