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Observation Post: Why Is the Gun America’s National Icon?

By Philip C. Winslow

AR-15. Photo credit: deeREK

On a hot summer morning in 1954, when I was eleven years old, I saw my first human death by gunshot. The victim was a boy about my age. He had been playing with a .22 caliber rifle thought not to be loaded, I was told. The gun discharged, the bullet passed through his neck, rupturing the left carotid artery, and he bled out. I saw him only afterward. I never knew his name, the circumstances, nor anything about him or his family. But sixty-four years later, I clearly recall the stillness in death, his ashen face, the color of his hair, and the small entry wound in the left side of his neck. The death was ruled accidental, or, as they say these days, unintentional. Shaken, that night I had a long discussion with my mother about the unfairness of death, and about the consequences of the negligent handling of firearms.

The easy lethality of guns was not a complete surprise. I was already a fairly accomplished hunter (of birds such as ruffed grouse and pheasant, and with shotguns, not rifles), and would get good at knocking down clay pigeons on the skeet range. I still have a photo, taken around that time, of me with a 20-gauge pump shotgun on one shoulder, and holding two dead pheasants. I was continually drilled in the safe use of guns, and I observed the rules. But apart from a lot of birds I killed and ate, I was not yet connecting the lines between guns and human death. That would come soon enough.

Coincidentally, 1954, the year the boy died, was a mile marker in the development of small arms, when the US Air Force needed a rifle for bomber aircraft survival kits. ArmaLite, then a division of the Fairchild Engine and Airplane Corporation, came up with the AR-5, a compact, lightweight rifle chambered for the .22 Hornet cartridge, which packed far greater velocity and energy than the .22 bullet whose results I had seen for myself. The AR-5 (AR stands for ArmaLite Rifle) was the first step to replacing the World War II M1 Garand, and one of many over the next decade that led to the military AR-15 (renamed the M-16), and back again to today’s civilian-version, semiautomatic AR-15. The development also marked America’s progress in the international small arms race, coming just a few years after the AK-47, the Avtomát Kaláshnikova, became the official rifle of the Soviet Armed Forces.

In my early years, guns fell loosely into three spheres: military, criminal, and sport. I had little knowledge of the first two, but related to sport, in which target practice and hunting were enjoyable outdoor activities and involved some skill. In my mid-teens, I gradually became familiar with the criminal use of firearms. A grandfather was a coroner’s physician, and several of my older friends were police officers and homicide detectives. But for me, “guns” and “schools” never occupied the same train of thought. In one high school I attended, a few hoods—tough guys in duck’s ass hairdos—were rumored to carry zip guns, homemade .22 pistols fashioned from rubber tubing and wood, but I never saw one.

Guns in other venues I came to understand. With aspirations to a medical career, I found volunteer work as an ambulance attendant and salaried work as a hospital orderly, which frequently put me in emergency rooms, operating theaters and the morgue. Before I was out of my teens, I was well familiar with the complex nature of gunshot wounds. With that awareness came exposure to a vast sea of suffering and grief. It has stayed with me. In hospitals and on the streets, I routinely witnessed or played a minor role in attending the aftermath of gunfire. I stopped hunting, not out of revulsion but because it had lost its lure. Eventually, as an adult, I gave away or sold my shotguns—the original .410, the 20-gauge, and my excellent Browning 12-gauge over-and-under. But back then, even after I stopped shooting, guns and rifles owned by friends or professional colleagues remained a normal part of American life.

I didn’t make it into medicine, but as a reporter covered parts of a world that seemed threaded together—“torn  apart” often seemed the better phrase—by gun violence, most visibly by the ubiquitous AK-47 and its variants. The assault rifle was a simple and rugged means to an end for regular and irregular armed forces, for child soldiers, mercenaries, terrorists, and assorted bandits. In more than thirty years of travel and postings across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, the Kalashnikov and other rifles, and their trail of havoc, were common sights.

But elevation of the gun to national icon had been left to the United States, and the near worship began when the nation was a few years old.


