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Americans and their guns: it’s complicated


From muskets to machine guns, Americans have a relationship with firearms that is as old — and as complicated — as the country itself.

That intimate connection with guns is under renewed scrutiny after the worst mass shooting in recent US history left 58 people dead in Las Vegas.

The United States is a nation born of a bloody revolution, scarred by a grisly Civil War and decimation of the native population and reared on tales of rugged Wild West heroes.

Guns are a big part of the story.

“I don’t think we’re alone in the world in loving guns but clearly Americans have a fascination with guns and love their guns,” said Adam Winkler, author of “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America.”

“I think it may stem, in part, from the fact that we’re a country that idealizes the founding, where armed revolutionaries decided to fight against a tyrannical government,” said Winkler, a professor of constitutional law at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

“We’re also a nation whose identity is very much tied up with things like the Wild West and the Frontier where there was definitely a gun culture,” he told AFP.

“The gun has a more or less central place in the national mythology,” agreed A.J. Somerset, whose book “Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun” also examined gun ownership in the United States.

“The whole mythology that comes out of the American Revolution places the rifle front and center,” said Somerset, a gun owner himself and former member of the Canadian armed forces.

But it wasn’t until several decades after the 1775-1783 American Revolution that the gun really became a national symbol, Somerset said.

– ‘A gun was a tool’ –

“In the middle of the 19th century, you had this sudden burst of innovation in firearms that gives you the Colt revolver, the breech-loading rifle, which leads to the repeating rifle, the Winchester, and so on,” he said.

“This revolution in firearms technology happens to coincide with the great period of American westward expansion,” Somerset said in a telephone interview.

“And it’s at that point that the country really starts to make a myth out of its relationship with the gun.”

This tied in well with the vision many Americans have of themselves.

“This is what a self-reliant, upstanding individual does,” he said. “They protect themselves, they protect their family and they don’t stand down to anybody.”

“That idea really took off and the gun rights movement became a real force in American politics,” Winkler said.

Gun rights and gun control are indeed among the most hotly debated issues in the United States today and subject to a partisan divide.

Forty-four percent of the Republicans in the Pew Research poll said they own a gun compared with just 20 percent of Democrats.

Gun ownership has become a “very powerful symbol of partisan identification,” Courtwright said. “It’s about identity, not just protecting yourself from the bad guys.”

“The guns represent freedom,” said Somerset. “It speaks deeply to people’s personal identity and their sense of themselves as freedom-loving and responsible American citizens.

“And so they are deeply unwilling to relinquish that symbol.”

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