The history of guns in America


in Bombs and rockets, Law, Politics, Security

Back in 1999, The Economist published an interesting historical account of the emergence of America’s current gun culture. It debunks a number of myths, such as that the American populace in general has always been widely armed, that militias were important defensive forces, and that the ‘Wild West’ involved a lot of gun violence. It also includes interesting passages on the marketing of guns and gun ownership, first by manufacturers and later by the National Rifle Association:

[Gun maker Samuel] Colt was a self-publicist of genius. When his brother, John, unfraternally chose a mere axe with which to commit murder in 1841, Samuel persuaded the court to let him stage a shooting display inside the courtroom to demonstrate the superiority of the new revolver over the axe as a murder weapon. Using these publicity skills, and displaying precocious evidence of lobbying ability (he gave President Andrew Jackson a handgun and pioneered the practice of wining and dining members of Congress), Colt aimed his campaign at the growing middle class. He devised advertising campaigns showing a heroic figure wearing nothing but a revolver defending his wife and children. His guns were given nicknames (Equalizer, Peacemaker and so forth). Since most of his customers did not know how to use a firearm, he printed instructions on the cleaning cloth of every gun. His initial success shows up in the probate records: the percentage of wills listing firearms among their legacies rose by half between 1830 and 1850.

The axe, it seems, was a surprisingly popular murder weapon at certain times in history. Between 1800 and 1845, it came fourth. Beating, strangling, and drowning were in the lead, followed by stabbing, then guns, then axes.

The article describes how the first federal gun control law (banning sales by post) was only enacted after the Kennedy assassination, and mentions the subsequent role of the NRA in preventing more ambitious legal control over firearms.

It certainly makes for interesting reading.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Gail September 18, 2010 at 11:38 pm

Okay now Milan you are getting morbid! Haha!
Actually it is very interesting to contemplate the commercialization of gun peddling, tobacco and alcohol peddling, drugs, and petroleum products…do we detect a pattern? From axe, beating, drowning, stabbing, and strangling to labor saving devices like firearms?

R.K. September 21, 2010 at 10:14 am

When his brother, John, unfraternally chose a mere axe with which to commit murder in 1841, Samuel persuaded the court to let him stage a shooting display inside the courtroom to demonstrate the superiority of the new revolver over the axe as a murder weapon.

That is wonderfully absurd.

I wonder how the court transcript looks: “Your honour, please let me take a break from asserting my innocence for a moment. Instead, I want to talk about how – in my considered opinion – a handgun is truly a superior murder weapon. With an axe, you expend a lot of effort and end up covered with blood and bits. With a gun, murder is clean and easy! Not that I have ever killed anyone with an axe, of course.”

. August 9, 2011 at 11:14 pm

The Secret History of Guns
Adam Winkler / The Atlantic / Sep 2011

On America’s relationship with the right to bear arms, from the Founding Fathers to the Black Panthers and the Ku Klux Klan.

s.j.h. February 13, 2012 at 3:28 pm

guns have come a long way since they came into play. i want to own a old gun like as old as they git

. April 16, 2012 at 11:53 am

In the two centuries following the adoption of the Bill of Rights, in 1791, no amendment received less attention in the courts than the Second, except the Third. As Adam Winkler, a constitutional-law scholar at U.C.L.A., demonstrates in a remarkably nuanced new book, “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America,” firearms have been regulated in the United States from the start. Laws banning the carrying of concealed weapons were passed in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813, and other states soon followed: Indiana (1820), Tennessee and Virginia (1838), Alabama (1839), and Ohio (1859). Similar laws were passed in Texas, Florida, and Oklahoma. As the governor of Texas explained in 1893, the “mission of the concealed deadly weapon is murder. To check it is the duty of every self-respecting, law-abiding man.”

Although these laws were occasionally challenged, they were rarely struck down in state courts; the state’s interest in regulating the manufacture, ownership, and storage of firearms was plain enough. Even the West was hardly wild. “Frontier towns handled guns the way a Boston restaurant today handles overcoats in winter,” Winkler writes. “New arrivals were required to turn in their guns to authorities in exchange for something like a metal token.” In Wichita, Kansas, in 1873, a sign read, “Leave Your Revolvers at Police Headquarters, and Get a Check.” The first thing the government of Dodge did when founding the city, in 1873, was pass a resolution that “any person or persons found carrying concealed weapons in the city of Dodge or violating the laws of the State shall be dealt with according to law.” On the road through town, a wooden billboard read, “The Carrying of Firearms Strictly Prohibited.” The shoot-out at the O.K. Corral, in Tombstone, Arizona, Winkler explains, had to do with a gun-control law. In 1880, Tombstone’s city council passed an ordinance “to Provide against the Carrying of Deadly Weapons.” When Wyatt Earp confronted Tom McLaury on the streets of Tombstone, it was because McLaury had violated that ordinance by failing to leave his gun at the sheriff’s office.

The National Rifle Association was founded in 1871 by two men, a lawyer and a former reporter from the New York Times. For most of its history, the N.R.A. was chiefly a sporting and hunting association. To the extent that the N.R.A. had a political arm, it opposed some gun-control measures and supported many others, lobbying for new state laws in the nineteen-twenties and thirties, which introduced waiting periods for handgun buyers and required permits for anyone wishing to carry a concealed weapon. It also supported the 1934 National Firearms Act—the first major federal gun-control legislation—and the 1938 Federal Firearms Act, which together created a licensing system for dealers and prohibitively taxed the private ownership of automatic weapons (“machine guns”). The constitutionality of the 1934 act was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1939, in U.S. v. Miller, in which Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s solicitor general, Robert H. Jackson, argued that the Second Amendment is “restricted to the keeping and bearing of arms by the people collectively for their common defense and security.” Furthermore, Jackson said, the language of the amendment makes clear that the right “is not one which may be utilized for private purposes but only one which exists where the arms are borne in the militia or some other military organization provided for by law and intended for the protection of the state.” The Court agreed, unanimously. In 1957, when the N.R.A. moved into new headquarters, its motto, at the building’s entrance, read, “Firearms Safety Education, Marksmanship Training, Shooting for Recreation.” It didn’t say anything about freedom, or self-defense, or rights.

