Guns And The American Psyche

A historical analysis of the role of firearms in American culture.

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Richard Slotkin
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Guns And The American Psyche
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Guns And The American Psyche

We hear it all the time: America has a gun culture. What does that mean?

It may mean that our history -- starting with the violent subjugation of Native Americans -- is the history of the gun, but that's more true as a narrative than as an actual fact.
Historians studying probate inventories and official reports on the preparedness of militia members suggests that gun ownership in early America, even on the so-called frontier, was far, far below 50 percent. Guns were kind of a niche item until the 1840s. 
What we have always had, as one of our guests will say today, is a series of stories about guns and in particular about the use of guns by individuals to solve their problems. On today's show, we'll try to step away from the immediate debate about guns and talk instead about why we have so many of them.
You can join the conversation. E-mail or Tweet us @wnprcolin.



E-mail from Jim

Thank you for your show today.

You asked what we think. Recently, but before Friday past, I have been thinking about taking a course and maybe buying a hand gun. While the tragedy is chilling it has not caused me to conclusively decide against gun ownership, but it probably slowed down my desire for exploration.

Listening to the show, I thought about drunk driving laws. You can drink alcohol and drive unless your blood alcohol level exceeds the point selected by the legistlature controlling the road your driving on as the margin between acceptable inebriation and intoxication. Stopping drunk driving and eliminating parsing over whether the accused is intoxicated, is as easy as enacting a law prohibiting driving after any drinking, but that will not happen.

It would be far more difficult to prohibit all gun ownership after District of Columbia vs. Heller and McDonald vs. Chicago. Good bet that will not happen.

I have not heard a persuasive defense of assault rifles for personal use that does not include the word “zombies.” So, the questions are how many rounds in a magazine and how fast can it be emptied.

In researching gun ownership online, I learned that there are a plethora of hand guns that can discharge a “small or short” clip of 12 or a “regular” clip of 15 as fast as you can say “bang” 12 or 15 times or even faster. I think that is plenty of “defensive” weapon for most anyone.

It is also probably not common knowledge that the bullets have different velocities and can be designed to make a bigger exit hole than entry hole. Looking at websites for potential gun afficinados, you will read that for home defense you need a gun that has a big enough bullet with a strong enough charge to stop an attacker. I read that some attackers can absorb several .22 caliber hits and keep coming after you and that whether or not the several wounds ultimately kill them, small bullets mean that they might kill you before they expire. There is also the need to decide how much velocity you want your bullets to have. Care is required to not shoot neighbors in adjacent houses with high velocity bullets that go through walls.

To be as arbitrary as Congress can be, I propose we eliminate fully automatic guns/assault rifles and limit magazines to 15 rounds. Much more than that probably has to wait for new appointeesto the Supreme Court.

E-mail from Jordan

I am a WNPR member and listen every day. Since you are all focusing on guns today, I wanted to bring this piece to your attention. The focus is on the actual wording of the amendment and the context in which it was written. There is also some very interesting and important history discussed, but I'll quote piece to sum it up:

"English common law had long acknowledged the importance of effective arms control, and the meaning of the Second Amendment seemed clear to the framers and their contemporaries: that the people have a right to possess arms when serving in the militia. Over the years, this “collective rights” interpretation of the Second Amendment was upheld in three Supreme Court decisions, in 1876, 1886, and most recently, in 1939. The meaning of the Second Amendment remained uncontroversial until 1960, when a law review article using sources like American Rifleman asserted an additional, individual, right to bear arms for the purposes of self-defense. Since that time, a growing bloc of constitutional scholars and historians has asserted that only the individual rights interpretation of the right to bear arms is correct, even calling this new reading the “standard model,” as if the original, collective rights interpretation hadn’t prevailed for more than a century. And the majority of Americans now believe that the Second Amendment guarantees their right to tote a gun." -- Dennis Baron

Enjoy your show. Thanks.

