The United States has struggled with a spate of horrific mass shootings – and will now need to grapple with the implications of the Supreme Court striking down New York’s restrictions on carrying concealed firearms, with consequences beyond the state.
After each tragedy with guns, people try to make sense of the violence by talking about what happened. The discussion usually gravitates toward two familiar poles: gun control on one end, and personal liberty on the other. But despite all the talk, not much changes.
We are scholars of communication who study how rhetoric shapes politics and culture – particularly how the stories Americans tell about the country and its past continue to shape the present. The nation’s failure to prevent such frequent mass shootings is, we suggest, partially a product of how American society commemorates and talks about guns.
Imagining the ‘Wild West’
An excellent example of how American culture tells the story of guns is the Cody Firearms Museum in Wyoming: home to “the most comprehensive collection of American firearms in the world” and subject of an academic article we coauthored with colleague Eric Aoki in 2011. We have continued this research as part of a book project.
Featuring more than 7,000 weapons, the museum is part of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. The centre’s namesake, 19th-century rifleman and showman Buffalo Bill, popularised the story of the “Wild West” that is still familiar to Americans today – one where guns were central.
Stories, of course, are never neutral. They include and exclude certain details; they highlight some aspects of a thing and downplay others. They distill the great complexity of our world into manageable and memorable bits that guide how we understand it.
An especially important kind of storytelling happens at museums. As historians Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen explain, surveys show that people trust museums more than family members, eyewitnesses, teachers and history textbooks.
So it matters what US museums have to say about guns. Based on multiple research visits to the Cody Firearms Museum over the past decade, we have identified three foundational narratives about guns – stories that we argue get replayed in the present-day rhetoric about firearms.
Story 1: Guns are tools
One of the key themes at the Cody Firearms Museum was that guns were central to life on the frontier. Settlers had few possessions, and guns, which were necessary for hunting and fending off dangerous animals, were among the most common household items.
The view of guns as a daily tool remains prevalent today, usually through references to hunting. Emphasising firearms’ role as a normal necessity to survive – even though so few people in the US live that way today – “domesticates” guns, and many Americans continue to treat even assault rifles as ordinary objects of everyday life.
Consider recent comments Colorado Rep. Ken Buck made to the House Judiciary Committee: “In rural Colorado, an AR-15 is a gun of choice for killing raccoons before they get to our chickens. It is a gun of choice for killing a fox. It is a gun that you control predators on your ranch, your farm, your property.”
Such talk domesticates assault rifles, depicting them as ordinary objects. But they are far from ordinary. One 2017 study found that assault rifles and other high-capacity semiautomatics “account for 22% to 36% of crime guns, with some estimates upwards of 40% for cases involving serious violence including murders of police.” They are also used in up to 57% of mass murders involving firearms.
Story 2: Guns are wonders
A second key theme on display at the museum was that guns are technological marvels. Visitors could learn, often in painstaking detail, about each advancement in loading systems, ammunition cartridges and firing mechanisms.
Displays like these frame guns as inert objects of study and fascination, shifting attention from their function and purpose to their design and development. Moreover, the display of thousands of guns in glass cases, physically separated from human beings, turns them into objects that seem almost worthy of veneration.
The world of gun collecting strongly connects these admired objects to their owner’s identity. Like enthusiasts of any stripe, gun hobbyists view guns as collectibles. According to a Pew Research Center study, 66% of gun owners own multiple firearms, and 73% say they “could never see themselves not owning a gun.”
In short, guns are central to gun owners’ sense of self, with half acknowledging that “owning a gun is important to their overall identity.” Because gun hobbyists regard guns as collectibles, they often use rhetoric that treats guns as inert objects rather than machines engineered for violence.
For many gun owners, gun violence is a problem associated with “bad” actors, not guns. Following the mass shooting in Buffalo, New York,, podcaster Graham Allen wrote: “Firearms are LIFELESS objects, they do not think, they do not feel, and they do not take a life on their own. Therefore you CANNOT hold an inanimate object accountable for the actions of the shooter.”
Story 3: Guns are quintessentially American
The third story American culture tells about guns is that they are central to what it means to be “American”. They symbolise the myth of rugged individualism on which the country is founded. Guns are also associated with Manifest Destiny, the belief that white Americans were destined by God to violently “settle” the plains and “civilise” the West, expanding US territory from coast to coast.
Guns served as the primary instrument for Westward expansion and the forced removal of Native Americans. As American studies scholar Richard Slotkin’s work explains, many iconic portrayals of the frontier depict white colonisers doing what they believed to be “God’s work” with the help of their guns.
Today, national discourse still frames guns as part of a God-given right to eliminate “threats” in a world full of dangerous people. The National Rifle Association has used religiously infused language to argue for gun rights, such as its president, Wayne LaPierre, saying in 2018 that the right to bear arms is “granted by God to all Americans as our American birthright.”
In these arguments, gun ownership is a way of expressing a deep and long-held American desire to protect oneself, one’s family and one’s property. Crime data, however, suggests that self-defense with guns is rare, used by victims in 1% or fewer of “crimes in which there is personal contact between the perpetrator and victim” or robbery and nonsexual assault. Meanwhile, owning guns increases other dangers like accidental shooting and gun-related suicide.
Joseph Pierre, a psychiatrist at the University of California, Los Angeles, has written that while fear may be the main cited reason for owning a gun, ownership is also strongly associated with fear of the loss of control. Seventy-four percent of gun owners say the right to own guns is essential to their sense of freedom, according to a Pew survey.
From talk to action – or inaction
How people talk about an object influences how they understand and see it. And once that view hardens into an attitude, it significantly impacts future action.
In the firearms museum, and American culture more broadly, guns are portrayed as utilitarian tools of daily life, venerated objects of technological progress and symbols of what it means to be American.
These stories continue to shape and constrain how America talks and thinks about guns, and help explain why gun policy in the US looks the way it does.
Featured image: Reuters