UW-Madison Professor Places Gun Culture Roots In Post-Civil War South


The first thing I ever wrote to be published was a Letter to the Editor of my county newspaper lamenting the lack of gun control. I was a high school teenager who found it hard to fathom the stunning number of handgun deaths in the nation.  Several decades later and the search for an understanding of our gun culture continues to vex me.  I still am not able to square the tens of thousands of lives killed each year due to guns with a legislative process impotent to enacting meaningful corrective measures.  

How the culture for gun madness was born and how it took root in such a powerful way has intrigued me since I used a Smith Corona to type (or was that pecking) my letter to the Waushara Argus. On Sunday, an insightful and thought-provoking article from Nick Buttrick, assistant professor of psychology at UW-Madison, was published in the Wisconsin State Journal which demonstrates from a data-loaded historical perspective how and where our national gun culture took birth.

The South was a very dangerous place after the war. More than half a million men, with their weapons, returned to what rapidly became one of the most heavily armed societies in the world, and one of the most violent: The murder rate in the South during the 1870s was an estimated 18 times higher than in New England — largely driven by white men killing each other.

Elite white Southerners considered the empowerment of the previously enslaved population an existential threat and worked to repress Black political power as completely as possible.

As part of that project, white Southern leaders explicitly anchored the protection of their way of life in the private ownership of firearms, arguing that guns protected white people from an illegitimate government unwilling to keep them safe. The huge supply of firearms from the war made this argument salient.

Using data from the 1860 census, nationally representative survey data from more than 3.5 million Americans, and records of every death in the U.S. from 1996 to 2016, we found that the higher the rate of enslavement in a county in 1860 — i.e., where nascent Black political power was more threatening to post-Civil War white elites — the higher the rate of gun ownership today.

In other words, counties with a historical prevalence of slavery had both the most guns and the tightest link between guns and feelings of safety. These are the places where contemporary American gun culture took root.

Mass shootings and obituaries from gun violence are now part of the fabric of daily life in this country. While it is important to place our current dilemma into a historical construct the lay of the land does not allow one to think it leads toward an enlightened and credible congressional majority that works in concert with needed gun control measures.

There was no way as a teenager to imagine that mass murder from high-powered military-type rifles of the kind used in Las Vegas when 58 people were killed could ever occur. When I sat at our family kitchen table and typed out the newspaper letter it would have been hard for me to believe that, Telemachus Orfanos, a man who escaped with his life from that mass shooting would die in another mass shooting in Thousand Oaks, California. The fact that a person can find themselves in the midst of two separate mass shootings in America underscores where the gun culture born in the South has placed our nation.

6 thoughts on “UW-Madison Professor Places Gun Culture Roots In Post-Civil War South

  1. Cornelius_Gotchberg

    When you’s remove suicides, bLack on bLack murders, and certain legendarily Lefty zip codes, take a wild guess what happens to Gun Death stats.

    The Gotch

      1. Cornelius_Gotchberg

        Refusal to answer question noted.

        And despite being Inconvenient Truth, this “moral failing as a nation” is rather easy isolate and pinpoint.

        And who’s trivializing guns used in suicides?

        The Gotch

  2. Cornelius_Gotchberg

    Should add that seeing you’ve established that you deem gun deaths as a “NATIONAL MORAL FAILING,” why do you continue to unequivocally target guns (inanimate objects which have no morals AND are incapable of independent action) by promoting an arbitrary notion that gun control of any kind will fix this problem?

    Only human beings have morals, only human beings can make inanimate objects do things that are immoral, so why not target the actual ROOT CAUSE which you’ve clearly stated is a NATIONAL MORAL FAILING?

    Continuing to promote gun control over fixing the real problem will continue to enable immoral behaviors which are the underlying causes of gun deaths and many other issues across our country.

    The Gotch

    1. Just to be clear—I am not of the mind that ‘any kind’ of gun control measures will ‘fix’ the problem. There are more guns than people in this country, so the aim of gun control advocates is to use carefully targeted (no pun intended) gun control legislation that can start to STEM the problem. Assault weapons ban, and red flag laws that are strict. To perfect man of his moral failings is not possible, but we can adapt his surroundings to make overt acts of what we wish to curtail as a society less possible. Still, the government has proven, as an example, with Brown v. Bd. of Education and Voting Rights Act to put laws on the books to force changes that allow for progress that lifts up all of society. Through those changes, people adapt and can change their behavior. Back to guns, we know that over 40,000 people died from guns in our nation last year and yes, that is a national moral failing as we have ways to rein in the slaughter….but we choose not to do so. What more of a clarion call would one need to prove that this is a national failing?

    2. People are also doing what you commented about on this thread, and others on CP concerning dealing with causes for so many shootings and killings in the Black community. This dialogue is underway in Chicago constantly. I hear of it on the radio and read of it often in the newspaper. Yesterday I read in the Sun-Times John Fountain’s column—a writer I really respect for his clarity in making a point and doing it all within a prescribed number of words. His focus in this column is akin to many of his writings. I posted a portion here and also provided the link. I subscribe but not sure if there is a paywall for others.

      “Bigger fish. Like the “American Dream” that for so many has been swallowed whole by the winds of violence that turn tree-lined streets into nightmarish murder zones where our young Black sons are gunned down in front of their homes by our young Black sons in an endless, pathological gale with utter disregard for human life.

      We die daily. Black mothers grieve greatly. And yet Kanye West and Kyrie Irving dominate headlines and social media.

      (……)

      But none bigger than this: the killing of our children.

      With each new sunrise comes news of another Black body maimed or murdered in an indiscriminate, incomprehensible pandemic of self-hate amid a kind of collective numbing acceptance. We sit mostly silent. Immobile. Seemingly impotent amid a murderous river, flowing with the bodies and blood of our sons and daughters, that crests each summer. Even with summer ended, recent headlines carry news of the carnage.

      “‘A nightmare.’ 11 of 14 people wounded in East Garfield Park…”

      “‘It was numbing’: 3 brothers shot in Auburn Gresham work with St. Sabina to combat gun violence”

      “1 dead, 2 wounded in shooting outside Chicago McDonald’s…”

      The number murdered this year through Nov. 6, according to Chicago police: 592. Shootings: 2,480 — or eight a day.

      And yet here we stand, in the absence of justice and peace, with an undeniable yearning for a mythical place called Wakanda as the sequel to the movie “Black Panther” opened this weekend.

      Unbroken, we stand, though having arrived at this place in our history where it is not the KKK — notwithstanding rogue white cops — that slays us. We mostly slay each other.

      And I find it interesting that, amid the cancellation of Ye over antisemitic comments, I hear, for starters, no talk of canceling the murder-laced music that airs incessantly on urban radio. I hear no talk of harnessing our own collective power as African Americans to hold accountable a music industry that greenlights this anti-Black, anti-humane rhetoric. Hear of no Black artists vowing to not make songs that cast murder and misogyny into the wind.

      Losing a nation to murder. The unnatural, most inconceivable ceremony of burying our children amid this thundering storm of violence that surely must ring in the ears of a just and righteous God but that seems to fall deaf upon our own.

      https://chicago.suntimes.com/columnists/2022/11/11/23453565/kanye-kyrie-irving-african-americans-bigger-fish-worries-chicago-violence

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