Prior to starting this “Gun Curious” blog a year ago, I blogged for several years (and continue to blog) at a site called Gun Culture 2.0. As happens periodically, I was asked recently to explain what I mean by the term “Gun Culture 2.0.” So here is a primer on my use of the term.
Very briefly, I divide the history of gun culture in America into three major periods.
Gun Culture 0.0
Gun Culture 0.0 is a pre-history, of sorts, the culture of guns in the Colonial, Revolutionary, and early Republic. At this time, guns were tools necessary for self-preservation on the frontier (when the colonies themselves were a frontier) and a symbol of citizenship (hence according the right of ownership largely to white men).
As gun historian Clayton Cramer has written, guns played a fundamental role “for the collective military purposes of each colony; for the defense of individual families and isolated settlements; as symbols of being a citizens with the duty to defend the society; and more than occasionally, to demonstrate that nothing has changed in the human condition since Cain slew Abel.” Thus, Cramer concludes, “Gun ownership appears to have been the norm for freemen, and not terribly unusual for free women and at least male children, through the Colonial, Revolutionary, and early Republic periods” (Armed America, p. 236).
In this early history of the American nation, guns were more practical than symbolic for most people. They were tools of necessity for hunting, self-defense, and national defense.
Gun Culture 1.0
As the nation developed, so too did American gun culture. Although he was no fan of guns or gun culture, prize-winning American historian Richard Hofstader was correct when he wrote, “What began as a necessity of agriculture and the frontier, took hold as a sport and as an ingredient in the American imagination.”
In this second period, gun culture becomes more fully elaborated as a culture and takes on new emphases, notably hunting as sport (not only a source of food), more formalized recreational shooting (including competitions), and later various types of gun collecting (made more democratic by the surplus of military arms produced by global conflicts of the 20th century).
Gun Culture 2.0
Gun Culture 2.0 describes the reality that the core of American gun culture today centers on armed self‐defense, both inside the home and especially in public. This is evident in various types of data, including the growing percentage of gun owners who say they own guns for self-defense, the increasing proportion of guns bought and owned that are handguns, the rise of the civilian defensive firearms training industry, the codification of castle doctrine and stand your ground laws, the liberalization of concealed carry laws, and the growing number of Americans who have permits to carry concealed weapons in public.
To be sure, self-defense has always been a part of American gun culture. 18th century versions of the same defensive “pocket pistols” that dominate today’s concealed carry marketplace can be found in any museum with a substantial firearms collection. The importance of having a defensive firearm ready at hand can be seen in the late 19th century advertisement for Smith & Wesson’s “bicycle revolver.” As motor cars became more accessible to the masses in the 1920s, the need for personal protection while driving was emphasized in Colt’s “Safety of the Highways” advertisement. A drawing shows a woman in the driver’s seat of a parked car with a motorcycle police officer next to her with his gun drawn. In the background we see two individuals scampering off. Anticipating the contemporary phrase, “When seconds count, police are just minutes away,” the subheading in the Colt’s ad reads, “Suppose he had not arrived.”
Over time, self-defense moved from being a part of American gun culture to being its core element. Incubated in the social unrest and global uncertainty of the 1960s and 70s, Gun Culture 2.0 was hatched in the 1980s and 1990s and has been maturing since then.
Gun Culture 2.0’s emphasis on armed self-defense also makes it attractive to a more diverse demographic than Gun Culture 1.0. As I argued in a presentation to the National Firearms Law Seminar last year, Gun Culture 2.0 is more inclusive because self-defense is a universal concern. Empirically, defensive gun owners tend to be more racially diverse, more urban and suburban, more politically liberal, more female, and more likely to have young kids than traditional gun owners. They are, in many ways, like me.
One way of visualizing the transition from Gun Culture 1.0 to Gun Culture 2.0 is to look at the content of gun advertising. Examining advertising in The American Rifleman over the 100 years from 1918 to 2017, my co-authors and I have documented the decline in Gun Culture 1.0 (hunting and sport/recreational shooting) themes in ads and the rise in Gun Culture 2.0 (self-defense and concealed carry) themes.
To control for any potential bias involved in analyzing an official publication of the NRA, we replicated this analysis by looking at advertising placed in Guns magazine over its 65 year history, beginning in 1955 and running through 2019. (This article was recently accepted for publication and should be available online in a few weeks.)
The pattern of shifting themes in advertising from Gun Culture 1.0 to Gun Culture 2.0 in Guns magazine is similar to that found in The American Rifleman.
A couple of concluding caveats are in order here.
Second, in arguing Gun Culture 2.0 is at the core of American gun culture today, I do not mean to suggest that other aspects of American gun culture have disappeared. Gun culture today is anything but homogeneous, incorporating many other subcultures including hunting, target shooting (recreational or competitive, with handguns, rifles, and/or shotguns), collectors and gear hobbyists, military, and law enforcement, among others.