Editorial: The deadly evolution of a gun culture

Published: 9/8/2019 7:00:08 AM

Mass shootings claimed the lives of 53 people in August alone, according to the New York Times. So far this year, according to the research group Gun Violence Archive, the United States has suffered more than one mass shooting per day, defined as an event in which four or more people are killed or wounded. The archive puts the death toll as of Sept. 3 at 313, but that figure includes domestic homicides and other killings. The toll, as of last week, according to the mass murder database compiled by the Associated Press, USA Today and Northeastern University, was 140, which equals last year’s total with nearly four months to go in 2019.

Despite the growing slaughter, Republicans, including New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, continue to oppose even modest gun-control legislation. Echoing the failing NRA, they repeat the slogan: “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” How many people, however, depends on the gun.

America, a nation that owes its existence to the colonists’ proficiency with muskets, was destined to have a gun culture. Davy Crockett’s Kentucky long rifle won the Midwest, Colt and Winchester won the West, and their lever-action rifles and carbines became iconic American guns.

Boys, for nearly a century, played cowboys and Indians or outlaws and lawmen with cap-firing replicas of Colt’s .45-caliber “Peacemaker,” the long-barrel six-gun carried by Wyatt Earp as sheriff of Tombstone and John Wayne in many a Western movie. They dreamed, at Christmas, of a Red Rider BB gun.

Hunters dreamed of owning engraved Purdey shotguns, priced today somewhere between a Tesla and a condominium, or even a Winchester 12-gauge pump like writer Ernest Hemingway favored, a man’s man until he took his own life with a different shotgun.

Any of those iconic weapons are capable of killing a number of people in a short time, but they needed to be reloaded after three, six or maybe 10 shots.

Somewhere along the line, the iconic American gun changed. Some say it was the Vietnam War, where the Armalite Rifle 15, America’s version of Russia’s AK-47 or Israel’s Uzi, was the weapon of choice. The AR-15, later known as the M16 when it was adopted by the U.S. military, became the generic name for the modern “assault rifle.” Or maybe it was when ripped and bare-chested actor Sylvester Stallone appeared on the scene as John Rambo, a Vietnam War veteran who solved problems with his assault rifle, solved them, that is, with ultra-violence.

As America continued its move from country to city, hunting fell out of fashion. Bagging a hard-to-get restaurant table replaced bagging a deer as proof of manliness. The gun industry and the National Rifle Association, once a hunter-safety organization, found it far more profitable to sell fear in the form of an assault rifle for self-protection than sporting weapons designed for hunting and target shooting. To which Rambo, in the form of real-life actor Stallone, a gun law advocate, said, “Who needs an assault weapon? Like really, unless you’re carrying out an assault.”

No amount of gun legislation, not the bills vetoed by Sununu that would have added background checks for commercial firearm sales, a waiting period for gun delivery and the ability to restrict guns on school property, would put an end to mass shootings. Neither would a ban on the sale of assault-style rifles or high-capacity magazines and bump stocks that have allowed so many shooters, almost all white males, to kill so many people in so little time. But gun laws would help to prevent some mass shootings and change a culture that has come to revere the wrong gun.

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