Image: "Lovers Targets 2 of 8"
Credit: Travis Diehl
BARACK OBAMA’S COMPREHENSIVE PROPOSALS for stricter gun laws, offered to the country on January 16, reignite an old debate. Much of the intractability surrounding this vexing and contentious issue arises from the deeply entrenched narratives that shape much of that debate. In point of fact, much of what people believe about the history and law of guns in America — that gun possession was common from our earliest days, guns tamed the Wild West, gun laws only arose in modern America, Americans have always had a constitutionally-protected personal right to gun ownership, the Second Amendment protects the right of citizens to rise up against their own government if it becomes oppressive — are all demonstrably false. America certainly has an honorable gun tradition and gun culture spanning our history, and the values and beliefs of gun owners should play a vital role in the shaping of gun policy. But much of our gun culture has also been badly distorted by Hollywood and gun zealots. If we take the past as any cue to the present, then we should take comfort at least in the knowledge that our past gun history is far more compatible with present dilemmas, and policies, than most realize.
Gun Law History and Culture
Gun possession in America extends back to its earliest settlements in the 17th century, beginning with Jamestown and Plymouth, where guns were used for hunting and protection. Yet in the colonial and early federal period, guns were relatively rare, and seldom associated with interpersonal violence. Most significant gun-related violence occurred between Native Americans and European settlers, and as a primary tool of war. In early conflicts, including the Revolutionary War, limited gun availability among the general population proved to be a severe problem, as American military leaders, including General George Washington, regularly complained that service-eligible males lacked not only working firearms, but the basic knowledge of their use and maintenance. The relative rarity of guns in early America is attributable to several facts. Guns were expensive, as they were made mostly by hand by blacksmiths (the first gun factory in America did not begin operation until 1790), who might perhaps turn out a few dozen weapons in a year; they were made of iron, meaning that they rusted quickly without regular maintenance; they required parts and materials, like gunpowder, that were often difficult to obtain and deteriorated rapidly; they were heavy, cumbersome, and dangerous to operate, requiring the operator to have considerable skill. A well-maintained firearm, used periodically, could be expected to last roughly five years. And while some colonials hunted regularly for food and pelts, most were subsistence farmers who relied on agricultural produce and domesticated livestock for food. Guns were also imported from Europe at substantial expense, but as the Revolution neared, import became more difficult.
Gun ownership became widespread in America around the time of the Civil War, when millions of men became acquainted with the use of firearms during military service, and technological improvements in gun manufacturing and standardization of ammunition made guns safer and easier to operate, more reliable, more prolific, and less expensive. As early as the 1850s, gun manufacturer Samuel Colt aggressively marketed revolvers to the public, linking his guns through extensive advertising campaigns wit...read more