. April 16, 2012 at 11:53 am

There are nearly three hundred million privately owned firearms in the United States: a hundred and six million handguns, a hundred and five million rifles, and eighty-three million shotguns. That works out to about one gun for every American. The gun that T. J. Lane brought to Chardon High School belonged to his uncle, who had bought it in 2010, at a gun shop. Both of Lane’s parents had been arrested on charges of domestic violence over the years. Lane found the gun in his grandfather’s barn.

The United States is the country with the highest rate of civilian gun ownership in the world. (The second highest is Yemen, where the rate is nevertheless only half that of the U.S.) No civilian population is more powerfully armed. Most Americans do not, however, own guns, because three-quarters of people with guns own two or more. According to the General Social Survey, conducted by the National Policy Opinion Center at the University of Chicago, the prevalence of gun ownership has declined steadily in the past few decades. In 1973, there were guns in roughly one in two households in the United States; in 2010, one in three. In 1980, nearly one in three Americans owned a gun; in 2010, that figure had dropped to one in five.

Men are far more likely to own guns than women are, but the rate of gun ownership among men fell from one in two in 1980 to one in three in 2010, while, in that same stretch of time, the rate among women remained one in ten. What may have held that rate steady in an age of decline was the aggressive marketing of handguns to women for self-defense, which is how a great many guns are marketed. Gun ownership is higher among whites than among blacks, higher in the country than in the city, and higher among older people than among younger people. One reason that gun ownership is declining, nationwide, might be that high-school shooting clubs and rifle ranges at summer camps are no longer common.

oleh December 17, 2012 at 9:07 am

The history of gun ownership in America was interesting in the context of the mass killing of twenty 6 and 7 year old school children and 6 teachers in Newtown, Connectucut. Newtown is an affluent white small town. The killer was a mentally uunstable 20 year old who used the weapons of his mother. He also killed his mother (earlier) and finally himself.

President Obama spoke at the vigil last night about the need to do something to prevent this in the future. I wonder what direction it will take. I hope this tragedy spawns significant gun control.

. December 17, 2012 at 7:27 pm

Guns in America
Broken hearted

Dec 15th 2012, 2:07 by R.W. | NEW YORK

“WE were in the gym and heard loud bangs”, said a nine-year old boy after the horrific shooting in Newtown, Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School, where at least 26 were killed, including 20 children. The shooter, who was dressed in battle fatigues, was 20-year-old Adam Lanza, whose mother may have been a teacher at Sandy Hook. His mother was found dead at her home. Lanza was declared dead at the scene.

Before the school went on lockdown, children reportedly heard screams over the school’s intercom system. Around 9:40 this morning, not long after the start of the school day, police received word they were needed at the school. As part of a newly implemented security programme, emergency texts were sent to parents. Fighting tears, an ashen-faced and unusually emotional Barack Obama, in an address to the nation said, “Our hearts are broken today.”

And so they are. The stories of heroic teachers who protected their young charges by ushering them into bathrooms and closets are only just beginning to emerge. The images of the surviving children being led out of the school, visibly frightened or dazed, while holding hands are chilling. Parents reunited with their children at a nearby firehouse. Twenty sets of parents waited in vain.

Here is my small thought. It is quite possible, perhaps probable, that stricter gun laws of the sort that Mr Obama may or may not be planning, would not have stopped the horrible killings of this morning. But that is a separate question from whether it is a good idea to allow private individuals to own guns. And that, really, is what I think I understand by gun control. Once you have guns in circulation, in significant numbers, I suspect that specific controls on things like automatic weapons or large magazines can have only marginal effects. Once lots of other people have guns, it becomes rational for you to want your own too.

The first time that I was posted to Washington, DC some years ago, the capital and suburbs endured a frightening few days at the hands of a pair of snipers, who took to killing people at random from a shooting position they had established in the boot of a car. I remember meeting a couple of White House correspondents from American papers, and hearing one say: but the strange thing is that Maryland (where most of the killings were taking place) has really strict gun laws. And I remember thinking: from the British perspective, those aren’t strict gun laws. Strict laws involve having no guns.

After a couple of horrible mass shootings in Britain, handguns and automatic weapons have been effectively banned. It is possible to own shotguns, and rifles if you can demonstrate to the police that you have a good reason to own one, such as target shooting at a gun club, or deer stalking, say. The firearms-ownership rules are onerous, involving hours of paperwork. You must provide a referee who has to answer nosy questions about the applicant’s mental state, home life (including family or domestic tensions) and their attitude towards guns. In addition to criminal-record checks, the police talk to applicants’ family doctors and ask about any histories of alcohol or drug abuse or personality disorders.

Vitally, it is also very hard to get hold of ammunition. Just before leaving Britain in the summer, I had lunch with a member of parliament whose constituency is plagued with gang violence and drug gangs. She told me of a shooting, and how it had not led to a death, because the gang had had to make its own bullets, which did not work well, and how this was very common, according to her local police commander. Even hardened criminals willing to pay for a handgun in Britain are often getting only an illegally modified starter’s pistol turned into a single-shot weapon.

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