Would we still be the same country without our gun nuts?

At a dinner party on Friday evening, the Canadian hosts asked, in light of 2012’s mass shootings, what conceivable purpose could be served by allowing Americans to own such large personal arsenals. Being a parent and a non-gun-owner it was tough for me to come up with a rational argument other than a weak “Well, it is in the Constitution”. Contemplating the question later, however, I wondered if we would still be the same nation without so many passionate gun owners. From a strictly rational point of view it is tough to justify a lot of things that Americans do. We spend a lot of time and energy watching professional football, which is injurious to the players and even more so to the spectators (who should be out exercising themselves or learning Mandarin!).

It is tempting to think that we could pick the best laws from various countries around the world and come up with some sort of optimized society, but perhaps it simply isn’t practical. The Japanese have a national character of craftsmanship. The French have a national character of enjoying rich food and wine. Maybe one aspect of our national character is that a lot of us need to be gun nuts.

36 thoughts on “Would we still be the same country without our gun nuts?

  1. Canadians have more guns per capita than Americans do. Given how close to the wild they live, it’s not too surprising. They do have a much lower incidence of gun massacres.

    America’s gun culture probably has a lot to do with pioneer times and how the West was won (hint: Native Americans didn’t go away because they were asked nicely).

  2. I would imagine the argument could be made that if it weren’t for a culture of armed citizens, then the country never would have formed in the first place, as there would have been no hope of defeating the British in the Revolutionary War.

    I’m not a wonderful student of history though, not sure if that’s a modern revisionist view of the culture of the Colonists pre-Revolution.

    I suspect the “gun nut” culture is more an indicator than a root cause, though. If anything, there’s a culture of individualism and mistrust of authority, and gun ownership is one of the ways that could be reflected.

  3. Penn’s argument is pretty much mine–The second amendment was written by revolutionaries, not long after a revolution–trying to ensure that should majority elections no longer be recognized by government, a majority could still prevail in setting up a new government. Self-defense is also important, but secondary.

  4. Josh: Do you really think that mistrust of authority and individualism account for the huge number of gun owners in the U.S.? Or why some people would own 20 or more guns? Even a person with a deep mistrust of authority has just two hands and cannot use 20 guns simultaneously. Anecdotally one meets many more people who express enjoyment in gun ownership than who express a mistrust for government. So it does not seem as though the latter can explain the former.

  5. As a general rule, most people also only use one camera or lens at a time, yet they often have many of each. There are probably as many ways to enjoy shooting sports as there are to enjoy photography, and cameras don’t hold the Federal and, in many cases, state trump card.

    I believe that most (certainly not all) gun owners view the 2nd amendment as sacrosanct and freedom to makes arms related decisions about personal defense and as a hedge against tyranny as a self evident truth rather than a right bestowed by a benevolent government. At least that sounds better than, “It’s in the Constitution.” anyway.

    As an aside, you should consider getting out and shooting sometime. Apart from the legal/provocative/societal aspects, it also happens to be an enjoyable sport. Besides, the country would be better served with a well balanced, photo.net equivalent for firearms and related items. Neither side has cornered the market on crazies.

  6. DaleS: Thanks for the suggestion to go shooting. I actually had some fun shooting skeet 20+ years ago while on a business trip to Arizona or Texas. As a child I shot .22 rifles at targets while at camp (imagine a camp in the Northeast trying that today!). And I’ve shot some .22 target pistols at the MIT range (basement of the gym). I can see why people enjoy it, but I’ve already got enough hobbies (tennis, flying helicopters, being a camera nut (dangerously close to 20!), etc.). If I were to go shooting again I think it would be skeet. I would just try not to pull a Dick Cheney!

    [Moderator: I changed the time on this to make it sort.]

  7. Hunting culture is a big contributor. For a lot of rural Americans, teaching your sons to hunt is an essential part of childhood. Not so long ago, this was true for most Americans. Older countries with less forest and larger population densities don’t have the same hunting culture, of course.

    I don’t think mistrust of authority accounts for the majority of U.S. gun owners, but it might account for most of the recent increase. In the 1950’s, it was absurd to imagine that the ruling class of the United States would start purging millions of their own citizens Josef Stalin-style. Today, it’s not unthinkable at all. There’s been a fundamental change in the elites, and the little people have noticed.

