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Freedom and fear: the foundations of America’s deadly gun culture

Model rifles displayed at the National Rifle Association annual meeting in Houston on May 27, 2022

It was 1776, the American colonies had just declared their independence from England, and as war raged the founding fathers were deep in debate: should Americans have the right to own firearms as individuals, or just as members of local militia?

As a landmark Supreme Court decision expanded gun rights Thursday, just weeks after a mass killing of 19 children in their Texas school, the debate rages on and outsiders wonder why Americans are so wedded to the firearms used in such massacres with appalling frequency.

Over the past two decades — a period in which more than 200 million guns hit the US market — the country has shifted from “Gun Culture 1.0,” where guns were for sport and hunting, to “Gun Culture 2.0” where many Americans see them as essential to protect their homes and families.

Recent mass murders “are the byproduct of a gun industry business model designed to profit from increasing hatred, fear, and conspiracy,” Busse wrote in May in the online magazine The Bulwark.

Nearly simultaneously the US Supreme Court struck down Thursday a New York state law restricting who can carry a firearm, a significant expansion of gun rights.

For the men designing the new United States in the 1770s and 1780s, there was no question about gun ownership.

James Madison, the “father of the constitution,” cited “the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation.”

They recognized people needed to hunt and protect themselves against wild animals and thieves. But some worried more private guns could just increase frontier lawlessness.

In 1791, a compromise was struck in what has become the most parsed phrase in the Constitution, the Second Amendment guaranteeing gun rights:

– 1960s gun control –

Gun Culture 1.0, as Wake Forest University professor David Yamane describes it, was about guns as critical tools for pioneers hunting game and fending off varmints — as well as the genocidal conquest of native Americans and the control of slaves.

From 1900 to 1964, wrote the late historian Richard Hofstadter, the country recorded more than 265,000 gun homicides, 330,000 suicides, and 139,000 gun accidents.

Individual states added their own controls, like bans on carrying guns in public, openly or concealed.

The assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, brought a push for strenuous regulation in 1968.

-The holy Second Amendment-

According to Matthew Lacombe, a Barnard College professor, achieving that involved the NRA creating and advertising a distinct gun-centric ideology and social identity for gun owners.

Jessica Dawson, a professor at the West Point military academy, said the NRA made common cause with the religious right, a group that believes in Christianity’s primacy in American culture and the constitution.

– Self defense –

That paved the way for Gun Culture 2.0 — when the NRA and the gun industry began telling consumers that they needed personal firearms to protect themselves, according to Busse.

The timing paralleled Barack Obama becoming the first African American president and a rise in white nationalism.

Meanwhile, many states answered concerns about a perceived rise in crime by allowing people to carry guns in public without permits.

That, said Wake Forest’s Yamane, was a key turning point for Gun Culture 2.0, giving a sharp boost to handgun sales, which people of all races bought, amid exaggerated fears of internecine violence.

“The majority of gun owners today — especially new gun owners — point to self-defense as the primary reason for owning a gun,” Yamane wrote.

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