In 1970, historian Richard Hofstadter popularized the term “gun culture” in writing about how Americans’ resolute possession of firearms dated back to colonial days, when farmer-settlers lived on a wild frontier, and the founders feared a standing army as an instrument of government tyranny. Political beliefs, he wrote, held that “The American answer to civic and military decadence, real or imagined, was the armed yeoman”, in the militia system. But, Hofstadter asked, two hundred years on and with the frontier long gone, why

is the gun still so prevalent in a culture in which only about 4 per cent of the country’s workers now make their living from farming . . . Why did the United States alone among industrial societies cling to the idea that a substantially unregulated supply of guns among its city populations is a safe and acceptable thing?

Twenty years after his essays, gun violence was at sustained, frightening levels. A February 1989 Time magazine cover featured a US map stylized as a skull above the “crossbones” of two assault rifles. “ARMED AMERICA”, the headline blared, “More guns, more shootings, more massacres”. It followed the murder by Patrick Purdy of five elementary school children—refugees from Southeast Asia—in Stockton, California; thirty-two others were wounded. The New York Times reported that

“Mr. Purdy, who has a long criminal record, bought the assault rifle for $349.95 last Aug. 3 in a gun store in Sandy, Ore. He used a false name and lied on the Federal form required for the purchase, the police said.”

Five months later, Time ran another issue: “DEATH BY GUN. America’s toll in one typical week: 464”. On the cover was a smiling seventeen-year-old Oklahoma girl who had been shot dead by her cousin as she sat in her mother’s living room. The issue had a twenty-eight-page portfolio of gun-death stories.

In 1989, there were more than 34,000 deaths by firearm, a rate of fourteen deaths per 100,000 population; more than 14,000 were homicides; the rest were suicides and accidental shootings. In March, the American Medical Association’s Council on Scientific Affairs published a report titled “Firearms injuries and deaths: A critical public health issue.” One line read: “There is unquestionably the need to treat this public health matter with as much urgency as any dread disease.”

The epidemic kept chalking up lost lives for the next twenty-seven years. In 2016, there were 38,658 deaths by gun, nearly 12 per 100,000. Of those, 14,415 were murders, about the same as in 1989.

Policy makers treated the crisis with political expediency. That meant toeing the line of the National Rifle Association. Congress curtailed government-funded medical research into gun violence, heeding the NRA fear that science was a precursor to restricting guns. In 1996, the House passed an appropriations bill with an amendment stipulating that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” The bill stripped $2.6 million from the CDC’s budget—the amount the agency had spent on research the year before. (Many years later, the amendment’s author, Rep. Jay Dickey, R-Ark., said he regretted it. “I wish I had not been so reactionary,” he said.) The amendment has not been repealed, and research is still blocked.

The treatment of gunshot wounds has grown to a complexity scarcely imaginable to anyone except a seasoned combat surgeon. Due to the number of cases and to the grievous wounds caused by high-velocity ammunition, emergency department and inpatient costs by 2014 were running to $2.8 billion a year nationwide, according to a 2017 study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. That broke down to about $5,200 per victim treated in an ER, ballooning to nearly $96,000 for some admissions.

Meanwhile, the firearms business has been good. America continues to manufacture record numbers of rifles, pistols and shotguns—more than 11 million in 2016, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Retail sales rise and fall, following a quirky barometer of presidential politics: sales surged under President Obama; they’ve fallen under President Trump.

The industry, gun dealers, and the NRA traditionally experience a boost following a mass shooting. People who fear government confiscation rush to buy more guns, and manufacturers’ stock prices go up. But one theory runs somewhat contrary to the one of a malign, jack-booted government. Washington Post columnist Elizabeth Bruenig wrote:

Mass murders, especially those that take place in US schoolhouses, appear to advance the much-beloved conservative claim that the state cannot or will not help you; that our government is disorderly, shambolic and derelict by its very nature; that you are in danger, very grave danger, and the only person you can really trust to protect you is yourself.

