How America Got Its Guns: A History Of The Gun Violence Crisis

Author: William Briggs
Publisher: Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2017. 339p.
Reviewer: Jan E. Dizard | January 2018

The invitation to review How America Got Its Guns arrived in my inbox just days after the shooting in Las Vegas. Still trying, not for the first time, to fathom not only the havoc but, even more, the by now familiar mixture of outrage and shrug, I could not resist the invitation. In many respects, the claim to American exceptionalism has paled, but in one respect, the claim is, regrettably, robust: Americans kill one another more than citizens of any other otherwise stable, modern and more or less democratic society–by orders of magnitude. I will leave aside the rate of gun suicide, not because it’s not an important feature of our “gun culture,” but because suicide is different from homicide, as Emile Durkheim established over a century ago; suicides are the result of internal, private, distress that he attributed to anomie, a condition of a breakdown in the normative order. Homicides are, by contrast, the expression of an anger turned outward. Were it the case that our society accepted a “right to die” or physician-assisted death, gun suicides might radically decline. (Japan has a high rate of suicide but an infinitesimal rate of gun homicides.) It is less clear what might reduce the rate of homicides or the apparent increase in mass shootings.

Moreover, in the rare case when a mass shooting occurs elsewhere, as it did several decades ago in Australia when a man shot up a school, killing XXX kids, guns were rounded up. When a roughly equivalent school shooting occurred in Newtown, CT, outrage and calls for action quickly dissolved into shrugs. A few states, including CT and NY, responded with laws that made semi-automatic high capacity rifles illegal (only banning new purchases, not confiscation), but at the federal level, nothing but prayers for the victims were forthcoming.

William Briggs sets out to explain or at least carefully describe how our peculiar exceptionalism came to pass. He largely succeeds. He does so by treating, in alternating chapters, the legal culture arising from the Second Amendment and the development of the gun culture born of a new nation founded on violent conquest and the suppression of natives and African slaves. Briggs give the reader a very readable account of both the legal and the cultural basis for how we now find ourselves armed to the teeth and at an impasse that makes it virtually impossible to figure out how we might plausibly ratchet back our capacity for random pulses of mayhem.

As regards the evolution of Second Amendment law, Briggs ought to have made a clearer distinction between the various arms that were in circulation in the Revolutionary era. The principle distinction was between arms that were meant for war (typically heavy, large bore rifles equipped with bayonet mounts) and guns meant for hunting (typically lighter, smaller bore rifles or precursors of modern shotguns designed to shoot a bunch of small pellets to bring down birds and other small game). These latter guns, though they certainly could inflict injury or death on humans, were not regarded as suitable for combat. Indeed, when the Revolutionary War broke out and recruits were urged to bring their own firearms, officers lamented how disadvantaged the makeshift army’s weapons made them.

The point here is that the private possession of what we would now call sporting guns was not at issue. Indeed, as Andrea Smalley makes clear in Wild by Nature (Johns Hopkins Press, 2017), hunting deer and other fauna were crucial to the economies of the colonies, not only for local consumption but as valuable exports of hides and meat back to England. While small arms ownership varied over time and regionally in the colonies and early Republic (See Kevin Sweeney’s essay, “Firearms, Militias, and the Second Amendment” in Saul Cornell and Nathan Kozuskanich(eds.), The Second Amendment on Trial: Critical Essays on the District of Columbia v Heller,

(University of Massachusetts Press, 2013), there was never a serious questioning of the private possession of small arms, though there were laws prohibiting the discharge of guns across roads, near buildings, and otherwise regulating the safe handling of guns. The debate over the Second Amendment was a debate about arms designed for warfare. Hunting and protecting livestock and defending one’s home with a firearm was distinct from “bearing arms” in the context of a militia. There still is a distinction between sporting weapons and weapons designed for combat, but the line has become blurry. I will return to this in a moment.

Briggs also could have made the origins of our gun culture clearer had he given deeper attention to the departure from British common law’s “duty to retreat,” which held that if retreat from a threat was at all possible, the use of deadly force for self-protection was not justified. As Richard Maxwell Brown shows in No Duty to Retreat: Violence and Values in American History and Society, (University of Oklahoma Press, 1991), American jurisprudence early on began establishing a right to self-defense. Retreat, as Brown makes clear, became in effect, both unmanly and un-American. The matter was put starkly in Brown v United States, 1921 by no less then Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. The case arose from a dispute between two men, one of whom came at Mr. Brown with a knife. Brown reached for his revolved and killed the would-be assailant. The lower court convicted Brown, invoking the duty to retreat. Writing for the majority, Holmes stated that “…if a man reasonably believes that he is in immediate ganger of death or grievous bodily harm from his assailant he may stand his ground and that if he kills him he has not exceeded the bounds of lawful self-defense.” (R. M. Brown, p. 34) Eight decades later, in Florida, which had just passed a law that enshrined no duty to retreat, George Zimmerman shot and killed a young, unarmed African American who, Zimmerman claimed, had threatened and attacked him. The jury found Zimmerman not guilty.

Our gun culture depends upon two contradictory beliefs. On the one hand the State is too weak to protect citizens against “bad guys” so armed self-defense, bolstered by no duty to retreat, must be an elemental right. The NRA’s suggestion that the only defense against a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun captures this perfectly. Just add Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry.” But the same state that can’t protect citizens is also powerful and citizens must be armed lest the State impose tyranny upon a hapless citizenry. Remember the “jack-booted ATF” of the NRA’s imagination. Weak state/overbearing state: take your pick and you have justification for arming yourself to the teeth. Briggs shows how the law and the gun culture have, in effect, co-evolved in a way that now bedevils us.

The problem, or at least one of the problems, with guns, given this “co-evolution,” is that we seem incapable of coming up with a way of coping with the fact that the evolution of guns has meant that citizens now have access to guns that are close to if not exactly identical to highly evolved military-grade weaponry. Legislation outlawing the purchase of assault-style weapons was allowed to expire. And,  despite a number of mass shootings that featured assault-style guns with high capacity magazines, neither the courts nor Congress seems willing to distinguish between guns intended for hunting, shooting sports, or personal defense and guns capable of inflicting mayhem on innocent school children, worshippers in church, or attendees at a movie or music festival.

As I write these words, the House of Representatives has just passed legislation that makes it legal for anyone with a license for concealed carry from any state to move freely wherever he or she likes, essentially making the lowest common denominator of restriction on concealed carry the law of the land. It’s fate in Senate is unclear, but if the Senate passes the bill, President Trump will certainly sign the bill into law. Calling all good guys to “bear arms.” But, as Briggs makes clear, and as we’ve now learned after the most recent church shooting in rural Texas, we can’t even reliably distinguish between “good guys” and “bad guys” because the National Instant Criminal Background Check has an inadequate data base and sales of guns at gun shows and between private individuals are not run through the system.

Briggs points to a ray of hope. Conceding that it will take a sea change in our current cultural, political, and juridical climate, he points to the momentous, albeit as yet incomplete, sea changes in civil rights, women’s rights, and LBGT rights that have occurred in the past half-century. In terms of the ordinary pace of change, these changes have been stunningly fast. Maybe, just maybe, there will be some spark that will break the spell that has kept us from becoming unexceptional among developed nations when it comes to gun homicides and mass murders. But if all we get from Congress after Las Vegas is expanded concealed carry, it is hard to imagine what such a spark would have to be.

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