  8. Johnny: I don’t think a passion for hunting explains the desire to accumulate a gun collection. If I wanted to go hunting, for example, I could simply borrow a gun from one of my gun-owning friends. I wouldn’t have to buy my own (or buy 20 of my own!). I guess you could make the same argument for cameras, but it is legal to use a camera all of the time whereas hunting season is pretty short.

    [Moderator: Posting time adjusted for sorting.]

  9. Phil,

    What is inherently wrong with a person owning twenty guns?
    I’d wager that you have owned well over twenty computers in your
    lifetime and that you could have reasonably gotten by without buying
    a new one every six months. Does that make you a computer nut?
    Would that make you more likely to do something illegal with a computer
    simply because you’ve owned a bunch of them?
    A car collector who owns twenty cars isn’t more likely to become a getaway
    driver for a bank robber in south Boston just because he owns twenty cars,
    does he??
    Lastly, these mass shootings have not been the result of the a
    person owing twenty guns. No, they’ve been the result of someone being
    mentally ill and gaining access to firearms.
    If firearms were outlawed do you think mass killings would cease? I think they
    would then come from bombs or other convenient ways of inflicting mass murders.

  10. Seven: I did not mean to imply that there was anything inherently wrong with a person owning 20 guns. I said only that ownership of 20 guns would not seem to be explained by a mistrust of authority, as posited by Josh (above). If a person owns more than a few guns it is presumably because he or she likes guns (i.e., is a gun nut!).

    [To answer your other question… I would say that a person who owned 20 PCs at the same time and in one location could fairly be characterized as a “computer nut” (unless those computers were somehow generating income for him, e.g., by acting as servers). Anyway, this is a country that seems to be built on the principle of accumulation of unnecessary material stuff so being either a gun nut or a computer nut is a fundamentally American thing to be.]

  11. Fazal, even if Canadians had more guns per capita than Americans I think I can safely say not one of them is an assault handgun or rifle.

  12. Phil, is six months of the year “short”? I’m in mid-Michigan and could hunt from September 1 to March 31st for game animals. And I’m forgetting spring turkey season, and “varmints” (coyote, raccoons doing damage, feral pigs) that are legal targets year round.

    If I were a poor person, I could probably get by hunting for most game animals with a shotgun. But if I were a little more well-off, ideally you would want at least three or four guns to have the “perfect” one for each.

    And I might not want to borrow a gun from a friend, so I could use it more often for target practice.

  13. The 2nd ameendment ultimately exists to protect citizens agains govt tyranny. “What a crazy idea”, you might say. “My govt would never hurt me”, you might say. Yet history shows that even in the 20th century **hundreds of millions** of non-combatant citizens have been killed by their own tyranical govts; source U of H: http://www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/MURDER.HTM

  14. There are four conceivable purposes: self-defense, hunting, sport, and collecting. Can’t do it all with one gun.

    Distribution follows power law, just like the proverbial 20% of people consuming 80% of beer. Nothing special here.

    I do think that gun culture is important part of national character. It’s just a direct consequence of relying on his or her own skill. Some call it individualism. In cultures that place more emphasis on groups as opposed to individuals gun control seems to get more traction.

  15. Owning guns is a privilege just like driving is. Unlike cameras, gun ownership (like driving) requires some responsibility on the part of the owner. Slap a yearly Federal registration fee on every single gun. Apply this fee towards the deficit. Ban the sale of assault weapons…there is no sane argument for individuals to own one.

    I’ve had a lot of fun at shooting ranges and own 3 guns, but I attach no over zealous notions of using them to protect me from my own government.

    As with most things in the United States, we’ve gone too far with this. Why are we so fanatical about everything?

  16. “Owning guns is a privilege just like driving is. ”

    Well, except that it isn’t. It’s a right. The highest court in the land says its a right. That means that the right to gun ownership, including handgun owership, is the highest law of the land. Sort of like an Act of Congress, but actually it’s a higher law than that. That is how our system of law works.

    Constutitional rights can be restricted. But each restriction gets court review and must be justified. The government has to prove a compelling interest and show that the restriction is the most minimal needed to achieve that purpose. Note the use of the word prove here. If the government comes in and says “we think that restriction X will have a net positive effect of Y”, that is an opinion and not proof if that is all they can bring to their argument. Given that Chicago and D.C. had both the highest crime and murder rates and at the same time had the most serious gun restrictions, unfortunately the government now has a very hard time offering proof that gun control actually controls violent crime. This is why the government of Illinois just lost a very important legal case in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals – they couldn’t show that total bans on concealed carry actually controlled crime. Illinois’ crime rate is in line with other states that allow concealed carry. Personally, I expect many more such decisions in the near future.