Photo credit: Tatiana T

When I moved to Johannesburg, in 1993, to report on Southern Africa, my neighbors immediately counseled me to buy a handgun to defend myself against the frequent carjackings and home invasions, and helpfully suggested types. The Glock 9 mm with laser sight was a hot item. I declined: first, because I was a reporter, and second, because I’ve never had much faith in the doctrine of self-protection by firearm. I had already heard of too many unintended consequences when the good-guy-with-a-gun stratagem ended badly. In South Africa, people who kept guns in their cars or homes frequently had them stolen, which beefed up the bad guys’ arsenals. And gun-toting civilians, however skilled, do not undergo the relentless weapons and situation training that soldiers, Marines, and police do. Near my home, I got a vivid illustration.

As I worked at the desk one afternoon, I heard repeated bursts of automatic rifle fire interspersed with individual shots. I got in my car and followed the racket to a small shopping mall a few blocks away. The gunfire had stopped, and so had the wail of departing ambulances. Two bodies lay near the entrance to a bank, which two men with AK-47s had tried to rob. The bank’s glass doors were shot out, broken glass from bullet-riddled cars crunched under foot, and blood stained the pavement. It looked like way too much damage for a bank robbery. I started talking to witnesses, who had emerged from behind parked cars. When the armed robbers attempted their getaway, they apparently hadn’t counted on lunchtime businessmen with handguns stuck in their waistbands. Everybody started blasting away at everybody else, and in the adrenaline-stoked chaos numerous bystanders or participants were wounded, and at least two people were killed.

It can be hard for a non-gun owner to grasp the enduring notion that we must be allowed to keep weapons because the government may turn to suppression of our rights. Sensible owners, target shooters, hunters, collectors, and maybe even some people who think they need guns might suspect this is farfetched. It is. No government is going to launch a nationwide gun grab, and no Congress is ever likely to repeal the Second Amendment. A future Congress, if ever unchained from the NRA, might legislate some restrictions on gun types and sales. It should, considering the unending human toll.

Library shelves are packed with academic volumes and court cases related to the Second Amendment, which was adopted in 1791 and whose exact intent is still being debated. A case sure to be revisited is District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court’s landmark 2008 decision which protects an individual’s right to possess a firearm. But along with that protection, Heller holds a caution: “Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose:Heller would seem to leave the door ajar for future challenges.

The American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Nurses Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and a variety of NGOs and citizen groups continue to demand action to stem the casualties. Joining them are individual Marine and army combat veterans, men and women who know weapons intimately and who write unequivocally that the assault rifle has no place in civilian life.

In 1970, an exasperated Hofstadter wrote that American legislators

have been inordinately responsive to the tremendous lobby maintained by the National Rifle Association, in tandem with gunmakers and importers, military sympathizers, and far-right organizations. A nation that could not devise a system of gun control after its experiences of the 1960s, and at a moment of profound popular revulsion against guns, is not likely to get such a system in the calculable future. One must wonder how grave a domestic gun catastrophe would have to be in order to persuade us. How far must things go?

After Parkland, there were signs that things had gone far enough. Some gun retailers announced they will no longer sell assault rifles nor sell ammunition to anyone under twenty-one. A number of airlines, banks, and outdoor stores said they will sever marketing ties with the NRA.

Is Never Again really the start of a movement, able eventually to turn the tide?

The survivors of school shootings and the families of the dead see beginnings. But within days of the Parkland murders, the Stoneman Douglas High School students saw something else, and it was perfectly familiar: politicians may have been rattled, but they were not about to be lectured by teenagers, no matter how traumatized, and they have not budged. President Trump vowed to raise the minimum age to purchase rifles; then he met with NRA officials in the Oval Office and quickly backed off. Within a month, earnest-sounding proposals, small as they were, had been abandoned. As students mobilize across the country this month, they know what they’re up against: elected officials beholden to a gun lobby that remains, as Hofstadter wrote nearly half a century ago, “as powerful as it is indifferent to the public safety.”


About the Author 

Philip C. WinslowPhilip C. Winslow has been a journalist and foreign correspondent for more than thirty years; he has worked for the Christian Science Monitor, the Toronto StarMaclean's magazine, ABC radio news, CTV News, and CBC radio. He also served in two United Nations peacekeeping missions and spent nearly three years living in the West Bank. He is the author of Victory For Us Is to See You Suffer and Sowing the Dragon’s Teeth.