How the Violence of the Past Affects Gun Violence Today

While our headlines have been dominated by El Paso and Dayton, 26 other Americans were killed by gun violence on Saturday (3 August). Sixty-four more were injured. In the U.S. on August 3 (and the early hours of August 4), 54 people have been confirmed dead and 93 more injured at the scene, as of writing this article. We need to move past the background check to get to the cultural root of gun violence in America—threatened white masculinity.

We lose more American civilians on our streets each night than enlisted members in our Armed Services who elect to serve in combat. There were twice the people killed at a Wal-Mart in El Paso, Texas than Armed Service members killed Afghanistan this year. The freedom and choices Americans enjoy as citizens are greatly curtailed by their lack of choice as Americans to be free in their places of worship, education, and commerce.

Gun rights organizations would argue this is because more Americans should be armed and gun violence prevention organizations would argue this is because there should be more stringent regulations put in place, to prohibit the use of firearms for murder. Such debates, while critical to the policy path going forward, need to become more nuanced.

How have we, as Americans, come to own over 393 million firearms? How is it that we have law-abiding gun owners with no incidents and gun owners who take the lives of over 39,700 Americans just in 2017 (either their own lives through death by firearm suicide (roughly 2/3) or via homicide (remaining 1/3))? What is it that makes a complete firearms ban, like New Zealand, close to impossible in America today?

Firearms are an identity—a way for Americans (largely white male Americans), to connect with their community and country through self-defense, sport shooting, and hunting. It was firearms that were seen, at the inception of the U.S., as critical to the defense of its lands from indigenous attacks, British invasion, and slave insurrection. Codified in 1793 under the Uniform Militia Act, American citizens (all white men at this time) were required to carry firearms to ensure that the freedoms of the newly acquired nation remained intact. It was this proud legacy that made America distinct from Britain—a state defended by its citizens, not an invasive standing army. Firearms thus became an exercise of citizenship within the U.S., integral to its defense.

As the country began to grow, firearms became further intertwined with American citizenship, helping to gain the new frontiers of Manifest Destiny—Latin America and the Pacific Islands. When U.S. military involvement became necessary in World War I, and again in World War II, the service of the men and women who served allowed for the successes of the Allied forces. These successes are what strengthened the U.S. as a major world power, enabling the American Dream to become a reality for so many more Americans.

Firearms forged America, understanding their use as an exercise of citizenship in protection of the state. Many historians attribute the success of the American Revolution to the unity felt by the previously disjointed colonists now fighting against a common enemy. The people, whatever their distinct beliefs and experiences, could thus unite in support of a shared goal.

With the rise of the Civil Rights movement at home, and the Korean and Vietnamese conflicts abroad, the enemies of the U.S. became more complex in the 1950s. The State now had more than one threatening enemy; a figure that was many shades of good and evil, no longer just the initial binaries of the Founding Fathers. As people began to demand increased rights, whether voting, housing, education or the ability to serve one’s country without a draft, those with the power of the State became increasingly concerned about access to firearms that could lead to possible revolution.

With advocacy for equality by African-American activists, American lawmakers became concerned with whether firearms were ending up in “the wrong hands.” The riots of the 1960s, most notably Watts Riots in August of 1965 and the King Riots in April of 1968, accelerated the previously stalemated debate about firearm regulation. Thus came the Gun Control Act of 1968, passed in addition to the handgun provisions of the Omnibus Crime Bill of June 1968, creating four prohibited categories to regulate who could and could not “keep and bear arms,” building on legislation passed in 1938 as a reaction to largely ethnic mob violence (racialized as “black by custom”).

Firearms are a tool of white masculine control—both through regulating access to nonwhite citizens and through individual use for self-defense and sport. Firearms are an exercise of white masculine citizenship. The individual thus uses them to protect the nation and their person from threats, largely created by the racialized discourses of the period (Indigenous people, enslaved Africans, Italians, Irish, African Americans, etc.). Caroline Light quite brilliantly articulates, when speaking about Stand Your Ground laws, that “violence is a privilege” that “rests in the hands of a few.” Citizenship in the U.S., as well as most everywhere else, is a privilege that rests within the hands of a few. Those with the privilege “to keep and bear” firearms, therefore, are allowed to exercise their power at the expense of those who fall victim to their abuses.

When we talk about firearms, we need to talk about the privileged identity of the white American male, as performed through his exercise of the Second Amendment. It is this performance that enables him to act in the same pattern of violence as witnessed in El Paso, Dayton, Parkland, and Sandy Hook.

Gun violence, like most other social and public health problems, is an issue that requires the resolution of its deeper-set cultural roots, in addition to legal reform. We need to understand these structures of racial and sexual superiority that enable a group of predominately white men to see their means of redress as firearm violence. The need to defend white masculine citizenship via firearms, codified by the U.S. Founding Fathers, is the same socialization that pervades today. If we are to address this issue, we need to examine this socialization process—how does there exist an American gun owner with no incident and other American gun owners who will go on to kill and injure thousands of fellow citizens each year?

As America picks up its pieces following the shootings at Dayton and El Paso entering its next Presidential election, it is critical to dig deeper than background checks. Gun violence is much more complex than the mass shootings that captivate our attention, our efforts to address it must reflect such intricacies.

America is a country built on the legacy of its violent victories won with firearms. We cannot ignore our past if we want a chance of less gun violence in our future.

Elizabeth Charash is a graduate student at Queen’s University, Belfast.