Why Are Americans So Crazy About Guns?
You can pin most of the blame on a single organization: The NRA.
I grew up with guns. My dad hunted and he had a cabinet full of guns. This was the rural midwest and guns were a pretty normal part of everyday life. I was legally allowed to carry and shoot a firearm before I could see a PG-13 movie.
Yet I never understood why somebody would need anything more lethal than a rifle or shotgun. Most people don’t even need those. The craze for semi-automatic weapons and military-style rifles has always escaped me and struck me as a little bit crazy. After all, you don’t need them to shoot a pheasant.
But so many Americans believe — fervently — that the constitution gives them the right to carry any type of firearms — no matter how outrageous — thanks to the Second Amendment.
Since its inception in 1791, the Second Amendment has been debated, argued over, legislated, and interpreted in a variety of ways. Sometimes it was specifically applied to militias or standing armies. Sometimes it meant an individual right, guaranteeing the right of regular citizens to carry a firearm. Over the course of two centuries, the meaning of it went back and forth between these to poles, depending on the time, the court case, and the person interpreting it.
But for the last couple of decades, the Second Amendment has swung firmly to the individual right interpretation, going further in that direction arguably than ever before.
So why are Americans so crazy about guns today?
You can lay most of the blame on a single organization.
Guns have been part of American culture since before the United States even existed. They were for hunting and protection and played an instrumental role on the North American frontier.
For a long time, the United States didn’t have a full-time, standing army — so we got by with civilian militias. These militias often required their recruits to supply their own arms.
So guns have been important — a necessity even — to the American way of life. But a lot of those ways of life have gone away. We have a huge military today — the third largest in the world. And our frontier days are long behind us.
But gun sales have actually increased over the last decade. Much of that increase can be seen in the sale of military-style assault rifles. Why have we seemingly become more crazy for guns?
Well, let’s go back to a time when Americans were really crazy about guns — the Civil War.
Actually, just after the Civil War. The Northern states had just won — preserving the Union, utterly crushing the rebellion, and laying waste to much of the South.
But there’s always room for improvement.
As it turns out, Union soldiers only hit one confederate rebel for every 1000 bullets fired. A lousy kill ratio for any self-respecting military.
So the National Rifle Association was first convened in 1871 with the explicit purpose of improving and promoting rifle marksmanship. For most of its life, the NRA was just that — a gun club — where members would provide firearms training, promote gun safety, and get together for a little relaxing target practice. And that was about it.
That’s when the NRA established its Institute for Legislative Action — the political lobbying wing of its organization. Before this, the NRA had weighed on gun legislation from time to time and kept its members apprised of the latest political happenings in the gun world — but not much else. It even came out in favor of gun control legislation a couple times.
Which ultimately led to a rift in the organization.
In 1968, the NRA came out in support of the President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Gun Control Act. This incited some of the members to become more active in their support of gun rights. The creation of the lobbying wing in 1975 was soon followed by a political action committee, the Political Victory Fund, tasked with funding gun rights legislative efforts and pro-gun political candidates.
This all culminated in 1977, when the pro-gun rights branch of the NRA voted out the moderates, cementing the organization’s commitment to Second Amendment extremism.
For over 100 years, the NRA’s focus had been on gun safety and marksmanship. After the revolt of 1977, that mission would be all but discarded — overshadowed by increasingly formidable political maneuvering.
As I mentioned at the start, in the time since its adoption, two schools of thought had formed around the meaning of the Second Amendment — a collective right interpretation and an individual right interpretation. The NRA was now firmly pushing an individual right interpretation. And they had a multi-pronged offensive strategy.
One: they would fund the campaigns of pro-gun political candidates. In 1980, Ronald Reagan was the first presidential candidate the NRA endorsed — because he was anti-gun control. Soon members of the NRA became an important voting base to the Republican party. And the NRA became an increasingly lucrative source of campaign funds. As a result, the republican party’s views on the Second Amendment became more and more radical.
By the 1990s, the NRA’s view of Second Amendment rights had become firmly embedded into American conservative ideology.
In 1994, the Republicans took back control of the house, with substantial monetary help from the NRA. 2 years later, the Dickey Amendment would be attached to federal spending, effectively revoking the funding of any CDC-implemented gun research. In the 25 years since, there has been largely no data collected on the impact of gun violence — thanks to NRA lobbying efforts.
In 1998, movie star and gun enthusiast, Charlton Heston, was elected president of the NRA. His celebrity status helped boost the NRA into the limelight.
In 2004, under a Republican president and a Republican congress largely installed through the NRA’s extensive funding and lobbying efforts, the Federal Assault Weapons Ban was allowed to expire. Opening the door to military-style assault weapon sales across the country. But we’ll get back to that shortly . . .
