Most people in the world are very familiar with US culture. They grow up watching American films and TV shows, or use sophisticated American technology like iPhones or innovative platforms like Google and Amazon. But there’s one aspect of US culture that many find difficult to comprehend, and that’s the American love affair with guns.
The US has the highest rates of gun ownership in the world, with an estimated 393 million civilian-owned guns, which equates to about 120 civilian-owned guns per one hundred people. This compares to fewer than 35 civilian-owned guns per one hundred people in Canada and fewer than 5 per hundred in England and Wales.
Most Americans who buy guns do so with the intention of using them for self-defence or to go hunting or target shooting, but too often guns end up injuring or killing people, either accidentally or intentionally.
Furthermore, the US has had some of the deadliest mass shootings in modern history. When defined as incidents in which at least four people are shot excluding the shooter, the US had 693 mass shootings in 2021, with many of its deadliest occurring in recent years. These include the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, which left fifty-eight people dead, the 2016 Orlando Nightclub shooting, which left forty-nine people dead, the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre in Connecticut, which left seven adults and twenty children dead, and the most recent mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas in May 2022, which left two adults and nineteen children, aged between seven and ten, dead.
High rates of gun ownership come at a high price and this has made it an intensely controversial issue among Americans, who are often divided on gun control. On one side of the debate are gun rights advocates, who believe it is a constitutional right to own arms as stated in the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, dating back to 1791. On the other side are gun control advocates, who insist that stricter gun laws will save lives. To find out more, Speak Up contacted representatives on each side of the divide. Sam Paredes is the executive director of Gun Owners of California; Ari Davis is a senior policy analyst with the US Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence. We began by asking Sam Paredes why Americans have such a close and enduring relationship with their guns.
Sam Paredes (American accent): Guns have been a part of our culture since before the inception of the country. When the immigrants came to the United States, guns were an everyday tool that was used for protection against the wilds of the wilderness, attacks from other people and some of the native residents that were here, and also we have records of recreational use. It has been a part of American culture since the beginning. The founders who came to the United States and wanted to create this new experience in a democratic republic, they had just experienced tyranny from the lands they fled. And when they were here, they experienced tyranny over from England. And they decided that they would have the ability to have firearms to protect themselves. So our Founding Fathers said that that the right to protect ourselves in our homes and in our country preexisted the Constitution of the United States. So the Bill of Rights, in particular the Second Amendment that enumerates the right to keep and bear arms as an individual right, is not granted by government, but is granted by our Creator.
We put the same question to Ari Davis, who took a different perspective.
Ari Davis (American accent): The United States is very large, and so there’s a lot of rural areas. And so, gun ownership for a long time was associated with kind of hunting and being out in the country and sport. Over the last maybe forty years, you’ve seen efforts by the gun lobby to really push this idea of gun owning being part of culture and being part of people’s identity. We have seen a lot of people purchasing guns now for protecting themselves, or the perceived threat of the government. But I think in a lot of ways this has been kind of a relatively new notion that has only exacerbated what has already been a tradition in this country of gun ownership. In the last few decades, there’s really been this shift in sensationalizing crime and making people feel like they need to own a gun to protect themselves.
BUYING A GUN
Under the Gun Control Act of 1968, shotguns and rifles can be sold to US citizens of eighteen years of age or older, while handguns can be sold to individuals over twenty-one. However, all of the mass school shootings in the US on record were carried out by young men, averaging the age of eighteen. We asked Paredes whether private gun ownership, so prevalent in the US in comparison to other western countries, was responsible for such atrocities.
Sam Paredes: The other nations including Japan and some of the other countries that are often cited, they never had this cultural portion of their existence that included firearms. It’s truly a part of our blood. It’s a part of our nature. We believe that gun control across the board is an abject failure to prevent violent crimes, and particularly crimes with guns. We have four hundred million guns in America. So, no matter what you do, you’re never going to reduce that number significantly. So the guns are there. We believe that gun control is more about the government being able to control the people, not so much the guns, but the people. And therefore, we are against virtually all forms of gun control.
VIOLENCE BY STATE
Davis believes that owning a firearm does not act as a deterrent. On the contrary, gun violence more frequently occurs in states where guns are more easily available, he says.
Ari Davis: It really depends on the state. So at the federal level, you could go into a store and if you’re buying from a licensed dealer, you would undergo a background check. It’s usually done right on the spot. And then you can purchase a gun, and you can purchase kind of a military-style weapon in most states. But in states like California, there are stricter laws. But for the majority of states, it is relatively simple. There is some really good evidence that having a gun in a home actually increases the chances of dying by firearm by fivefold. Outside of the home, what you see is that conflicts can escalate. So there’s a lot of research that shows carrying guns in public just increases violence across the board, and rarely is it used defensively to deescalate a situation. If you look at crime rate in European countries is not that much different than in the United States, but if you look at fatalities and gun deaths it’s a leading cause of death in the United States, it’s not in Europe. More people die by guns in the United States than by car crashes. So clearly the issue is the gun and not criminal behavior, violent behavior. It’s... it’s the gun.
STAND YOUR GROUND
One alarming development, says Davis, are so-called Stand Your Ground laws that remove the requirement to avoid conflict. He talks more about that.
Ari Davis: Maybe there’s a little fight and suddenly it can become deadly because instead of just backing away, they have the right to defend themselves through deadly force. What’s really scary is that you’ve seen during the kind of racial reckoning and the Black Lives Matter movement, you’ve seen a backlash from a lot of conservative lawmakers in states, and they’ve actually passed laws that are expansions to Stand Your Ground. So now it’s if you see someone who is looting or protesting but destroying property, you may have the right to shoot them.
GUNS ARE FUN
Paredes and Davis have very different relationships with guns owing in part to their personal experiences. Paredes is a proud gun owner.
Sam Paredes: I enjoy guns for personal defense. I enjoy guns as a competitor. I hunt with guns. I collect guns. I’m what I would pensively call a ‘gun nut,’ in that I do enjoy guns of all types, their uses and the mechanical genius that it takes to manufacture them. So yes, I am a whole believer in guns, an admirer of guns, and yes, I do like guns.
GUNS IN SCHOOLS
Davis, on the other hand, is not. He explains why.
Ari Davis: I was a teacher in New Orleans. I was a high-school teacher, and many of my students were directly impacted by gun violence. I lost three of my students to gun violence. And it was a kind of a daily thing, being in fear of being shot. The availability of guns in many of the communities that are most impacted is just devastating. And it’s killing our kids.
A BETTER FUTURE
Davis does believe, however, that this latest mass shooting of children in Texas will see the tide in America turn in favour of gun control.
Ari Davis: We’re starting to make some inroads. Over the last five or so years, we’ve been able to push for a policy called Extreme Risk Protection Order. It allows family members or law enforcement to identify when someone’s in crisis, and file a petition to temporarily remove a gun. It can have strong effects at reducing suicides and also potentially reducing mass shootings. The NRA is kind of losing its grip on Congress and on this country and being exposed for what it is, which is a really corrupt organization that doesn’t represent hunters; it represents gun manufacturers. The vast majority of Americans, upwards of 80 percent, support stronger gun laws. At least at some level.
All images in this article belong to Gabriele Galimberti and were taken for his book project The Ameriguns.