A Brief History of U.S. Gun Worship


Practically every nation on the planet has been established through violence. The state itself, as Friedrich Engels explained, emerged as a result of primordial class division. The ruling classes have throughout history maintained their control over their subjects (beginning with the exaction of taxes from them) through the use of armed men at their disposal: their military and police.

Those running the state use the threat if not the constant use of violence to maintain “law and order” on their terms.  Witness the north American inner city, where the police are perceived as a kind of armed occupation force.

The country of France as we know it emerged from the conquest of the Gauls by the Franks in the 5th and 6th centuries. England was produced out of the Anglo-Saxon conquests of the Britons at the same time. There is nothing historically unusual about some peoples experiencing invasion, conquest, and displacement, even annihilation in the process of state formation. The rise of European colonialism after Columbus merely made foreign conquest more universal.

The ancient Germanic tribes that conquered Celtic Gaul and Briton relied on bows and arrows, swords and battle-axes. But the establishment of the states that exist in the Americas today depended on a particular tool of violence these warriors never possessed: the gun. The gun was used by European settler-invaders in the New World from the outset to subordinate and terrorize indigenous peoples. It was the premise for colonization.

So you might say it is present in the cultural DNA of white people in North and South America. This is true of those in the U.S.A. especially.

In the early sixteenth century the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro conquered the Inca Empire with a force of 168 men, 62 horses, and gunfire that terrified the Inca. Thus abruptly fell a powerful state of 16 million, extending over 7000 square miles.

The Pilgrims arriving on Plymouth Rock on the Mayflower in 1620 brought with them shotguns, flintlocks, and matchlock muskets. These were not just used to hunt game. And as successive waves of colonists arrived on the East Coast and relentlessly headed west, such weapons were their constant companions.

The story of “how the West was won” (that is to say, taken from its indigenous inhabitants) can be summarized in one word: guns. (Yes, Native Americans acquired them as well, and even became skilled in their use. But by the use of guns the U.S. endlessly expanded, at the expense of native people whose numbers had been vitiated by diseases introduced from across the Atlantic. Meanwhile Yankees with guns dismembered the Mexican state, annexing huge pieces for their own enrichment.)

“American ingenuity” answered the boundless demand for new and better guns—to conquer the frontier, settle scores in the Wild West, repress slave revolts, fight a civil war, subdue Native Americans in the “Indian Wars.” The Colt revolver was invented in 1835, the Spencer repeating carbine around 1860, the Gatling machine gun in 1861, the Winchester rifle in 1873. Exported around the world, such weapons advertised the peculiar Yankee penchant for efficient killing.


Throughout my childhood, like most kids I watched TV Westerns. I loved “Bonanza,” featuring the Cartwright family in Nevada in the 1860s; “Rawhide,” set along the cattle drive route in the 1860s; and the tellingly entitled “Gunsmoke” conveying Kansas culture in the 1870s. All the key figures and indeed men in general were depicted as, to some degree, gunslingers.

As depicted in these shows—no doubt with general accuracy—a man in the Old West woke up in the morning, got dressed and strapped on his holster with his gun inside before leaving his lodgings. It was an essential item of personal furniture, donned with no more afterthought that you’d need today before slipping your cell phone into your shirt pocket. Every man did it. It was needed for self-defense in the Wild West.

There’s much truth in the “Frontier Thesis” of the U.S. historian Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932) which attempted to “explain [North] American development” as a result of expansion into a vast frontier (and the “continuous recession” of that frontier through settlement). To the extent we can speak of a “national character”—realizing it’s always risky to essentialize—we can say that the settler experience has indeed shaped ours.

When I teach Japanese history, and begin the semester with a necessary discussion of geographical context, I ask students to contrast the patterns of Japanese history and U.S. history as they relate to the natural environment. In Japan, people naturally aggregated along coastlines featuring suitable conditions for wet-rice agriculture all along the densely populated coasts. A high degree of cooperation was needed to maintain the irrigation systems. In peasant villages everyone knew everyone else and could overhear conversations next door.  This is the origin of the “group consciousness” one observes in Japan today.

