There are a lot of guns in America — this nation has collectively more civilian-owned guns than we have citizens. Unlike the rest of the developed world, firearms ownership in America is broadly held, with an estimated 40% of American households owning at least one gun; and unlike the rest of the world, gun-owning Americans tend to think of their weapons not as something dangerous, but as something that keeps them and their families safe.
Two-thirds of American gun owners say that they own their gun at least in part for protection — this despite data showing having a gun in the house doubles the likelihood that someone in the household will die by homicide, triples the likelihood that someone in the household will die by suicide, and provides little or no defense against assault or property loss.
Where does this unique set of beliefs about the protective power of a gun come from?
Americans have not always felt this way: Historians suggest that for a large portion of this country’s existence, firearms were more often thought of as tools for hunting and pest control, with a purpose that was not primarily to keep a household safe. Guns, when advertised, were often displayed in the same pages as household goods such as farm implements, with similar language promoting both.
It is only relatively recently that Americans came to widely believe that guns keep a person safe and secure. My research with Jessica Mazen suggests that the crystallization and propagation of these beliefs happened largely in the former slave states in the aftermath of the Civil War.
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.
The postwar period was shaped by the Reconstruction administration’s efforts to expand political power to those who had been emancipated and the backlash against this attempt. 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.