In the aftermath of the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, Americans of all political stripes are wrestling with one big question: who should, and shouldn’t, have access to guns? So in this hour of BackStory, that’s the question we’ll be pushing back through the centuries.
On this episode, the Backstory hosts look at the changing ways Americans have regulated gun ownership, and at what those weapons have meant to different segments of society. They consider the importance of the militia to the drafting of the Second Amendment, and explore the central role of the state in arming citizens. They also pay a visit to a 21st century version of the armories of the past: a gun show.
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ED: This is BackStory. I’m Ed Ayers.
MALCOLM X: America is based upon the right of people to organize for self defense. This is in the Constitution of the United States.
ED: This is Malcolm X speaking in 1964. He’s making an argument that may sound familiar today. But keep listening and you’ll hear something a little odd.
MALCOLM X: What Article is that?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The Second Amendment.
MALCOLM X: The Second Amendment to the Constitution.
ED: Yeah. Right there. Malcolm X didn’t know where in the Constitution the right to bear arms is protected? He had to ask his friend? It turns out that the Second Amendment didn’t really feature in the gun rights debate for most of the 20th century. As late as 1975, even be the NRA said, the Second Amendment was of quote, “limited practical utility,” end quote, in arguing for gun ownership. A history of guns in America, today on BackStory. But first, some history in the making.
PETER: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and by the University of Virginia.
ED: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts.
BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, 20th Century Guy, and I’m here with Ed Ayers.
ED: 19th Century Guy.
BRIAN: And Peter Onuf, the one and only–
PETER: 18th Century Guy.
BRIAN: Today’s show is about the history of guns in America. And frankly, when it comes to guns, I don’t know how you start anywhere else in American history besides the Wild West.
ADAM WINKLER: Out in the untamed wilderness of the Wild West, everyone had guns.
ED: This is Adam Winkler, a Law Professor at UCLA, and author of Gunfight: the Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America.
ADAM WINKLER: If you were going from place to place where there was no law out in the frontier, you needed guns to protect yourself. There were hostile Indians, outlaws, there were wild animals. You were out there alone. There was no law. And so much so that stagecoach drivers that went from town to town took to great expense to hire someone to ride sitting next to them with a shotgun in their hand, right there in the front of the stagecoach.
BRIAN: And for all you listeners currently sitting in the passenger seat of the car, this is, in fact, where we get the phrase riding shotgun.
ADAM WINKLER: So everyone out in the Wild West had guns. And you needed to them out in the Wild West. But, when you came into a town, like a Tombstone, Arizona, or a Dodge City, Kansas, where the business people and the civilized people lived, your guns weren’t welcome there.
These towns had the most restrictive gun control laws in the nation. When you walked into a Wild West town you had to check your guns, the way you might check your overcoat in a restaurant in the winter. And you’d get a little token that you can use to get back your guns when you’re leaving the town.
PETER: So this probably doesn’t square with your image of the Wild West. Gun toting, drunkards stumbling through the streets of Deadwood ready to blow away the next guy who crosses their path. I mean, what about gunfights? What about the OK Corral?
ADAM WINKLER: Well the shootout at the OK Corral is the most famous, or infamous gunfight in American history. On one side of the street were lined up Ike Clanton and a group of outlaw cowboys. And on the other side of the street we had the famous Wyatt Earp and the Earp brothers, the law man of the town.
DOC HOLLIDAY: Wait a minute Wyatt, Kate told me about the killing of your brother.
ED: This is a clip from the 1957 film, Gunfight at the OK Corral.
DOC HOLLIDAY: It was the Clantons, all right. And you were in on it.
COTTON WILSON: I had nothing to do with it.
WYATT EARP: Get back where you belong.
COTTON WILSON: Beilieve me, Wyatt, if–
WYATT EARP: Get back with your friends.
DOC HOLLIDAY: Hit the dirt!
ADAM WINKLER: And shots rang out and three people died, and several others were injured.
TOM MCLOWERY: Oh, no! They killed my brother!
JOHNNY RINGO: Tom, stay back you fool!
TOM MCLOWERY: They killed my brother!
ADAM WINKLER: The reason why the dispute between the Clantons and the Earps turned deadly, was because the Clanton gang refused to turn over their weapons, as required by Tombstone law. So some people think that the shootout at the OK Corral was typical of the Wild West. That’s how we view these Wild West towns, cowboys running roughshod, guns ablaze night and day.
But in truth, gun violence was very rare in the quote, unquote “gun havens of the Wild West.” Places like Tombstone, Arizona or Dodge City, Kansas, or Deadwood, South Dakota. Over the period of the Wild West, roughly 1870 to the 1890s, towns like Tombstone or Dodge City, they averaged less than two murders a year.
And in most years during those periods, they had zero murders. So the reason why we’re still talking about the shootout at the OK Corral 130 years later, is because it was an extraordinary event. It was an unusual event that made headlines coast to coast, that three people were shot in a shootout.
Whereas, today, on in Los Angeles, if three people are shot, it might not even make the front page of the local newspaper. So the shootout at the OK Corral, while often taken to be emblematic of America’s gun culture, I think, also is a story of America’s gun control culture, about the ways in which gun control has shaped America, as much as the six-shooter or the Second Amendment.
[MUSIC – FRANKIE LAINE, “GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL”]
ED: Today on the show, we’re exploring the history of guns in the United States. Who has them, and who wants them. The United States has the highest rate of civilian gun ownership in the world, nearly one privately owned firearm for every man woman or child.
BRIAN: In the past month, the question of how those guns should be regulated has sparked National debate. In the aftermath of the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, President Obama promised to make gun violence a central issue of his second term.
Just last week, he unveiled new gun control proposals, including universal background checks. The NRA hit it back hard saying, the way to prevent school shootings is not to restrict gun ownership, but to get more guns in the hands of the right people.
PETER: Americans of all political stripes are wrestling with one big question. Who should and should not have access to guns? So in this hour of BackStory, that’s the question we’ll be pushing back through the centuries.
ED: What did that debate look like in the years after the Civil War, when new kinds of guns were flooding the North and the South? What did it look like 100 years later, when black activists were using terms like, by any means necessary? And yes, what did it look like in the founding generation, to those guys who actually came up with that whole business about the right to bear arms?
BRIAN: It’s pretty hard to talk about gun ownership today, without somebody bringing up the Second Amendment. That’s the one that says that a well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. These days, people tend to focus on the last part of a sense, the right to bear arms. But what about the beginning? What was that whole business about the militia?
ED: You may remember from your history books that it was the members of the Massachusetts militia, the Minutemen, who fought the first battle of the American Revolution. And that was prompted by British soldiers trying to take some of their weapons. Well, militias were amateur armies, organized first by the Colonial governments, and then later by the states of the new nation.
The Constitution would later give Congress the power to arm the militia. And the basic idea was, that male citizens over a certain age were required to report for duty, periodically, and to do so with guns in hand.
BRIAN: So how easy would it have been for Colonists to get their hands on a gun? Peter put that question to Kevin Sweeney, a historian at Amherst College, who has researched gun ownership going all the way back to the 1600s.
KEVIN SWEENEY: There are a couple of actual musters, they’re called, from Virginia in 1619, and again in 1624, ’25. In both of those cases, there are more firearms in the colony then there are males over 16.
KEVIN SWEENEY: And it doesn’t mean each one of these males over 16 own one. But there are enough firearms around that in case of an emergency, each one could possess one.
PETER: Right. So the 17th century seems something like a Golden Age of gun ownership and gun use.
KEVIN SWEENEY: Well, in terms of widespread, they seemed to have been widely armed. But not necessarily well armed. I mean by these weapons of the 1600s were not that reliable, they were inclined to misfire or foul. And early on, it’s clear that not many of these colonists were necessarily Daniel Boones in the making.
They probably spent a lot of their time in non-military ways shooting at birds on the ground. Basically, you’d get as close as you could on the ground, and shoot, kind of, scatter-shot at them. Probably not a lot of hunting of particularly animals like deer. They frequently employed Native Americans to do that.
PETER: So, Kevin, let’s move toward, back toward Concord, and Lexington, and the Minutemen. Where are we on the eve of the American Revolution? And in terms of the militias, how well armed are they?
KEVIN SWEENEY: It’s best to maybe just take a slight step back to the 1750s, during what we know as the French and Indian War, because that’s really a turning point in terms of both military organization, and the understanding of what were appropriate types of firearms to have in the possession of militia men at the time.
For years, you’d been able to show up with anything in most militia musters. It didn’t even have to work, as long as it looked like it could. But when you’re sending troops into the field, you want them with appropriate arms. And by this period– and this is true going into the Revolution, as well, 20 years later in the 1770s– they want, increasingly, a military-grade musket.
This would be a much heavier weapon. It was sturdier, rugged. They’re also, not necessarily, a weapon you’d want to own. It’s not a hunting weapon. But increasingly, this is what the governments felt you had to have in the field. So going into the American Revolution, these Colonial governments, the rebelling governments, scrambled to come up with weapons that they felt met those criteria.
PETER: So, Kevin, the important point you’re making, it seems to me, is that all guns are not created equal. And the kind of guns that were important in the French and Indian War, and later the American Revolution, were, as you say, for offensive use. And it was very unlikely that the average family would have such a weapon.
KEVIN SWEENEY: Yes. And, Jefferson, who spend probably the worst year of his life as Governor of Virginia in 1780, trying to defend the state and into ’81, comments on the fact that, yeah, people have firearms and shotguns for controlling vermin, I think he said, or animals and things like that. But they don’t have rugged, military quality weapons you could put a bayonet on.
And this is what you want to have, particularly if you’re taken half seriously while facing professional British forces. So one of the interesting things at the Constitutional Convention, when they’re explaining that clause about the power of Congress to organize, discipline, and arm the militia, Madison says, what you mean by arm?
And initially, Rufus King of Massachusetts says, well, to specify the caliber and characteristics of the weapons. And Madison comes back and he clearly want someone to arm them. And this comes up at the Virginia Ratifying Convention for the Constitution.
They are concerned about the militia being disarmed, but their concern is someone else won’t arm them. It’s not that somebody is going to come around and knock on doors and take away their guns, it’s the state government’s not going to get these guys guns, or sell them guns at affordable levels.
PETER: Yeah, that’s a terrific point. It’s been great talking with you about the history, the complicated history, of guns in early America. Thanks, so much.
KEVIN SWEENEY: I very much enjoyed it. Thank you for the opportunity.
ED: That’s Kevin Sweeney, he’s a Professor of History at Amherst College.
BRIAN: It’s time for short break. When we come back, what the right to bear arms meant for blacks in the 1860s and the 1960s.
PETER: We’ll be back in a minute with more BackStory.
[MUSIC – STEEL TRAIN, “BULLET”]
(SINGING) Washy, washy, washing. Washy, washy, washing. Jingle jangle, ding-a-ling. Pinky, panky pong.
TONY FIELD: This is Tony Field, Senior Producer of BackStory. In a couple of weeks, we’re going to be airing a new show that traces the history of ideas about cleanliness. We’ll be looking at America in the era before hot showers, when water tended to spread the disease, rather than prevent it.
We’ll look at what happened when people from places with very different notions of cleanliness started living in close quarters with each other, here in the US. And we’ll consider some of the darker connections between personal hygiene, and social hygiene.
What would you most like to cover on this show? Do you have few questions about the meanings of cleanliness? Ever wonder about politics of soap? Are your ideas about hygiene different from those of your parents or grandparents? When do you think it’s OK to be dirty?
You can leave a comment for us at baclstoryradio.org, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave us a voice mail. The number is 888-257-8851.
(SINGING) Washy, washy, washing. Washy, washy, washing. Jingle jangle, ding-a-ling. Pinky, panky, pong.
BRIAN: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh, your 20th Century Guy.
ED: I’m Ed Ayers, 19th Century Guy.
PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf, the 18th Century Guy.
BRIAN: Today on the show, the history of gun ownership in America. Before the break, we were hearing about the citizen soldiers of the founding era, and how poorly armed they would have been if the government hadn’t provided them with weapons. So maybe we could take a few minutes, guys, and talk about what happened next. So, Peter, what do we learn about guns from the actual Revolution itself?
PETER: Well, you’ve got to get ready for the next war Brian you know about this and that means you’ve got to have guns in place. Collectively, you have to armories. You know, the militia, that’s the citizenry, they’re going to rise up on the occasion. But when they rise up, you’ve got to put arms in their hands, so to speak, so that they can fight the war.
So the idea that somehow you just had to tap into an existing gun culture, where there was universal gun ownership, and just mobilize that, that is nonsense. There wouldn’t be armories. And I think that’s the point we want to underscore. State armories, there wouldn’t be those armories if there were universal gun ownership.
BRIAN: So people don’t get to keep their guns when the government gives it to them? They got to hand them back?
ED: Yeah. And you if you have more local armories, you go to Muster Day for the militia, you get the guns for that day. You march with them, but then you give them back, because they’re complicated machines. They need to be protected.
PETER: They deteriorate. I mean, they have to be maintained in working order. Well armed. Underscore the well part of it.
ED: That’s interesting. Back in the time of the Revolution, in the early National period, they were thinking about what makes a legitimate state in the eyes of the world? Well, you have to be able to protect yourself. And so the National government actually begins what feels kind of like the 20th century model of active subsidy and innovation.
BRIAN: I love that.
ED: At the Harper’s Ferry Armory they say, we need guns that have interchangeable parts, so that we can actually, well, interchange them. So that you can keep these guns operable, and across a wide space. So if these guns that are being produced by the government had to be used in one place or another, we can ship them parts they can fix. So what we think of the American system, Brian, that we think about was the Model-T, is actually developed for armories, to develop guns.
PETER: OK. So in effect, the state primes the pump.
ED: Yes, It really wasn’t until the Civil War began that the pump really begins to turn out lots of guns. Now at the very beginning, people show up with these sort of rusty old flintlocks from home, or whatever, and these people who are going to defend the North or the South in the one battle they think is going to be the Civil War, very quickly they realize, oh gosh, this isn’t going to work. We’re going to have to really have state produced, state subsidized, state standardize guns, if this war is going to continue.
So they use this American system, Brian, to really arm the American people with remarkable speed. Now the Confederacy can’t make guns fast enough, so they buy some of theirs from England, using the American system. But in the North, they’re producing guns at enormous rates, as you can imagine, to allow them to wage war for four years against each other.
BRIAN: So guys, I’m assuming that after the Civil War, those guns are not called back to the armories?
PETER: Think of the oil well on a gusher. It’s out there. Not only that, Brian, not only are the guns just ubiquitous. They’re everywhere across the land. But we have now the capacity to produce, in fact, the need to market the continuing production. This has been a priming the pump of the armaments industry.
BRIAN: The Military industrial complex.
PETER: You get it. It’s getting more and more complex.
BRIAN: So Ed, what’s the consequence of the dissemination of all of these guns? And how do we get to gun control?
ED: Well, you have all kinds of consequences, Brian. The postwar Civil War South is drenched in guns and in violence. I mean, this is when the culture of homicide really takes off in the South. And black men are killing each other. And white men are killing each other.
In the West, the guns are used in the hands of white people who are trying to take land from the American Indians. There also in the hands of the American Indians who are trying to stop that process. But they are also in the hands of criminals, and of young men in the cities of the North who think it would be great to have a gun.
So you find it’s like a tributary, it just floods across the country with lots of different kinds of guns, for lots of different kinds of purposes. So in many ways, what we think of as the gun culture of the country, really happens after the Civil War.
BRIAN: I want you to take a second now, and imagine a gun rights supporter today. All right? I’ll bet you’re thinking of someone who’s conservative, perhaps from a rural part of the country.
ED: And if we ask you to imagine a gun control supporter, you’d probably think of some big city lefty type. But if we can go back to the 1960s, and ask a sample of Americans then to do the same thing, we would have found a more complicated picture.
We would find that gun right supporters who would have been urban radicals. And we would have found some folks arguing for more restrictions, who would have been white conservatives. So let’s return to the ’60s for a couple minutes, and let’s explore why the conversation over gun control sounded so different just 40 years ago.
BRIAN: We’re going to start our story in California, on May 2, 1967. That morning, 30 black men and women walked up the steps of the State House carrying loaded guns. Those men and women were members of the Black Panther Party. And they were protesting a gun control bill under consideration by the State Legislature.
ADAM WINKLER: And they walked right in the front door, there was no security that they had to pass, and walked right into the Legislative Chamber while it was a session with they’re loaded guns
ED: This is Adam Winkler, the UCLA a Law Professor we heard from at the beginning of today’s show.
ADAM WINKLER: The Panthers weren’t there to commit violence or to take hostages. They were there as part of a political protest, and they wanted to make it clear that they had a Second Amendment right to bear arms. And that they needed that right.
BRIAN: After the Panthers were turned away from the Assembly Chamber where the bill was being debated, they gathered on the lawn outside. One of the group’s leaders, Bobby Seale, read a prepared statement warning black people to quote, “arm themselves before it’s too late.”
BOBBY SEALE: The Black Panther party for self-defense calls upon the American people in general, and the black people, in particular, to take careful note of the racist California legislature, which is now considering legislation aimed at keeping the black people disarmed–
ED: For the Panthers, the right to bear arms was a civil right, like the right to vote, or to be free from discrimination. And by the mid 1960s, they, along with lots of other activists, were getting frustrated that none of those rights seemed fully protected for black people.
ADAM WINKLER: The Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act had passed, but they didn’t guarantee, on-the-ground equality. And so activists like a Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, who formed the Black Panthers, decided to mimic the motto of Malcolm X. That notion of “by any means necessary.” And when Malcolm X and the Black Panthers said, by any means necessary, there should be no confusion about what they were talking about. They were talking about guns.
MALCOLM X: There’s been a lot of talk said recently, because I was supposed to have said something about, Negroes should buy rifles.
ED: This is Malcolm X in 1964.
MALCOLM X: White people been buying rifles all of their lives. No commotions. America is based upon the right of people to organize for self-defense. This is in the Constitution of the United States. You read it for yourself. What Article is that?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The Second Amendment.
MALCOLM X: The Second Amendment to the Constitution spells out the right of people, under this particular governmental system, to have arms to defend themselves.
ED: Malcolm X and the Black Panthers were hardly the first to make the connection between guns and civil rights. Immediately after the Civil War, the right to bear arms became a flash point in the debate over the 14th Amendment. The amendment that essentially gave black people citizenship rights.
In 1866, a Kansas senator named Samuel Pomeroy, was among those who argued that protecting freed people’s right to bear arms was one of the main reasons to pass the 14th Amendment.
SAMUEL POMEROY: Every man should have the right to bear arms for the defense of himself, and family, and his homestead. And if the cabin door of the freed man is broken open, and the intruder enters for purposes as vial as were known to slavery, then showed a well-loaded musket be in the hand of the occupant to send the polluted wretch to another world, where his wretchedness will forever remain complete.
BRIAN: But even as this debate was happening in Washington, DC, southern legislatures were passing laws to restrict freed people’s rights. Those black codes put strict limits on African American gun ownership. And they were enforced by paramilitary groups.
ADAM WINKLER: Marauding white posses would go out at night, in disguise, armed to the teeth. And they would go and invade black homes. And the goal was not just to terrorize blacks, but to take away their guns so that they could not fight back. Those groups took different names, depending on where they were in the South. The most famous of these groups was the KKK, begun in Pulaski, Tennessee, right after the Civil War.
ED: The Black Panthers knew this history, and were determined never again to be victimized by armed white racists. But this time, for the Panthers’ prospective, the immediate enemy was the police.
ADAM WINKLER: In Oakland, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton began a practice of policing the police, where they’d send out armed police patrols to follow police cars as they patrolled. And when the police officers would pull over an African American, the Panthers would stand, they would pull over, too. And that they’d stand off to the side with their guns pointing straight up in the air, or straight down at the ground, which under California law was lawful at the time, considered a non-threatening possession of the firearms.
And they would shout out advice to the person being hassled. And also, just sort of keep a careful eye. A police officer was a lot less likely to beat up an African American when he’s surrounded by other African Americans who have loaded guns on them.
And this, as you could imagine, the Black Panthers’ policy of policing the police didn’t make the Oakland police very happy. And so they push one of their allies in the California State Legislature, a guy named Don Mulford, to push for new gun control laws. Laws that would take guns out of the hands of the Black Panthers.
BRIAN: Which brings us back to that 1967 protest at the California State House. It was that gun control bill, Don Mulford’s bill, that was under consideration when Bobby Seale and his companions carried their guns into the State Capital. When that bill passed, it banned the public carrying of loaded firearms. The Panthers’ policing the police was outlawed.
ED: The next year, a major national gun control law passed, fueled by an increase in crime and high profile gun violence.
ADAM WINKLER: Disorder was everywhere in 1967. Newark and Detroit witness the worst race riots in American history. When police and National Guardsmen came to restore order, they were shot at by snipers. And then the very next year, 1968, two of America’s foremost political leaders, Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. And the riots and the assassinations led Congress to pass the first significant gun control law in over 30 years, the Gun Control Act of 1968.
BRIAN: That law restricted the importation of Saturday Night Specials, cheap handguns that fueled crime in inner city neighborhoods. It also banned felons from buying guns, and required gun dealers to be licensed. But the law sparked push-back from plenty of Americans.
They felt that the legislation preventive law abiding people from buying guns for self-defense, without stopping the crime wave that it was meant to address. Before long, the Black Panthers claim that gun ownership was their constitutional right began popping up in the mouths of middle class white Americans. Today, the Gun Rights Movement that invokes the Second Amendment is mostly white, rural, and conservative. A far cry from the Black Panthers.
ED: Helping us tell that story was Adam Winkler, a Professor of Constitutional Law at UCLA. He’s the author of Gunfight: the Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America.
PETER: We’ve spent some time looking at gun owners in early America, and at the role of guns in the African American community. We’ve covered the Wild West. Really, we’ve covered a lot of ground in this episode.
LAURA BROWDER: Except for Sarah Palin. Can we talk a little bit about Sarah Palin?
PETER: This is Laura Browder. She’s a Professor at the University of Richmond. And for her, Sarah Palin is one of the first people to come to mind when thinking about guns in America today. The former governor, and Vice Presidential candidate famously hunted and killed a caribou on television.
She was heavily criticized when she put former Congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords on her target list. A list of lawmakers Palin wanted to see unseated. Giffords, of course, was later shot in an unrelated incident in Arizona. But what interests Laura Browder most about Sarah Palin is that, despite her gun toting persona. She’s also seen as the quintessential hockey mom. Good with guns, and good with kids.
Browder wrote about the history of women and guns in her book entitled, Her Best Shot. And she says that Sarah Palin fits perfectly into a late 19th century trope of armed mothers, an image Browder calls the prairie Madonna.
LAURA BROWDER: You know, this super tough, pioneer mother, out there on the frontier with a baby under one arm and a rifle under the other, who was ready for anything. There’s a very popular book by William Fowler, which was all about these early American women. And some of the stories he includes are just amazing in all senses of the word.
Women who will get their hands stuck in a tree in the middle of the winter and use a dull knife to saw it off, because they’re so tough. Or biting a bullet into several pieces with their teeth so they can shoot bears and Indians more effectively.
I mean, these are hard core tough women. And the images of these women were supposed to both inspire and maybe intimidate and daunt American women into saying, why can’t I be like that? Why can’t I believe that kind of super mom who can protect my children and my homestead with my gun, rather than sitting around in my little city parlor reading novels all day long, and wasting away?
PETER: Browder says this anxiety about weak women was mainly felt by upper class whites, a group of people who felt under siege by massive waves of immigration.
LAURA BROWDER: We’re talking about a period, the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when there were many, many prominent people writing eugenics themed books. The Rising Tide of Color, books like that by Lothrop Stoddard. Books that suggested that our very national identity was being threatened by all of this alien blood pouring in and contaminating our racial identity.
And so white womanhood became very, very important in this construct. How do we keep white women strong, fertile, popping out the babies as frequently as possible, maintaining their traditional gender roles? And hunting was an important part of this.
Shooting was seen as a great activity for women, because it required self-control and discipline, something that women were supposed to be very, very good at. And as you move towards the turn of the 20th century, shooting and hunting seemed like great ways to get women out of the cities, to strengthen them, to get them out into nature, and active.
Because there was a tremendous cultural fear at that time native born white women were getting sickly, weak, over-educated, not having enough children. Leaving it to the immigrants to have overly large families that would dilute pure white Anglo-Saxon Protestant bloodstreams.
PETER: Right. So at least in this collective, symbolic sense, we’re talking about self-defense and being armed to meet the imminent enemy. Does that connect to with conceptions of law and order, and crime waves? Do we have the beginning of the idea that you need to protect yourself in your home?
LAURA BROWDER: Well, that comes just a little bit later, in the early 20th century and on into the 1920s, when the law and order element is starting to promote the idea that there’s a national crime wave. And that many of these criminals, again, are immigrants or people who are not of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant heritage. And that it’s necessary for native-born Americans to protect themselves.
And that’s when you begin seeing gun ads that are all about safety in the home. And incidentally, one of my favorite ads featuring a little girl, is shown from the early part of the 20th century. It’s an ad for a new safety device on a revolver. And the image is of a little girl in a frilly nightgown in bed. And she’s pointing a .38 caliber gun at her face. And the handwritten slogan says, don’t worry, Papa, with this new safety device you can leave your gun lying around, loaded.
PETER: Ugh! Great! But what’s remarkable is it was acceptable to depict women in these settings with guns.
LAURA BROWDER: Abosolutely. No one blinked an eye when they saw those advertisements of adorable little girls with big guns. It was just normal.
PETER: Laura Browder teaches at the University of Richmond. She’s the author of Her Best Shot: Women and Guns in America.
BRIAN: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, BackStory goes to the gun show.
PETER: You are listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.
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ED: This is BackStory, the show that turns to history to explain the America of today. I’m Ed Ayers.
BRIAN: I’m Brian Balogh.
PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf.
ED: Today on the show, we’re looking at the history of guns in America. Who’s had access to them, and who’s wanted access. As we do for each of our shows, for the past couple of weeks we’ve been inviting listeners to send us their questions via Facebook, or Twitter, and our website backstoryradio.org.
PETER: Hey guys, gather around. We’ve got a call from Baltimore, Maryland. It’s Brian. Brian, welcome the BackStory.
CALLER BRIAN: Hello. How are you guys?
BRIAN: We’re pretty good.
CALLER BRIAN: My question is, in American history, has a well-armed citizenry actually served as a check on government power?
PETER: No. Nope. No it hasn’t.
BRIAN: Moving on.
CALLER BRIAN: All right. Well, thanks for your time.
ED: Really good call.
BRIAN: Brian, I am going to venture that what a lot of Civil Rights workers learned in the South, as they went into Mississippi in the early 1960s to try to sign up African Americans to vote, which really could cost to your life, what they learned was a lot of those African American families were well-armed. And why were they well-armed?
They were well-armed to protect themselves against a well-armed citizenry. So if you’re looking for examples of protection against the state, I can’t really give you one that protected well-armed citizens from the state. But I do think that this protected well-armed citizens from other well-armed citizens.
CALLER BRIAN: I guess, really, what I’m interested in is thinking about the kind of standard tropes that you hear in the whole debate. And one of them is this whole–
BRIAN: You’re thinking about Ruby Ridge. You’re thinking about people who ostensibly are going to arm themselves to ward off the big bad government.
CALLER BRIAN: Yeah, and in just this terms, it’s almost like, the argument is almost like a public policy argument. If you want peace, if the citizens want peace, and to have a government that respects their rights, then they need to keep themselves well-armed so the government is afraid of them.
BRIAN: Peace through strength, as Ronald Reagan would have said about foreign policy. So you’re applying that to the domestic scene.
CALLER BRIAN: Yeah. I mean, certainly, I find that absurd. But I hear that argument, regularly. And it just seems like, and I was wondering if that really is really part of a strong tradition?
BRIAN: If there is a tradition of successfully doing that, all three Backstory hosts have failed to think of an example of it. Ed, would you agree?
ED: I’d agree. You know, it’s such a great question, because as caller Brian says, it’s a fundamental premise that we have.
PETER: I’d like to explain it if I can. And I think we’re deeply schizophrenic about what the state is, and who the state is. And a lot of the mythology about mobilizing the people against the state, comes out of revolutionary mobilization against the British state.
But who enables that mobilization? It’s the new Republican states, who are desperate to achieve legitimacy. And they need to get arms into the hands of the people in order to meet the threat of the counter-revolution and British army.
And so at one in the same time, we have state mobilization, state driven mobilization of militias– largely inadequate, but as part of the larger war effort– against the great fiscal military state of the 18th century, the dominant power on the face of the earth, Britain, with it standing armies. This is the context. A standing army versus a mobilized and armed populace of citizen soldiers.
BRIAN: And ironically, to cite recent history, some of the modern resurgence of the need to arm ourselves, to protect ourselves from the state, is not to protect ourselves from the big bad United States government, which is what it has become with the resurgence of militias in the ’90s, and in the last decade, it’s to protect ourselves against the modern version of that British empire. And that would be the Soviet Union.
And so as the Cold War revived during the 1980s, you get films like one of my favorite bad films of all time history, Red Dawn. Right? And they Cubans come in as surrogates for the Soviets. They invade the United States. And why can’t we fight back?
I’ll tell you why. It’s because liberals and their gun control have identified all the owners of guns in America, so the Cubans go right to the police office, they know everybody who has a gun, and they take those guns away. They de-fang our defense against that big, bad, external state, which goes back to Peter’s point about the British empire.
ED: And it’s interesting how often the gun advocacy trope, as you say, coincides with survivalist and, sort of, post apocalyptic visions. What we need these guns for is when we don’t have the Federal State.
BRIAN: That’s a great point, Ed.