In the U.S., in contrast, settlers of European origin fanned out into under-populated regions, homesteading, cattle-herding, displacing those already there. Out west your nearest neighbor might be a mile away. The North American environment produced “rugged individualism.”

A key part of that is the dogged insistence on the “right to bear arms.” This constitutional right (the Second Amendment, ratified in 1792) of course preceded the cowboy age. But the insistence upon it, and the widest possible interpretation of that right (as constantly voiced by the National Rifle Association), surely reflects the culture of “Gunsmoke.”

As Turner noted, the frontier disappeared as of 1890; everything conquerable had been conquered. The “Indian Wars” were more or less over. The Wild West became less wild; railways, refrigerator trucks and Chicago meat-packers led to the demise of the cattle drives and cowboys.

But gun culture remained ingrained, alongside a national proclivity to assert what came to be called “exceptionalism.” One sees it already in the concept of “Manifest Destiny” as expressed by John L. O’Sullivan in 1845, the year the U.S. annexed Texas: “Other nations have tried to check…the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Provenance for the free development of our rapidly multiplying millions.”

This concept of divine entitlement was in turn rooted in the notion of a divinely conferred Promised Land, derived from the Bible. The Pilgrims (who thought that they like the ancient Israelites were God’s “Chosen people”) brought it with them. When they violently won control of the Connecticut Valley in 1633 (just a dozen years after “the First Thanksgiving” that was supposedly an English-Native love-fest), making war on the local Pequot tribe and slaughtering around 400 men, women and children, they gave thanks to God and noted that  “sometimes the Scripture declareth women and children must perish with their parents.”

In 1898, having conquered what is now the “lower 48” states, the American cowboys went on to provoke war with Spain, obtaining Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guam and established control over the Philippines within a year through a conflict that resulted in as many as one million Filipino civilian deaths. Meanwhile the U.S. annexed of Hawai’i, its Marines armed with Gatling guns having already overthrown its queen in 1893.

Not every North American agreed that white Anglo-Saxon Protestants had a manifest destiny to “overspread” anywhere and everywhere they could. Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), for example, was an outspoken anti-imperialist. But Theodore Roosevelt was more representative of mainstream U.S. culture. Cultivating a cowboy image, serving with the “Rough Riders” (a voluntary cavalry unit largely consisting of former cowboys and ranchers, which fought in Cuba in 1898), he followed up his presidency with a visit to Africa during which he and his entourage shot 512 big game animals. He personified gun culture.

Gradually the gangster usurped the cowboy or cavalry’s role as the gun-slinging figure of general admiration. (Jesse James, 1847-1882, can be considered a transitional figure.) During the 1920s, Chicago, the industrial center of the country, became its crime capital thanks in part to Prohibition (compare the contemporary “war on drugs”). Al Capone was actually celebrated in the 1920s as a Robin Hood character. Meanwhile Bonnie and Clyde became positive role models during the Great Depression. Mainstream newspapers published Bonnie Elizabeth Parker’s poems (like “The Story of Bonnie and Clyde”); the “gun moll” (as she was called) had a genuine fandom.

This is all part of a general continuum of celebration of criminal gun-toting that leads to phenomena as disparate (yet linked) as the GI Joe dolls of the 1960s, at the height of the Vietnam War, and today’s popularity of “gangsta” rap. Is it any wonder that the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense acquired a mass following in the late 1960s when its members—taking advantage of the “open-carry” gun laws in Oakland, California—began to patrol city streets openly carrying weapons, monitoring police, and popularizing chants like: “The Revolution has come, it’s time to pick up the gun. Off the pigs!”

“Violence,” H. Rap Brown declared in 1968, “is as American as cherry pie.” And as the Black Lives Matter movement has so effectively made clear to many in this country, the murder of young men of color and subsequent cover-ups in filed police reports is simply a matter of American police culture.

George W. Bush, having cultivated a cowboy/ranchman persona throughout his miserable corporate and political life, reacted to 9/11 with a typical American trigger-happy response. He had earlier told a biographer that if he had his “chance,” he would invade Iraq. And soon after invading Afghanistan he did just that, donning the mantle of Global Cop and meting out punishment on Saddam Hussein.

