Exploding the Myth of an Armed America

| October 5, 2000

Exploding the Myth of an Armed America

After the recent and tragic spate of school shootings, people all over the country have been asking themselves tough questions not only about child-rearing, but also the prevalence and availability of guns in America. (Today, there are 250 million firearms in private hands, the FBI estimates, with five million new guns purchased every year.)

In a recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education analyzing America's culture of violence, history professor at Emory University, Michael A. Bellesiles asks: 'How did the United States reach a point where children shoot and kill?' and 'How did we acquire a culture in which Santa Claus gives a 6-year-old boy a shotgun for Christmas? For Christmas!'

To answer these questions, Bellesiles looks to history and the media. 'Most of the world associates the United States with firearms,' Bellesiles writes, 'if not as the world's leading maker of guns, then for such global cultural icons as the cowboy, the gangster, the street thug, and the heroic cop. At every level of American culture, through all the layers of culture from lowbrow to highbrow, firearms abound.' He notes how guns have been a part of the common rugged American identity, and sold by the media as the immediate hand-held solution to all one's problems.

Going to the source of the myth of 'Armed America,' Bellesiles investigates how firearms are portrayed in American frontier history books -- only to discover that while it is assumed that nearly all men on the frontier owned guns, there is little historical proof for this. Yet today, he suggests, Americans cling to the idea that guns were just as commonplace then as they are today: 'How else could a civilized democratic society place guns at the center of its identity with such passionate devotion unless this is an essential quality of its culture?' -- Amanda Luker
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