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.