  17. I know quite a few folks who view guns as heirlooms and investments, sort of a blue collar version of a classic car or stickley furniture collection. The assumption is that they will increase in value and are easily converted to cash if needed. I think the heirloom view is tied into the whole rural coming-of-age thing and taming-the-West culture mentioned above. A tradition of individual responsibility usually prevails in these households as a corollary to these views of guns, but not as a cause IMO.

    I know guys who have a lot more invested in their gun collection than they do in their bank or retirement accounts, and maybe with a better return, especially since there are no capital gains taxes or management fees. This latter group usually has a few personal guns that see use at the range or for hunting, but the bulk of their collection is seldom taken out of the safe.

    I would be interested in seeing a comparison on rate of return on guns versus mutual funds. Maybe I need to re-allocate my investments!

  18. I recently participated in a lengthy study that (unfortunately for me, since I’m a firm gun critic) clearly showed a ban on assault rifles would produce no reduction in the murder rate and also demonstrated that many of these so-called assault weapons were in fact very unreliable when it came to firing multiple rounds. The most effective weapons were the typical semi-automatic centerfire rifles commonly used for deer hunting.
    The typical A-15, for example, could almost be counted on to jam after it had fired more than twenty or so rounds, where as a common hunting rifle like the Remington model 7400 rifle in a .30 caliber design could fire round after round with little or no malfunction.
    The difference is the deer rifle normally holds 5 to 6 rounds compared to an A-15 that has a 30 bullet magazine.
    IMO and based on our research, banning an assault type of weapon NOW would be useless, since there are already at least 3.5 million of them in the US currently.
    Note: The last figure is called a SWAG, scientific wild-assed guess, since the data available to get an accurate count on assault weapons in the US is limited.
    Bottom line: We live in a diverse country of 320 million people who are basically free. The odds of more mass murders are about the same as they’ve always been, however our 24-7 news coverage and constant Internet chatter simply amplify these tragedies.
    Would banning assault guns help keep down the mass murder rate? Probably not.

  19. Judging from the responses, I guess you should have added the adjective “paranoid”….(not to throw gas on the fire or nuthin”..)

  20. The thing that almost always seems to be missing from pleas of the 2nd amendment is that the “a well regulated militia” part seems to have been totally forgotten. Isn’t the right to own a gun conferred only in the context of a “well regulated militia” and not as a blank check?

  21. Philip, as to why people own 20 guns, consider the following scenario:

    You wanted a pistol for self defense, so you started with a .38 Special, 20 years ago. Then you got a real job. That old .38 looks tired, perhaps a Glock? Now you have 2. That centerfire ammo sure gets expensive, so you need a .22 pistol for practice. That’s 3. Who can resist a pump shotgun to put the fear of God into a burglar? Plus, they’re so cheap. That’s 4. A real hunting rifle would be nice…5. Rifle practice requires a cheap .22 rifle. 6. Saw an old Mauser, could be fun, 7. Boy, doesn’t that Ruger LCR look nifty? 8. Have you seen the S&W Governor? .45 Colt, .45 Auto & .410 shotshells out of a revolver? 9. A real .308 battle rifle would be so cool…and happily justified as mistrust of government! 10. Maybe you should step into the .223 world, as well, and get an AR-15. 11. How about a nice dove gun, a side-by-side? 12. Who can resist a legendary 1911 pistol? 13. M1 Garand…own a piece of history. 14. Uncle gave you that old over-under. 15. How a about upgrading that .22 to a nice Mossberg target rifle? 16. How have you lived this long without a Browning semi-auto shotgun? 17. You hear about Elmer Keith and the .44 Magnum…got to have one of those, maybe the Ruger Blackhawk. 18. Wheel-guns are such a blast…how about a pretty Ruger Redhawk in .45 Colt to go with the .44? 19. Those Keltec pocket pistols look really cool, to go with your new CHL permit. 20. It just goes on. Once you get started, you can’t stop. You are now officially a gun nut. Cheers!

  22. @Christopher

    According to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/District_of_Columbia_v._Heller :
    The holding states:

    “The Second Amendment guarantees an individual’s right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home. United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed.”

