Americans are armed to the teeth. And I’m not just talking about the military. It has been estimated that while 4 percent of the world’s population lives in the U.S., we own 42% of the world’s privately owned firearms. Not coincidentally, mass shootings occur here at a rate that is 11 times higher than any other developed country.
There are 265 million firearms in America and half of those are owned by just 3% of the population. The degenerates who have been shooting up our churches, out schools, our nightclubs and concert venues usually have one thing in common. They’ve accumulated a personal arsenal.
It has even gotten to the point where other countries are warning their citizens about traveling to the United States because of the preponderance of gun violence. Those countries include Canada, New Zealand, China, the Bahamas and the United Arab Emirates. Yet we have a government that refuses to adopt any level of gun control no matter how many of our children get slaughtered in their classrooms. How did we grow into a society committed to lethal weapons?. Where did it start? Who fired the first shot?
The idea that Columbus discovered America has been widely disputed. But you could make a claim for Columbus’ party as being the first to use a firearm in America. Apparently as his armada of three ships approached the New World a cannon was fired from the Pinta to announce the sighting of land. This practice was somewhat common among the European adventurers who landed on our shores, not always for the sake of the public service announcement but also to instill the fear of God in the natives.
The Spanish conquistadores tramped about the New World armed. As Ponce De Leon wound his way through Florida is his misguided mission to find the fountain of youth, he was accompanied by arquebusiers. They were foot soldiers who hauled around a sort of portable cannon called an arquebus. As a firearm it wasn’t very practical, being heavy and requiring a lighted wick to fire, but it sure as hell could scare the crap out of any poor soul who had never experienced the sound of a firearm.
The first guns to take up permanent residence in the U.S. came aboard the Mayflower in 1520. While I don’t consider the NRA to be a credible source about most things, they may be right about the Italian made musket that they house in their museum of guns which they call the Mayflower Gun.
While our vision of the early American settler might involve a guy toting a musket around on his shoulder, that notion was challenged by Michael Bellesiles, a former professor of history at Emory University. In his book, Arming America: The Origins of National Gun Culture, he claimed that individual gun ownership was not that common among colonials, noting that the muskets of the time were not that useful for either personal defense or for hunting. His research purported to have found that between 1763 and 1790, only 13 percent of men in New England and Pennsylvania owned guns and that half of those guns were useless.
Bellesiles argued instead that America’s love affair with guns occurred in the latter half of the 19th century with the romanticizing of the cowboy and the popularity of wild west shows with the likes of Wild Bill Hickok and Annie Oakley. Bellesiles work set off a furious debate in historical circles as he was attacked by, among others, the same gun touters in the NRA who continue to attack and discred anyone who seeks to limit gun ownership. Other historians did indeed find errors in his work and Columbia University withdrew the Bancroft history prize that it had awarded to the book. Bellesiles himself has never backed off of his conclusions.
The first Europeans who came to this country found a gun-free society. So it is easy to jump to the conclusion that the native population of America was victimized by the gun-toting explorers and settlers who arrived from Europe. But it was the diseases that the Europeans brought with them, more so than the guns, that were devastating to a native population that had no immunity to Old World ailments. The American Indians did enact some small revenge by providing some European adventurers with a particularly virulent strain of syphilis that they brought back home with them.
David J. Silverman, a professor of history at George Washington University and author of Thundersticks: Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America, suggests that Native Americans were among the early adopters of gun culture in America. “Indians were generally awestruck when they first experienced the firing of a gun. But it took little time for them to grow accustomed to the sound and flash, and to learn the practical applications of this tool. They traded for firearms in large quantities and used them in warfare and hunting because they recognized that guns were superior to the bow and arrow especially for setting ambushes, besieging fortified settlements and hunting deer.”
He describes a competitive gun market in early colonial America with different tribes competing to participate in the gun trade and some Old World entrepreneurs competing to take advantage of this new-found bull market. Silverman even suggests that Native Americans played a role in bringing gun violence to American society claiming that Indian gunmen terrorized some regions.
So while no one is exactly sure where to find the foundation for the gun-infested society we are now living with, one thing is clear. The issue of private ownership of guns has long been a contentious and divisive issue in the U.S.
In next week’s post I’ll look at how Americans embraced the European custom of dueling and then remade it in our own image.