After blasting Iraq into smithereens, Bush dramatically piloted a jet fighter onto an aircraft carrier off San Diego, posing in a flight suit and then delivering a speech of triumph in front of a huge banner declaring: MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.

He appointed a U.S. proconsul to rule the bleeding, destroyed country: fellow Texan Paul Bremer. Bremer literally stomped around Iraq in cowboy boots during his tenure from 2003 to 2004, as he ordered the dissolution of a real, professional army and humiliated its defeated troops (with dire consequences).

Just a way of reminding the Iraqis, “Don’t mess with Texas” and rubbing in the humiliation one feels in the face of murderous activity. And provoking the explosive indignation that motivates people to deploy the “weapons of the weak” including suicide bombs.

What factors might explain that attitude, that hubris-laden arrogance? The arrogance that led the Blackwater contractors to shoot dead 17 Iraqis in Nisour Square, Baghdad, in September 2007?  Traditional American gun culture’s at the top of the list.

Gun ownership in this country is twice that of Switzerland, where the level is high due the country’s unique law that requires citizens to belong to the militia and possess a firearm. The U.S. is one of very few nations that doesn’t license gun owners across the board and register all weapons. There are around 270 million firearms in civilian hands in this country (89 per 100 people); the country with the second most guns is India (with 4 guns per 100 civilians). 40% of the world’s civilian-held firearms are in the hands of U.S. citizens (who amount to 4.5% of the global population).

The firearms-related death rate in the U.S. is 40 times that of Britain, a country culturally similar to this one, with comparable issues of crime and ethnic tension. How can one explain that?

Europeans in general are perplexed at the U.S. obsession with guns. The gun, after all, is a European invention. Hand-held firearms (as opposed to cannon, an Asian innovation), reflecting contact with China and the introduction of gunpowder via the Silk Road from the thirteenth century, were used in central Europe from the late 1400s. There is nothing distinctly American about the gun. What’s unique is the cult of the gun, and its role in the construction of personal identity.

To hazard a not-so-remote comparison: Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the line of shoguns (military governors) who ruled Japan from 1603 to 1868, is supposed to have said, “The sword is the soul of the samurai.” Throughout this period, the identity of men within this status group (about seven percent of the Japanese population), was closely associated with the long and short swords they were obliged by law to wear at their side when appearing in public.

In the 1860s, just as the Nevada rancher would strap on his holster in the morning, the Japanese samurai in his castle town would insert his swords into his obi sash. It would be dishonorable to be seen in public without them. The whole Tokugawa period was one of unparalleled peace (no civil or foreign wars, just peasant rebellions) and the samurai seldom had reason to actually use their blades to kill people. But forbidden to commoners, they were badges of samurai status. They commanded respect.

And they were also symbols of manhood, of course. You don’t have to be steeped in Freud to observe the phallic associations of a revolver hanging at the waist and a katana dangling from the same place. But the interesting thing about the culture of the sword (that survived until samurai status was abolished in 1873 and ex-samurai positively forbidden to sport swords in public) is that it had been preceded by a period of wild enthusiasm for guns!

First introduced into Japan by shipwrecked Portuguese in 1543, the arquebus was studied, copied, then mass-produced with design improvements within twenty years of its arrival. Over 300,000 were manufactured in Japan by the end of the sixteenth century. This early type of musket was used to dramatic effect at the Battle of Nagashino of 1575, in which 3000 musketeers determined the outcome. There were around 40,000 musketeers in the Japanese invasion force sent to Korea in the 1590s.

There were around 250 daimyo (local rulers) in Japan as of 1600, and some of them had more muskets in their possession than Queen Elizabeth I of England. Over five decades Japan had gone from gun-free to gun-saturated. Before the first English settlers arrived on Plymouth Rock, Japan was the world’s gun culture par excellence.