ED: You’re right, the jack-booted thugs, and the black helicopters, and all that are a threat. But we are even more threatened when they go away. When disease, or the bomb, or something, then we’d better be armed.
PETER: That’s why I said we are schizophrenic, because, hey, the state are us. And, when we start to making war against the state, hey, we’re committing suicide. That is a non-political, non-ideological message. Thank you.
CALLER BRIAN: hosts, thanks, so much.
PETER: Hey, Brian, thank you for calling.
ED: Great question.
BRIAN: Thank you, Brian.
CALLER BRIAN: OK. Bye.
PETER: And another call guys. Herbie from Whitesburg, Kentucky has got a question.
HERBIE: Well, I’m in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, and people have a lot guns here. I mean, the women carry guns in their purses, the men carry guns in their pockets. And we have 24,000 people in the county. And I might be one of 100 who doesn’t own a gun. And I don’t know if there’s some history of us being any different from any other parts of the country? But I don’t know. From here, it seems that people really like their Guns.
PETER: Do the other citizens of Whitesburg know that you’re unarmed?
HERBIE: Uh, I don’t announce it very much.
ED: Well, you just did, you realize?
HERBIE: I would rather they think I was armed.
BRIAN: Do you know how many people listen to us in Whitesburg?
PETER: We’ve got a fan club in Whitesburg. I mean, you are in trouble.
HERBIE: Oh, Lord.
ED: Now, though listen. I’m from Upper East Tennessee, Herbie. This is Ed. So I’m from Kingsport, the greater tri-cities, metropolitan area. So I do understand. I know where Whitesburg is, and I know what you’re talking about. And I think you see a couple of things.
One, the culture really is very proudly around hunting. Is it not? Is there not lots of camouflage, and lots of gun racks? I believe if you asked your neighbors, why do you have guns? Some of them would say, to protect myself. But most some would say, well, I got it because I’m a hunter. And this is a part of my tradition. It’s a part of the culture of the mountains. It’s a part of the culture the South.
You know, we’ve been doing this. My grandfather taught me this. I know gun safety. And it’s just people who don’t know guns who are afraid of them.
HERBIE: Yeah, well, my grandfather set me down at the age of six and he says, OK, let’s go out and learn to shoot. And it was just part of growing up. That was one of the lessons of a young person in the mountains.
ED: Yeah. It’s part of the founding mythology of your part of the country, which is also my part of the country. Picture that painting of Daniel Boone walking down the Cumberland Gap, carrying a big rifle. Right?
PETER: Yeah, you got it.
ED: And he has to have it to feed himself, to defend against the Indians, and to protect his family. I believe that in an unbroken chain, in a way that no other part the country can claim, that Southern Appalachia has an unbroken tradition of guns being necessary to sustain the kind of life, which is a fundamentally rural life in connection with the landscape, which involves hunting, that no other part of the country does.
BRIAN: Let me ask you another question. Because Ed made such an eloquent case for the continuity of male gun ownership in his and your part of the country. I’m just curious to know if you agree with that? Do you think this is just something that has been going on in your neck of the woods, so to speak, in Kentucky for 200 years?
HERBIE: Well, what I believe is, that there’s more of the obsession with guns now, then there was when I was young.
HERBIE: I really think people– for one thing, Walmart carries them. I mean, it’s easy to get your hands on them. And people like them. People just like to examine them, and show their guns to other people, and talk about them. And it’s like a, I don’t know, like a collector mentality partly.
ED: Well I think Herbie just made a better point that I did. So I want to build on it, if I can. Even though there is a tradition of loving guns, the supply and the nature of those guns have change continuously over those 200 years. Right? So first, there are these relatively rare flintlocks that a family might have had, really, to have used quite irregularly, in the off-chance that it actually saw a deer, or something.
PETER: As a decoration over the fireplace, basically.
ED: Yeah, exactly. And then you would have seen those guns growing old and decrepit, up until the time of the Civil War. The Civil War, now, suddenly, people have modern guns. They have rifles. Then that the people start coming back for more War I with new guns, and the guns start being mass produced.
And I think are one of the first things that people would have invested in, as mass produced, to get a gun that you could really count on, because you still want to enact this old tradition of hunting for your food. And then, as you say, in the last 30 years, Walmart, K-Mart, building on the old tradition of Sears Roebuck and mail order.
And the result is a profusion of guns. A lot of people who would not have had it before, but you still feel like they’re doing something that’s socially sanctioned.
You don’t have to be embarrassed at church if you have a gun. Right? You don’t have to feel badly if you have a gun in your car, because it’s something that identifies mountain culture.
HERBIE: I remember when I was a child, my dad was taking a gun to work with him every day, because the miner’s strike was on, and we didn’t know what was going to happen. And I remember going in, I was a child, and I was going through the catalog, Sears Roebuck, and it said no guns your minors. And I thought it meant that none of the coal miners could get any guns.
BRIAN: That’s great!
ED: That’s good.
PETER: Herbie, this is a wonderful call. Thanks, so much.
HERBIE: Hey, great to talk to you all.
BRIAN: Thank you, so much, Herbie.
ED: Bye, Herbie.
ED: If you’re just tuning in, this is BackStory, and we’re talking today about the history of gun ownership in the United States.