E-mail from Kyle

I wanted to send in a semi-detailed email, as I have been listening to the radio the past few days and have gotten increasingly frustrated with the lack of defensible positions from both sides. First, a few things which many listeners seem to be confused about: 1) A semi-automatic weapon is one which automatically loads another bullet after one has been fired. You have to pull the trigger each time to make the weapon fire. This differs from an automatic weapon, where holding the trigger down allows the weapon to fire continuously. Automatic weapons have been regulated under the National Firearms Act of 1934, and they cannot be owned by civilians without proceeding through an extensive registration process, including registering with the ATF, submitting photograph and fingerprints, and receiving ATF permission after a thorough background check (usually an FBI-level check) 2) "Assault weapons", as the term is being used in the media and by lots of people calling in, are semi-automatic weapons, not automatic weapons. They are civilian versions of military weapons, lacking select-fire capabilities (can fire as single shot, three-shot, or fully automatic, for example). In this way, despite being based upon military weapons, in function and usage they are identical to semi-automatic firearms that are frequently used for hunting. 3) The Federal Assault Weapon Ban, which expired in 2004, would not have prevented ownership of a weapon capable of the same things as the rifle used in Newtown. Specifically, though the form of the rifle would have been different, the law did not outlaw high-capacity magazines or semi-automatic rifles. It prevented manufacture of specific traits which do not decrease the deadliness (for rifles) of the weapon in any way. For rifles, the ban included things like pistol grips, bayonet mounts, grenade launcher attachments (grenade launchers being illegal anyway), and foldable stocks. Conversely, for shotguns an important distinction was made in the capacity allowed, limiting the number to 5, and for handguns some functionality restrictions including magazines that extend past the grip and threaded barrels allowing for the attachment of sound suppressors. The restrictions for handguns and shotguns made much more sense than for rifles. My issues with the arguments being put forth are with both sides, so I will split them up that way. Please keep in mind that I myself have appreciable first-hand experience with guns, and would consider myself an enthusiast. NRA-side: The insistence on no limits for magazine size and no additional background checks are indefensible. If you need 30 rounds to do what you need to do (self-defense, hunting, competition), you have no business using that weapon. In the case of self-defense, using that many rounds increases the likelihood that you will hit an unintended target, and in hunting . . that's just an inexcusable lack of accuracy. As for background checks, there is no reason we should not be doing background checks and waiting periods for all firearms. This is simply to keep criminals and people with a history of mental illness from purchasing them. That the NRA opposes these basic measures is unbelievable to me. More specific to the most recent tragedy, we need to get serious about liability and training for weapons. People need to be held accountable for failing to secure their weapons properly. There is some reason to tread carefully here in the interest of self-defense, but it is a discussion that needs to happen. In addition, not enough gun owners demonstrate proper gun safety; our former vice-president Cheney for example. Formal training should be mandatory for gun ownership, and I would have no problem completing this myself. Anti-Gun side: Most of these people don't have a clue when it comes to how these weapons operate or their uses. An AR-15 variant (as the Bushmaster is) is functionally no different than any of the semi-automatic hunting rifles out there. It is no more deadly, and is only a target for these people because it looks like military hardware. I totally agree that there is no need for 30 round magazines, but preventing people from buying a rifle with a pistol grip is not going to prevent further tragedies. What angers me the most is that people don't know the difference between automatic and semi-automatic actions(described above). In addition, even banning all semi-automatic guns, not just assault rifles, will not solve the problem. Speed loaders for revolvers exist, which reduces the loading time to essentially that of a magazine. Or a shooter could carry multiple weapons as has been the case in most of the deadly shootings in this country. Banning all guns still won't stop the violence, as explosives can be made from readily available chemicals. The only way to really approach this problem is by going after the people side of this equation, making sure that high-risk individuals are identified, kept away from weapons, and are given easy access to mental health professionals. One of the biggest differences between other Western nations and the US? It's not our gun laws, it's our lack of a social safety net. Food for thought. I hope this email can be useful in your discussions, and I want to thank you for you efforts in maintaining balanced discussions on difficult issues.

E-mail from Michael

My husband and I support a state public gun registry online where parents such as us can see who owns guns and can make decisions about our children's interaction with their children, e.g. Play dates. Also it would be especially helpful to schools and other institutions as to who owns guns and how they want to handle interactions with them as well. Especially the schools.
>> You never know when someone is going to snap and resort to his or her weapon ... And also how responsible they are with them in the home. It is uncomfortable as a parent to have to ask parents of a potential friend of our child's if they have guns in their homes. A registry such as the one we have for sexual predators would help parents and educators immensely about who they potentially need to worry about.
>> Today it is such an unlevel playing field. Lets at least equip those of us without guns with the knowledge of who is a potential threat so that we can make smart decisions.
>> Does this seem feasible?
>> Thank you.