Why do Americans love guns?

8 July 2008

I am puzzled. Puzzled that is, by the British attitude towards America’s gun culture. In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s (in my view) common sense ruling that the 2nd Amendment guarantees an individual, rather than a collective, right to bear arms, British commentators responded by, well, by throwing their hands up in the air and, yup, wondering at them there crazy Yanks. Thus Bryan Appleyard:

I no longer try to understand the American acceptance of well over 30,000 gun-related deaths a year.  No other country comes close – though it should be noted that over half are suicides, in other countries people may just kill themselves in different ways so the total gun death figure may be misleading. Either way, the weird complacency remains…Gun culture remains one of America’s greatest aberrations. It baffles other nations. But there you go.

Thus, too, the BBC’s Man in Washington, Justin Webb, who quotes the 2nd Amendment and asks:

Errr, what does that mean?… You can disagree with the majority view, but you cannot escape from it if you live in the United States.


Well, as I say, this befuddlement puzzles me. Like may other foreign commentators, these two (whose views, I would suggest, are representative of the British view of American gun culture) seem to be confusing something that is exceptional with something that may be considered bonkers. But the former does not imply the latter. And in fact the unique nature (in the western world) of American gun culture seems, to me at least, firmly rooted in a peculiarly, even uniquely, American set of historical, cultural and legal circumstances. Considered individually some, or even each of these, might be thought insufficient explanations for America’s love affair with the gun; taken collectively they render the matter much less mysterious and, I’d hazard, entirely explicable. 

Other developed countries – Canada, Switzerland – also enjoy high rates of gun ownership, yet do not suffer American levels of gun violence. But, rather importantly, neither Canada nor Switzerland was founded at the point of a gun. Timing matters. I’d suggest that had the United States been in a position to declare independence from Britain in 1676 rather than a century later, American culture might be rather different. As it was, the revolutionaries launched their war just as guns became sufficiently reliable and affordable to be everyday purchases for “ordinary” people. Swiss independence, of course, pre-dates the gun while Canadian independence was, generally speaking, a peaceful, negotiated affair rather than the consequence of an armed insurrection.

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  • Anonymous

    The American “revolutionaries” had some very large artillery pieces hidden (buried) in Massachusetts, well in advance of their “spontaneous” revolt. So it seems that this love affair with the gun can, presumably, be blamed on the French. How entirely satisfactory.

  • Anthony

    Yes, I read the Appleyard piece and I have to say my first reaction was “How is it any of our business?”. Yes, we can marvel or be surprised or whatnot. But beyond that – who cares? I don’t understand the capacity of some people over here to get well and truly worked up over aspects of domestic policy a continent away that have absolutely no impact on them whatsoever. On the matter of the love affair with guns, it’s also worth noting that actually rather fewer Americans own guns than is commonly assumed. I can’t remember the stats but I remember it being surprisingly low, perhaps in the order of five per cent. The other thing is the fact that gun ownership in parts of America is far from nonsensical. Yes, it can seem weird that people in inner-city Washington DC have a constitutional right to pack heat. But up in, say, New Hampshire it makes more sense. Guns are used for sport and hunting, as well as home defence, gun crime is low and – and this is the elephant in the corner that hardly anyone on this side of the pond is prepared to acknowledge – there seems to be a reasonably good case to be made that the very low rate of burglary, robbery and assault (as Clive Davis has noted recently, in Britain is is now very hard to escape a sort of low-level feeling of menace and anti-social outbursts waiting to happen, even in pleasant country towns and villages, which is not the case in much of the USA) is at least partly down to the fact that there’s a chance the citizen whose property or person is being violated will be armed and respond accordingly. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m pretty ambivalent about the constitutional politics of guns over in the US. I just think that a) the cost/benefit ratio and the overall picture are both far more complex than is generally recognised and b) it’s not really something we should be getting in a flap over.

  • Luke Mc

    Alex, great article, very interesting and nice to get a well-informed counterbalance to the prevailing European wisdom on the matter. I think most Europeans feel that, given the enormous number of deaths from gun crime in the US, it MIGHT be worth actually trying to do something about it. The Americans disagree, presumably for the reasons you have outlined. The one argument I might make is that just because a country grows from the barrel of a gun, doesn’t make it a gun-owning, violent country forever. At least, that’s what you have to hope as an Irishman. Hope all well, are you back in Scotland now?

  • toby

    One distinction often made is that in the settlement of the Canadian frontier, the settlers came after law ahd been imposed. In the US it was the other way round: there was already a tradition of gun justice before the law arrived.

  • Ken

    A couple of other things worth considering: 1) Indian war would have meant that militiamen really did need to be in a state of readiness to fight at any time; they would also have been expected to furnish their own gun even when on regular muster days. But that still is within the framework of a militia. 2) Slave revolts were a big fear in certain areas. 3) One of the fears of the constitution was that the consolidated national government had powers to raise a standing army for two years. In that context, the right to bear arms is actually to prevent a tyrannical government rather than a need for ‘fighting men’. So while there are strong arguments that these are based on individual rights, they are also in a collective context. You might be interested in a book by Saul Cornell, called A Well Regulated Militia, that tries to make an argument for a third interpretation – a ‘civic’ right that’s somewhere between the two. But even if you don’t buy it, it’s quite useful for context.

  • michael hacker

    Bravo Alex. At last some sensible commentary on the issue from across the Atlantic. Next time you’re stateside, i’ll get you out in the duck blind. Right after we polish the now legal handguns in the house.

  • alison

    So basically what you are saying is that they are violent because they were violent and shall remain violent as underwritten by their second amendment. You wrote a nice interesting piece about the Frontier stuff and all these tough Europeans establishing the status quo in America though you didnt mention much how they dessimated an entire people to the extent they live in reservations and on booze. The same wise Europeans are asking now why it is necessary to be so hung up on guns. I guess when the next American sneers at the Royal family and our constitutional democracy a quick history lesson will put them straight. Yeah right! I think their own ignorance on European history shapes the same ignorant modern American views also.

  • jack

    I am 18 and own a gun. It is our right that was given to us by our forefathers. Its called freedom.

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