Japan might have developed the kind of gun-fixated culture that we see in this country, yesterday and today.  But after a century of warfare, and the onset of a long period of peace (the arrival of which was probably accelerated by the use of firearms), a new regime having reunified the country after a century of civil war disarmed the peasantry, confiscating their swords as well as any firearms. It confined the samurai class to castle towns and (leaving them their swords of course) collected their firearms too.

Some refer to this process, beginning in 1588 and complete by about 1620, as one of “giving up the gun.” This is not entirely accurate. Japanese rulers continued to stock and produce firearms, and from the mid-eighteenth century studied European texts to update their knowledge of gunnery. Firearms were occasionally used against peasants during local rebellions. Their use was never renounced in principle. But since society enjoyed pervasive peace during the Tokugawa period there was just not much need for them.

The Japanese people (rice-growing peasants, for the most part) became accustomed to the disarmament regime and felt no special craving for gun ownership. This remains the general Japanese mind-set. Why should anybody feel they have the “right to bear arms” when they’re obviously unnecessary?

Today one can get a license to buy a hunting rifle in Japan, of course. There’s nothing wrong with bagging a deer or wild boar in season, if you follow the law. But handguns are associated with the yakuza gangsters, and if something like a submachine gun is found (as some were in a yakuza-owned apartment in Fukuoka four years ago) it’s a major scandal.

In 1992 a Japanese high school exchange student, Hattori Yoshihiro, was shot to death in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Dressed in a Halloween costume he had approached the house where he thought the Halloween party was to take place. The 6’2” owner standing at the door with a gun, ordered the boy to “Freeze!” But the boy, probably not understanding this barked order, replied that he was here for the party, whereupon the gun owner fired.

The killer conceded in court “there was no thinking involved” but that he was responding to his wife’s panic at the presence of this intruder in the yard. The jury acquitted him. Japanese public opinion was bewildered and of course, outraged. Everyone already knew, of course, that the U.S. was an unusually violent country. Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the Vietnam War, all of that.

But shooting a 16-year-old, 130 pound kid because he stumbles onto your property looking for a party, doing so in “self-defense” and getting acquitted of any crime by a jury of your peers?

Even to a people whose own country was once awash in guns, this seemed quite insane. I wonder what they think learning today that the district attorney’s office in Cleveland, Ohio has reported that the killing of a 12-year-old black boy named Tamir Rice by a cop—for brandishing a toy gun in a deserted park last year—was “objectively reasonable.”

Nothing has changed in the generation since Hattori Yoshihiro was killed in Baton Rouge. General homicide statistics aside, official figures show 61 mass shootings in the U.S. from 1982 to 2012. This figure does not include the attacks by Aaron Alexis (that killed 12 in September 2013), Elliot Rodger (that killed 6 May 2014), Dylann Storm Roof (that killed 9 June 2015) and others. There were 31 “school shootings” (as they’ve come to be called, as though they might constitute a regular section in the “Urban” pages of your newspaper) between the Columbine incident of 1999 and 2012. In recent years they seem to occur monthly.

Back to the beginning.  This gun culture is coeval with the American colonial experience. The very first Englishman to set foot on the shore of Plymouth Harbor on the south coast of Massachusetts in 1620, 21-year-old John Alden, bore in his hand an Italian-made wheel-lock carbine. It was no doubt intended primarily for hunting, but according to the NRA, it was “to provide for the common defense.”

It was discovered in the Alden House, a national monument in Duxbury, Massachusetts, where John lived from 1654 to 1687 and which remained in family hands to the late nineteenth century. It was found, loaded, hidden in a secret compartment near the front door during renovations in 1924.

You’d think it would be on display there in the house, which is now a sort of museum. Or maybe in the Museum of Science in Boston, or the Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem. But no, it’s in the NRA’s National Firearms Museum, in Fairfax, Virginia, proudly on permanent display.

The “Mayflower Gun,” as it’s called, is a Gun Lobby icon, a symbol of (north) American culture and pride. Museum staff reportedly insist that it had been placed in the cubbyhole where it was discovered for purposes of self-defense. But of course. Whatever other purposes can a truly American gun ever have?

Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu