Changing the U.S. Gun Culture

Will Sarvis
4 min readMay 29, 2022

There are multiple, complex factors behind the mass shootings of recent decades in the United States, but clearly they are all related to the nation’s gun culture. How can Americans change such a culture? In fact, how does any society make any massive cultural shift?

Many are fond of comparing the U.S. and Switzerland, both nations with a heavily-armed citizenry, only one with a prominent mass shooting problem. But this is an unhelpful juxtaposition. There are more contrasts than similarities between the two nations involving history, topography, demographics, geographical size, economics, politics, et cetera. One is a young nation mainly comprised of immigrants and their descendants, the other not. One has tremendous racial and ethnic diversity, the other not. And so forth. These are precisely the factors that tend to shape culture quite profoundly, so they are bound to figure into any explanation of contrasting gun cultures.

More apt comparisons would be among the three large “English diaspora” colonial nations of Australia, the U.S., and Canada (the latter, outside of French Quebec and parts of eastern Ontario). Here the cultural contrast shows up more starkly. Canada and Australia have much more restrictive gun laws compared to the U.S., and these laws reflect very different gun cultures — but why? The short answer lies in these places’ respective histories.

There were conquest aspects to all three nations, but the U.S. was singular in its aggressive expansiveness, especially when 19th century white Americans adopted the Manifest Destiny ideology (i.e., “God ordained that we conquer you!”). Americans basically used Manifest Destiny to justify acquisition of millions of square miles west of the Appalachians and the displacement of earlier residents — be they American Indians, Hispanics of the old Southwest, or Hawaiian islanders. Thus, we have the violent “legacy of conquest” factor in American history and contemporary society. To a significant degree, this helps explain American gun culture. As Geoffrey Canada observed in his aptly entitled book, Fist Stick Knife Gun, the U.S. was a nation created in violence. The legacy of this historic violence has merged with other, more recent social problems and political divides. But the gun culture has been fundamental from the outset of the 16th century Euroamerican frontier, first in the American Southwest, then along the eastern seaboard. Gun culture was further ensconced by things like the Revolutionary War era’s citizen militia (the famous Minutemen) and, of course, the subsequent Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Late 19th century Thomas Nast drawing, “The Pioneer,” evoking old Manifest Destiny clichés about the “gun that settled the West” or “the gun that won the West.” (Library of Congress image).

It is difficult to prescribe medicine for a massive cultural shift when explanations for past cultural shifts are not always easy to understand. Consider the contrasting examples of drunk driving and cigarette smoking in the United States, both of which have caused innumerable deaths, injuries, and health problems.

Before the 1980s, police in the United States generally treated drunk driving as a comparatively minor traffic offense. By the 1990s, drunk driving had become a serious infraction with substantial punitive and monetary repercussions. Lawmakers lowered blood-alcohol content to widen the criteria for the crime. Insurance companies began to pay close attention to such infractions and raised rates accordingly, or denied automobile insurance altogether. This revolutionary cultural shift occurred fairly rapidly, mainly due to the highly effective lobbying effort of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD. By contrast, the cultural shift away from cigarette smoking was much more gradual. Part of the explanation lay in lobbying influence. Big Tobacco strongly lobbied against curtailing cigarette smoking, but no one was lobbying in favor of drunk driving.

More than a century ago, Americans referred to cigarettes as “coffin nails,” so even back then they knew smoking was unhealthy. And yet it required many generations to shift away from cigarettes. In the 1950s, nearly half the American population smoked cigarettes. Now it is closer to 15%. There were many possible factors and influences in this cultural shift: banning cigarette advertising on television, raising taxes on cigarettes, increasingly dire Surgeon General’s warnings printed on cigarette packs and cartons, a campaign of public service announcements and educational films in public schools — and most amazing of all — Congress somehow eventually mitigating their addiction to millions of dollars in annual Big Tobacco campaign finance donations. The latter may reflect the old political joke about a leader belatedly discovering which way a crowd is going, then running ahead to “lead” them. No need to be too cynical about the joke; after all, in a representative democracy, public officials are (to an important degree) supposed to reflect the populace.

Given how central lobbying money is in American politics, I’m still kind of amazed that the cigarette smoking shift happened at all. But I’m not holding my breath for a similar revolution in Americans’ over-consumption of pharmaceuticals, over-spending on the “Education Industry” (not to be confused with teachers’ salaries) . . . or in its love of guns. All three have huge lobbying entities working against cultural changes that would harm interested parties’ monetary profits. But who knows, maybe the American populace itself will make a pronounced cultural shift, similar to how MADD changing drunk driving culture, and thus lead the societal transformation that will include whichever reluctant politicians in their wake.

Copyright © 2021, 2022 Will Sarvis. All rights reserved.

REFERENCES

Hilary Brueck, “Switzerland Has A Stunningly High Rate of Gun Ownership — Here’s Why It Doesn’t Have Mass Shootings,” Business Insider (May 25, 2022). An example of not making the obvious contrasts between the U.S. and Switzerland.

Geoffrey Canada, Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence in America (Boston: Beacon Pr., 1995). The title captures how street fighting escalates.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Winnable Battles: Tobacco.”

Patricia Limerick, Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of The American West (NY: Norton, 1987. As I’ve mentioned before, from my point of view, Limerick’s title could apply to the entire nation.

Niall McCarthy, “Poll: U.S. Smoking Rate Falls To Historic Low,” Forbes (July 26, 2018).

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Will Sarvis

Author of Embracing Philanthropic Environmentalism and other books.