Richard Hofstadter on the Gun Culture

In October, 1970, just two years after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and six months after the Weather Underground issued its Declaration of War Against the United States (“Guns and grass are united in the youth underground,” Bernadine Dohrn declared in a July communique, “Freaks are revolutionaries and revolutionaries are freaks….kids are making love, smoking dope and loading guns”), American Heritage magazine ran a thoughtful essay by the great historian Richard Hofstadter entitled America as a Gun Culture. Hofstadter died that same month, at the tragically young age of 54.

To read him 40-something years later is to be reminded of the dictum plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose–the more things change, the more they stay the same. “In the twentieth century alone,” he wrote, “we have suffered more than 740,000 deaths from firearms, embracing over 265,000 homicides, over 330,000 suicides, and over 139,000 gun accidents. This figure is considerably higher than all the battle deaths (that is, deaths sustained under arms but excluding those from disease) suffered by American forces in all the wars in our history.”

The US, he continued, is the “only nation so attached to the supposed ‘right’ to bear arms that its laws abet assassins, professional criminals, berserk murderers, and political terrorists at the expense of the orderly population—and yet it remains, and is apparently determined to remain, the most passive of all the major countries in the matter of gun control.”

To listen to the right wingers in the NRA–or for that matter, to the left wing Sandy Hook Truthers who turned out in force at Truth Out this week, to write blistering comments about my piece on the backlash gun culture (“Stop calling for disarming citizens you fool or worse….WAKE. THE. F. UP. ARTHUR….When the imperialist governments of the world disarm, then I’ll seriously consider it, not before”)–you’d think that privately owned guns are our greatest bulwark of freedom, our last recourse against tyranny.

Hofstadter addresses this line of unreason too, in words that can’t but give one a sense of déjà vu:

While the notion that “the right to bear arms” is inconsistent with state or federal gun regulation is largely confined to the obstinate lobbyists of the National Rifle Association, another belief of American gun enthusiasts enjoys a very wide currency in the United States, extending to a good many liberals, civil libertarians, and even radicals. It is the idea that popular access to arms is an important counterpoise to tyranny. A historian, recently remonstrating against our gun policies, was asked by a sympathetic liberal listener whether it was not true, for example, that one of the first acts of the Nazis had been to make it impossible for the nonparty, nonmilitary citizen to have a gun—the assumption being that the German people had thus lost their last barrier to tyranny. In fact Nazi gun policies were of no basic consequence: the democratic game had been lost long before, when legitimate authorities under the Weimar Republic would not or could not stop uniformed groups of Nazi terrorists from intimidating other citizens on the streets and in their meetings and when the courts and the Reich Ministry of Justice did not act firmly and consistently to punish the makers of any Nazi Putsch according to law. It is not strong and firm governments but weak ones, incapable of exerting their regulatory and punitive powers, that are overthrown by tyrannies. Nonetheless, the American historical mythology about the protective value of guns has survived the modern technological era in all the glory of its naïveté, and it has been taken over from the whites by some young blacks, notably the Panthers, whose accumulations of arms have thus far proved more lethal to themselves than to anyone else. In all societies the presence of small groups of uncontrolled and unauthorized men in unregulated possession of arms is recognized to be dangerous. A query therefore must ring in our heads: Why is it that in all other modern democratic societies those endangered ask to have such men disarmed, while in the United States alone they insist on arming themselves?

It’s ringing in my head still… And the only answers I come up with bode badly for the health of the polity.

2 thoughts on “Richard Hofstadter on the Gun Culture

  1. I just saw Gloria Steinham on TV and it is amazing what she represented 40 plus years ago and what kind of idiocy we hear in the 21st Century. We have seemed to be going backwards in many ways.or not moving at all.

  2. This post has reminded me that I’ve yet to read my copy of A Necessary Evil by Garry Wills. I say that because I previously skimmed the section in which Wills talks about the myth of rugged individualism and gun heroism in the Wild West, when it was actually tamed with gun control.

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