Dissecting Modern Gun Culture in America

Why are Americans so obsessed with guns? Since January 1, 2021, there have been 125 mass shootings in the United States. That means there have been 125 instances in which at least four people were injured or killed by a gun in less than three months. The shootings in Atlanta on March 16, and in Boulder, Colorado, on March 22, alone have resulted in the deaths of 18 Americans while injuring many others. And yet, despite all the precious lives lost on a daily basis because of guns, our gun culture—how individuals and institutions in society view (both consciously, and through subconscious biases) and interact with firearms—encourages people to use the Second Amendment to push back against any and all restrictions to gun ownership by claiming their constitutional right to these lethal weapons. Even as he sent his heart out to the families who lost loved ones in the Boulder shooting, President Biden claimed that the “best tools to prevent gun violence” were banning assault weapons and closing the loopholes in the background check system. While these proposals are widely popular and would address the issue of mass shootings to a significant extent, substantial change can only be achieved by transforming the way Americans are taught about guns and their role in our society and history.

To some extent, Biden’s “best tools” would be effective in reducing gun violence. Semi-automatic weapons can do much more damage in less time than handguns can. In the case of the Boulder shooting, four days prior to the suspect purchasing his assault rifle, a local judge blocked legislation banning assault rifles. Had the ban passed, the unfortunate deaths of ten people may have been prevented. Furthermore, placing more regulations on who qualifies to buy a gun would certainly reduce the possibility of a gun ending up in the wrong hands. Currently, anyone who wants to buy a gun must complete a Firearms Transaction Record, which is cross-referenced with the FBI database NICS (National Instant Criminal Background Checks System). The process takes about thirty seconds, and if the person possesses a criminal record or suffers from a mental illness, he or she is then disqualified from purchasing a gun. Since the implementation of these background checks in 1998, the gun crime rate has indeed seen a significant decrease.

However, given that America still has the highest rate of murder or manslaughter by firearm in the developed world, we cannot simply accept restrictions such as assault rifle bans or background checks Just because handguns are less effective than semi-automatic firearms at killing doesn’t mean they can’t take multiple lives. The 2015 shooting at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina is a perfect example; the shooter used a Glock pistol to kill nine people. In fact, a BBC study in 2017 found that 64% of all murders involving firearms were conducted using a handgun. Likewise, background checks, though effective, are hardly infallible. A study conducted by the New York Times found that in 19 separate mass shootings from 2009-2018, all the perpetrators had passed background checks. Clearly, the background check fails to eliminate all potential threats; and, even if it were able to do so, it would be enormously difficult to keep track of whose hands the purchased gun ends up in.

What, then is preventing us from taking further action against guns in America? The answer lies in the Constitution: many Americans believe that the 2nd Amendment gives them the right to own guns. While historically, this amendment may have been necessary, it is completely outdated. Contrary to popular belief, there is more to the amendment than simply the protection of the right to bear arms: the full statement reads “A well regulated militia being necessary for the security of a free state; the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” When the amendment was first ratified in 1791, the United States had just emerged from the Revolution and was still expanding its territories. The military was composed of state militias, and ordinary men from ages 16 to 60 had a civic duty to join those militias. Those men were actually required to own their own muskets. In that context, the right to bear arms makes perfect sense; in the modern world, however, when there has not been a civilian militia for almost two hundred years, this amendment should not have a place. There is simply no longer a need for regular people to bear arms because there is now a federal military. Even the National Guard, which operates on the state level to some extent and accepts some civilians, is closely tied to the federal government. Furthermore, neither James Madison’s notes on the Constitutional Convention nor the transcripts of the ratification debates contain a single word about an individual’s right to own firearms. However, the original intent of the Founders has been polluted by the rise of modern conservatism and the National Rifle Association (NRA), which has been lobbying against gun control for its own financial benefit. The NRA headquarters located in Fairfax, Virginia has the 2nd Amendment written on its wall but completely disregards the first half of the sentence, and begins with “the right of the people.” When confronted about the omitted section, the NRA has responded by claiming that guns are crucial for citizens to protect themselves against tyranny of the state. Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens stated such claims were “absurd” because the founders had designed checks and balances in the American political system explicitly for the purpose of preventing abuses of power, and never spoke or wrote about the need to allow citizens to arm themselves against a tyrannical government through the language of the Constitution.

Despite these glaring facts, taking significant action towards increased gun control is difficult because of the deeply ingrained American passion for gun ownership. Therefore, systematic changes to the education system are crucial in helping Americans recognize the truth behind guns, without undue romanticization. Students must be taught about the role of guns in American society, and the impact of having so many firearms on the market. They must also learn the various interpretations of the Second Amendment and how it's changed over time, allowing them to formulate their own opinions independent of the dominance of the conservative interpretation of the 2nd Amendment. The education system must also push students to get out of the mindset that simply reposting on social media to honor the lives lost in mass shootings is enough action; after all, the lives of nearly 15,000 Americans a year are taken in those shootings. Only when such a system corrects the misconceptions that form the modern gun culture can America work towards the goal of more significant political action in favor of gun control.

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