The NRA’s most insidious and far-reaching efforts lay outside of the political arena. From the very beginning of its lobbying endeavors, the NRA funded fringe legal experts and academic research that argued for extreme individual right interpretations of the Second Amendment. While they pushed misinterpretations or took quotes out of context to serve their ideology, the NRA was able to maintain the air of respectable scholarship. Lawyers and judges were cultivated in this environment. Slowly, over the decades, these extremist legal views made their way into the US judicial system. One by one, gun regulations were loosened and struck down. Eventually, the Justice Department revised its stance on the Second Amendment, coming in line with the NRA.
This all culminated in 2008, when the Supreme Court ruled that a 1975 law banning loaded hand guns without trigger locks in Washington DC was unconstitutional. For the first time, the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment does indeed guarantee an individual right to a gun. The law was struck down, 5 to 4. Five of those Supreme Court justices just happened to be nominated by Republican presidents — each and every one them card-carrying members of the National Rifle Association.
In 2010, a Supreme Court ruling fully incorporated the Second Amendment into the 14th Amendment. Before this, the Second Amendment only applied to federal laws. Now state and local municipalities could not infringe upon the right to bear arms.
Essentially, everybody could have a gun, anywhere.
Before the NRA had begun meddling with the Second Amendment, guns were seen as a recreational pastime. You hunted with them. You used them for target practice. They were for fun. The gun as a tool of self-defense or survival was merely a vestige of a bygone era, nearly two centuries past, as relevant to our way of life as horse-drawn carriages and powdered wigs.
But the NRA had done more than rewrite our laws — they changed our minds. Guns weren’t just a hobby anymore. They were a necessity. It was our inalienable right to be armed and protect ourselves.
Despite the fact that homicide and crime rates had been falling for decades, the idea that we needed guns for self-defense took hold of the American consciousness. Because it was what the NRA had been telling us for decades now.
Not surprisingly, gun sales spiked.
Today there are somewhere between 270 and 310 million guns in the US. Almost one for every man, woman, and child.
No doubt entirely by coincidence, gun deaths have skyrocketed.
100 Americans are killed by a gun every day. 1500 children are killed every year. 6 of the deadliest mass shootings in modern US history have happened in the last ten years. 2 of them were school shootings. In 2017, gun deaths were at their highest level in 40 years — or since the NRA began its lobbying quest in 1977. By far the majority of these gun deaths are due to suicide. We are quite literally killing ourselves over our love of guns.
Although the NRA would like you to believe otherwise, there is a strong link between access to guns and the number of gun deaths.
However since congress has impeded any systematic study of this phenomenon, it’s tough to verify exactly what is causing the rise in gun violence and how to stop it, giving the NRA and its proponents plausible deniability.
But the statistics are pretty damning.
The mass shootings, the suicide epidemic, the senseless violence — you can pin much of it on the NRA. They have made it all possible through its meticulous unfettering of any reasonable gun control measures and its flagrant distortion of our legal system.
The NRA has even expanded its influence beyond US borders. It has funded anti-gun regulation efforts in Canada, Brazil, and Australia. It has come out against the Arms Trade Treaty (which regulates gun sales abroad). Its unparalleled ability to transform and splinter American politics has even made it a valuable Russian foreign asset.
But the NRA’s influence might be waning.
In the aftermath of the school shooting in Parkland, FL, a boycott emerged through social media, pressuring companies associated with NRA to cut ties. So far, dozens of companies have severed their business ties with the NRA.
For the first time in almost 20 years, the majority of the American public has an unfavorable view of the NRA.
But even if the NRA disappeared tomorrow, their impact on America will be felt far into the future.
When you pull the trigger of a gun, a tiny explosion happens. This ignites a chamber of chemical propellant that sends a piece of metal hurtling out of the barrel at tremendous speeds. But it doesn’t explode all at once. That would destroy the gun, essentially turning it into a hand grenade and severely wounding or even killing the shooter. Instead, the propellant in a gun explodes slowly at first. As the bullet travels down the barrel, the propellant burns hotter and faster. This ensures that the explosion is at its most energetic just as the bullet exits the barrel. With any luck, that piece of metal will now hit its target with the maximum amount of force possible.
The NRA didn’t accomplish its goals all at once. It took about three decades — an entire generation — to hit its target. Now we have a generation who has been directly impacted by that effort. They are stuck living with active shooter drills in their schools, armed guards in their churches, an extremist judiciary in the courts, and an impotent, disarmed congress in Washington. In all likelihood, It will take another generation to alleviate the damage and enact lucid and robust gun regulations. That’ll be about as easy as putting the propellant back into the barrel of a gun. It won’t be done all at once. It’ll be slow at first — but eventually we’ll pick up steam. With any luck, we’ll find ourselves on a better trajectory.
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