In the aftermath of the horror at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, Justice John Paul Stevens’s 2018 call to repeal the Second Amendment has been making headlines again. Stevens argued that until the 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller decision, the Supreme Court never recognized an individual right to gun ownership, and it has endorsed forms of gun control throughout our history. The Second Amendment had a limited purpose: Given the founders’ fears of a standing army, it guaranteed the right of state militias to arm themselves for war, but, in an age when over a million Americans serve in the military, that concern is now an irrelevant “relic of the 18th century.” Congress shouldn’t wait for the Court to overturn Heller, Stevens concluded, but should cut to the chase and “get rid of the Second Amendment.”
It’s a drastic legislative proposal, but it barely touches the surface of the issue. America has the highest gun ownership rate in the world. It’s estimated there are 120 guns for every 100 residents of the United States. That's nearly twice the gun ownership rate of the world’s second most gun-saturated country, the Falkland Islands. An America without private gun ownership is unimaginable. Radical as he was, Stevens didn't venture to propose any such thing.
Guns have a settled place in our national mythology. Born after the Middle Ages, America has no national heroes armed with swords or armor, lances or longbows. Our heroes are men, sometimes women, with firearms: scrappy colonial minutemen repelling Redcoats or sharp-shooting pioneers like Dan’l Boone, Davy Crockett, and Buffalo Bill taming the wild frontier. Hundreds of statues of armed soldiers commemorate one or the other side of the Civil War. Annie Oakley is one of the best-known women of the nineteenth century, and marksman Alvin York is one of the most famous American soldiers of the Great War. An English friend once asked me what I “carried.” I answered honestly: A handkerchief, a few cough drops, my wallet. I don’t think he believed me, but his assumption was spot-on: Guns are integral to American identity.
We’re a gun people because we’re a frontier people. We occupied a vast wilderness full of dangerous critters and hostile natives. Marshals and judges ruled through the barrel of a gun. Even after we reached the Pacific, pulp paperbacks, cowboy movies starring John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, and Marlboro commercials perpetuated the romance of the West. Many Americans still live in big-sky country with more pronghorn than people. Farmers and ranchers keep guns to kill predators. My friends in Idaho don’t hunt elk just for sport. A bull in the freezer means the kids eat meat even when money is tight.
Some of this mythology is mythical in the sense of “not factually true.” The earliest colonists had relatively few guns and manufactured almost none. Seventeenth-century muskets made scary noises, but they took too long to reload to be effective battlefield weapons. Swords, axes, and fire were more decisive. Private ownership didn’t explode until gun production was industrialized after the Civil War. Some frontier towns forbade private citizens from carrying guns, and at the beginning of the twentieth century, most states had gun laws of one sort or another.
Facts are secondary so long as gun mythology molds the American soul. Guns, especially the huge guns of the U.S. military, bolster our “don’t tread on me” swagger. The wide distribution of privately owned pistols and rifles gives our politics a unique, sometimes threatening, texture. Our can-do instinct to take care of our own business usually doesn’t directly depend on guns, but guns lurk behind the scenes to back up our demand for self-determination. Americans may be fantasizing when they think their arsenals serve as a bulwark against tyranny, but it’s not sheer fantasy. The U.S. government has less of a monopoly on violence than any other modern state, and that contributes to the uniquely American form of liberty.
All this makes it nearly impossible for us to forge a united response to gun violence. Democracies need not be full of guns, but America is, and no gun policy is going to fly if it looks to many like a demand for Americans to stop being Americans. But not all Americans are part of American gun culture, and the divide between gun-America and anti-gun-America maps neatly onto our other cultural and political polarities. Americans who see our history as nothing but embarrassment, brutality, and injustice don’t warm to firearms. Americans whose imaginations are shaped by pioneers and cowboys live in a different country from that of those who tell our story as a tale of progress from Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall and Obergefell.
American gun culture makes it difficult for us to admit what Tocqueville and Dickens already saw in the nineteenth century: We are a violent people, with a high tolerance for bloodshed. Of European countries, only Ukraine and Russia have a higher murder rate than the U.S. Chicago had nearly 800 murders in 2021; in the same year, England and Wales had just under 600. You have to look to Africa and Latin America to find countries with as many murders per year as the U.S. Guns, of course, don’t make us violent, but they make our violence more deadly. Seventy-nine percent of American homicides involve guns, compared to 37 percent in Canada and 13 percent in Australia. Killers kill with knives, tire irons, and human hands, but they kill more people more quickly when they have a gun.
As Barack Obama famously said, many Americans cling to our guns and our religion. At times, the two merge into a gun fetish that skirts close to idolatry. This merger isn’t an isolated phenomenon. It’s one facet of the more general merger of American and Christian identity. To gain moral insight into American violence, Christians need to disentangle and properly order our loves. Only then will we be able to assess accurately what is good and what is evil in American gun culture.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.
Help First Things expand our community of co-laborers by supporting our 2022 Spring Campaign with a tax-deductible gift today.
If you do not already subscribe to First Things, visit www.firstthings.com/subscribe to explore our subscription options.
Photo by M&R Glasgow via Creative Commons. Image cropped.