Many Chinese leaders and citizens are perplexed by America’s gun culture. Chinese microblogging sites feature regular discussions on the United States and its gun laws. Some Chinese netizens mock U.S. firearms culture, while the Chinese media has dedicated an entire website to “U.S. shootings”—listing and discussing all incidents of gun violence in the United States. Indeed to most foreigners, America’s romance with handheld weapons is both bizarre and frightening.
How would an outsider, for example, a political analyst for a Chinese intelligence agency, go about explaining American gun culture to his or her constituents? Perhaps similarly to how a Sinologist might try to explain a particular aspect of Chinese political culture to a policymaker in the United States: By going back into history and analyzing the historical origin—often tied to a national myth—underpinning the country’s political culture.
(For the sake of brevity, I will leave aside detailed discussion of the Second Amendment and the influence of the National Rifle Association, the major opponent to any form of gun control in the country, and focus on two related aspects that, in my opinion, have influenced present-day gun culture, and perhaps shed some light as to why the 325,000 gun-related homicides that occurred in the United States from 1983 to 2012 did not result in a larger public outcry.)
The old American Wild West is the principal political myth co-opted by the American gun industry in the 19th century to convince American consumers that by buying their products they would not only increase their safety in a violent world, but that they as individuals would also help advance American civilization and freedom by personally protecting their inalienable rights rather than having to rely on the government. It is a perfect case of product placement camouflaged as patriotic duty.
As Pamela Haag points out in her book The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture, the American gun industry specifically sought to target domestic consumers after the gun had become a luxury rather than a necessary good in order to create demand for the merchandise. The gun, Haag explains, “became a thing that served psychological needs more than pragmatic ones of war, ranching, the conquest of Native Americans, or the rural economy… What was once needed now had to be loved.”
In order to do so, the gun industry had to exploit the legends and purported violence of the American Wild West and repackage it as an integral part (rather than just an outlier) of American political culture. Certain weapons like the Winchester lever-action repeating rifle Model 1873, dubbed “The Gun That Won the West,” fit neatly into this narrative of arming frontiersmen and advancing the cause of liberty with the right weapon to oppose savages and villains, as Haag points out.
“[I]f the Winchester 73 rifle had been a book, it would have been a dime novel: mass produced with interchangeable parts; mechanical, predictable, requiring little exertion by the user; and delivering its conclusion efficiently and precisely,” she writes. Her analogy drives home the point of a consciously created narrative around the gun that symbolizes American individualism, masculinity, and most importantly American freedom.
Of course, this did not correspond to the historic reality of the Wild West. Yet because of this powerful narrative linking the gun with sacrosanct political values, Americans were successfully persuaded to purchase guns “by those who made and sold them at the moment when their products had shed much of their more practical, utilitarian value.” In that sense, the NRA, as a civil liberties organization, is just successfully duplicating the gun industry’s success, having rebranded itself a protector of American freedom beginning in the 1980s.
However, the gun industry alone could not have fueled the myth of the American West. There was, in fact, a larger intellectual effort, best exemplified by Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier hypothesis, that tried to argue that the American national character can only be properly assessed if one takes into account the American experience at the frontier, “a place where advancing civilization met declining savagery,” as Turner put it. In that sense, the Wild West, much more than the legacies of the American Revolution or U.S. Civil War, became an integral part of modern American Republican identity.
(The United States, like the majority of countries, was born out of war—“the father of all and king of all,” as Heraclitus philosophized. Yet the American War for Independence was not just an armed conflict, but also a revolutionary struggle for universal principles. While the war was won by a European-trained Continental Army and French troops, the myth that citizens armed with long rifles effected the defeat of the British Empire was consciously spread throughout the struggle, further reinforcing the idea that to own a gun is quintessentially a duty for any freedom-loving American.)
The cultural influence of the American West, and with it American gun culture, can also be seen in the fact that the quintessential contribution of American cinema to the world has been the Hollywood Western film. Robert P. Pippin in his book Hollywood Westerns and American Myth, argues: “[T]he Greeks had their Iliad; the Jews the Hebrew Bible; the Romans the Aenead; the Germans the Nibelungenlied; the Scandinavians their Sagas; the Spanish the Cid; the British the Arthurian legends. The Americans have John Ford.”
The majority of Hollywood Westerns are much more than gunfights and cattle-drives. At its core, a Western film is often about the founding of a political society in a Hobbesian state of nature, or at least in a profoundly changing environment, as was the case in the late 19th century when the economy slowly changed from a rural agrarian to an urban industrial one.
“For many great Westerns are indeed about the founding of modern bourgeois, law-abiding, property-owning, market economy, technologically advanced societies in transition—in situations of, mostly, lawlessness (or corrupt and ineffective law) that border on classic ‘state of nature’ theories,” according to Pippin.
Because of their unique history—in particular, given the proportionally oversized impact of the American West on their collective psyche, the horrendous history of imperialist colonization and wars of extermination that went with conquest of the West—Americans have a better understanding than many other societies that every founding of a political system, is—in essence—at the beginning, built upon the power of the gun rather than the law. Or to put it more bluntly: Every nation in human history was founded upon an injustice of some kind.
In the case of the United States, a political culture influenced by the American gun industry, the myth of the American West, and a deeper philosophical understanding of the violence inherent to politics has helped create modern gun culture in the United States. If the Chinese political analyst had to make a prediction about guns and politics in America based on the aforementioned observations, a somewhat gloomy forecast would in all likelihood result.
High-profile mass-shootings, paired with a growing discontent with the ruling elite, and the continuous exploitation of American history by powerful civil liberty interest groups will induce a knee-jerk reaction among Americans that it will be the gun rather than the law that will ultimately protect them from harm. That in the real American Wild West, it was the law and federal government that protected the people, rather than a revolver— for example, Wyoming banned all firearms after the U.S. Civil War—will make little difference.
This article has previously been published on China-US Focus.