BRIAN: When it comes to citizens who own guns, the United States is the most well-armed nation on our planet. But over the past 50 years, the percentage of armed households has been steadily going down. Today, the majority of guns are owned by people with more than one of them. Meaning, that where there’s one gun, there’s likely to be more.
ED: And as you can imagine, nowhere is that truer than at gun shows. Tables and tables full of all kinds of weapons, from the Civil War relics to brand new semi-automatics. In our home state of Virginia, you can find one taking place, pretty much, every weekend. And so last weekend we sent our 20th Century Guy, Brian here, to check out a big show taking place in Richmond. Brian, let’s hear your report.
BRIAN: OK, Ed. When I walked in I was just overwhelmed by the number of firearms. Basically, every kind of gun that a person could carry. But you know me. No sooner did I start talking to people, then I started asking them about the past, and I found the perfect codependent there, in my interest in the past.
His name was Terry Ellis. He grew up on a farm where he hunted quail. And wouldn’t you know it, Ed, he was standing in front of a table loaded, if you will, with firearms from the 19th century. May I ask you what brought you to the Richmond Gun Show, today?
TERRY ELLIS: Well, I have are interested in the old double barrels. The craftsmen that were making guns in the late 1800s and early 1900s. And they’re hard to find anywhere else, in any quantities. You see, this guy’s got probably 40.
BRIAN: And how many of these gun shows have you been to over the years?
TERRY ELLIS: Hundreds.
TERRY ELLIS: Hundreds.
BRIAN: When is the first gun show that you went to?
TERRY ELLIS: Probably I was 20.
TERRY ELLIS: And I’m in my 60s.
BRIAN: You’re in your 60s. You don’t look a day over 55. So how have things changed?
TERRY ELLIS: Primarily, there are a lot more military-style weapons. More weapons for home defense. Much more so in the last 10 or 15 years. But the increase has also increased the number of people who attend.
BRIAN: Right. So this is more crowded than 20 years ago?
TERRY ELLIS: Oh, yes.
BRIAN: And about that kind of people, I mean, some people have said there are more women then there used to be.
TERRY ELLIS: More women and more younger people.
BRIAN: More younger people.
TERRY ELLIS: And more people, really, into these military-style assault weapons. It’s taken over a large percentage of the tables at a gun show.
BRIAN: Does that make you less eager to go?
TERRY ELLIS: I am not into assault weapons or pistols. I own a couple of pistols. And I can understand if there’s a market. If the public wants that, that’s what they’re going to provide them with. And that’s the young people who want those things. The young adults, in the 20s and teens, are into the assault weapons.
BRIAN: That’s Terry Ellis, from Southampton County, Virginia. hosts, it seems like when I went to that gun show back in November, I stumbled upon what, right now, is the core of the debate over gun control. And I’d just be curious to hear your thoughts about this.
ED: You know, it’s striking, this great arming of the household, of the home, is happening against a background of a historic decline in violent crime.
PETER: Isn’t that interesting?
ED: If this were a phenomenon of the 1960s and ’70s, when violent crime seem to be rampant, there would be a more immediate explanation for this. As it is, we may be living through one of the safest periods in American history now.
PETER: That’s true. But, Brian, the first thing your interlocutor said, he mentioned home defense, that that was the big thing. And it seems to me that word home is crucial here. The word home, of course, is invoked by nationalists all the time, to refer to us inclusively.
But there’s a tension between that home, the National home, Homeland Security, and the homes that are private homes, or domestic spaces that we need to protect. So it’s within the very idea of home, itself, and what needs to be defended. What’s the ultimate value for us? Is it the nation? Or is our little nation in our own home?
BRIAN: But I think on a larger, cultural level, between homeland and home is neighborhood. And what I got at this show was the overwhelming sense of the idealized neighborhood, great homogeneity, great consensus on basic, moral, religious, and political values.
And that sense, perhaps false, of comfort that you get from the neighborhood reassures each of these gun holders that what they’re doing is first of all safe. And secondly, to make them feel that they are part of the solution, not part of the problem. It’s this kind of well-armed neighborhood that is going to save this country.
PETER: I love that idea of the neighborhood, Brian. And it suggests the historical appeal of the idea of the Minutemen, the militia, because that’s the embodied, armed neighborhood. You’re not, then, the lone wolf out there facing a danger from all sides. It’s you and your neighbors united in your commitment to defending you’re families.
BRIAN: That’s where we’re going to have to leave things today. But we’re eager to hear your thoughts at backstoryradio.org. Don’t be a stranger.
ED: Today’s episode of BackStory was produced by Nell Boeshenstein, Jess Engebretson, Chioke I’Anson, Eric Mennel, Allison Quantz.
PETER: Jamal Milner is our Technical Director. Allen Chen is our intern. Our Senior Producer is Tony Field. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.
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BRIAN: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the University of Virginia, Weinstein Properties, an anonymous donor, and the History Channel. History made every day.
FEMALE VOICE: Peter Onuf and Brian Balogh are Professors in the University of Virginia’s Corcoran Department of History. Ed Ayers is President and Professor of History at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Windham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
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