  23. @Bob
    Thanks for the link – interesting reading. Of course it looks like the Supreme Court majority tossed out the part of the 2nd amendment they didn’t like as a “prefatory clause” that basically had no weight. With the follow-up 2010 decision, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McDonald_v._Chicago, we now have a no holds barred gun policy in the country.

  24. Without gun nuts the country would not be the same. Guns have played a central role in the formation of this country. It was born out of conquest and conquest needs guns. Initially European powers were the dominant forces, then settlers who bore no one allegiance became a force and needed guns to counter the European powers. Guns were also essential to subdue native populations and slaves. Then there was the Civil War which led to a high percent of young people owning guns for protection from and killing of other humans.

    Today, its a number of factors. Growing sense of insecurity (so many people around with guns, I need to have one too just in case), machismo, flaunting material possessions (latest, greatest), criminal intent (there will always be some), legitimate and illegal hunting / poaching, arms business and as always politics which together is a powerful reason there are so many guns and potential for gun violence.

  25. When I was young and stupid, I often said that the only reasonable objection to gun control was that someday we might need to shoot the cops. If I had been saying this when I was five years old in the fifties, I would have been right. To say it today is just plain stupid.

    We are long, long past the time when guns are useful in defending yourself against the government. If the government wants to screw you, they will hop onto their computer terminal and type, Fuck You. If they want you in a prison camp, they will shut down your grocery store and put a trail of Froot Loops leading into the cell. Sure, somebody will hunt rabbits to avoid the camp but if you have kids, you’ll do what you have to to feed them.

    Oh! you say, you’d hunt if only we hadn’t taken your gun. Well, how long do you think it would take Chicago to be stripped of all animals, down to the rats, if the grocery stores were gone? I live in semi-rural Minnesota and am 100% sure that the local ecology would support us for a couple of months at most.

    But, if you don’t believe that, then they can turn off the gas and freeze you out in the winter. The trees on my property would keep me warm for a year but, it would be a really tough year. Year two would be a double bitch.

    Tens of thousands of people are harmed every year using guns justified, at least in this context, by the microscopic possibility that those guns might someday be useful in securing freedom. Trading year after year of tens of thousands of people’s lives and even more harm for something that is a bizarrely rare possibility (we are not living in the Sudan) and is even less likely to be remedied by guns (technological society has much, much more effective means of tyranny than violence) is the epitome of foolishness and cruelty.

  26. “Would we be the same …?” No. You can’t deny that we are who we are as a country based on our military. A large number of our military, especially after the draft ended, come from the gun culture. I’d bet if you interviewed Marine snipers, special forces, etc. the majority come from the gun culture. That contribution as to be factored into any answer to your question.

  27. The guys who own 20 guns are kind of like the guys that buy a really nice Leica, then buy another one that they can actually use and scratch up without feeling too bad. Of course they buy a couple of point-and-shoots for wife, kids, to have in the car. Then of course they need a 4X5 to be like Ansel Adams, a go-pro for their crazy adventures, a digital SLR so they can do high quality (and cinema), and maybe a cheap medium format TLR because they think it looks cool. (I’m not this bad, but I just realized I have a lot of cameras)

    Also, every 5 years or so, it looks like they’re going to ban certain kinds of cameras, so you’d better get one now.

    Guns and cameras are both functional and useful, they’re both durable objects which range from affordable to high-status, and they’re both very well marketed to people with some disposable income.

  28. “Trading year after year of tens of thousands of people’s lives and even more harm for something that is a bizarrely rare possibility (we are not living in the Sudan)”

    No, but the Sudan is living here among us. We just passed 500 murders for the year here in Chicago, and you can bet that virtually all of them happened in Bronzeville, Englewood, and Back of the Yards, not up in Lincoln Park or Lakeview. And that’s against a backdrop of some of the harshest gun laws in the country, with no concealed carry permitted at all. Here’s the US gun violence problem in a nutshell:


    It’s been pretty rich hearing all these politicians and celebrities bloviating about the need to Do Something Now. Manhattan and Capitol Hill are kept livable by thousands of guns, cops, fences, and bulletproof windows (and I’m not just talking police revolvers, the Secret Service regularly rolls around Washington with H&K MP5’s, I guess “assault weapons” do play a role in personal protection after all). I’ll support banning guns when they give all that up, until then it’s rank hypocrisy and emotional pandering.

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