Gun Culture Supremacy: The cultural shift of gun ownership and the rise of political violence in the United States

By Stefanie Wallbraun

Political violence in the United States has increased sharply over the past decade. Aggravated by populist actors such as Donald Trump, a political climate has developed that is characterized by polarizing language, dehumanization of the opposition, and the propagation of crisis narratives. Political actors accuse the opposition of threatening the country’s future, which reinforces negative partisanship and fosters the idea that political violence is justified in certain cases. Approximately 20% of Americans believe that violence is at least sometimes an appropriate means to achieve an important political goal. The rise of political violence has manifested itself in various forms: Since spring of 2020, rising numbers of armed demonstrators have protested COVID-19 measures and the Black Lives Matter movement. Of these protests, about 20% took place at or near government buildings. Additionally, the number of violent threats directed at members of Congress remains high: With 7,500 threats recorded in 2022, the number is lower than in 2021, but nevertheless represents a twofold increase when compared with 2017. Likewise, attacks on politicians and institutions are increasing, and incidents like the Capitol riot, the assault on Speaker Pelosi’s husband, and shootings at the homes of Democrats in New Mexico regularly make headlines. Apart from political violence, gun violence in general remains at a high level. In 2022, 690 mass shootings [1] were recorded, and since July 2022, gun violence has been the leading cause of death for children and adolescents aged 19 and younger.

These phenomena share that an underlying conflict is addressed by using violence. In this article, I introduce the term Gun Culture Supremacy. Despite the wide variety of incidents I have outlined above, in each instance weapons are used as a means of conflict resolution, to confront unwanted groups and their demands, and to threaten – and eventually use – violence. However, there is more to guns in this context. Guns and gun ownership are connected to a distinct social identity and rooted in an ideological foundation. I argue that gun owners who embrace gun ownership as part of their identity derive additional rights from gun ownership. These rights are discursively grounded in a cultural and political supremacy of gun ownership propagated as part of a gun-centric social identity that is promoted by the National Rifle Association and other lobby groups. Those who consider gun ownership part of their identity expect their right to bear arms to be accepted without criticism or compromise, but at the same time claim a right to police others and control the political discourse. These additional rights are rooted in the purported superiority of gun owners as a social group: They are law-abiding citizens with high moral standards, “good guys” who defend their families against criminals but are also willing to show their strength and dominance to the outside world in defense of their right to bear arms.

What is Gun Culture Supremacy?

Gun culture describes the civilian possession and use of firearms and the values, norms, practices, and attitudes associated with it. Firearms have been widely used since the colonization of the continent and were necessary to subdue and displace indigenous people, ward off wild animals, hunt game, and survive on the frontier. In addition, until the 19th century, White men between 16 and 60 were obligated to own rifles and ammunition to participate in militia service and regular drills. Hunting also became a popular leisure activity, and hunting clubs were important social contact points [2]. Learning to hunt and shoot was also considered a rite of passage from boy to man [3]. By end of the 19th century, hunting emerged into a means of expression of belonging, nationality, and gender, and hunting was increasingly perceived as the embodiment of being an American [4]. In the mid-20th century, along the rise of leisure activities in general, hunting and sports shooting marked a generation of gun culture that was of recreational character. Towards the end of the 20th century, concealed carry and defense of self, family, and home from crime moved to the center of American gun culture. Today, self-defense is the most important reason for individuals to own guns [5].

Stickers with gun-related and political messages sold at a gun show in Ventura, California

Defensive gun culture is the basis for Gun Culture Supremacy, but the term additionally considers two other important developments that helped elevate the right to gun ownership to a supreme right. One development involves a shift of the interpretation of constitutional rights from the ‘group rights approach’ to the ‘individual rights approach’. After group rights were advanced in the wake of the civil rights movement, constitutional rights groups such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) advocated for stronger individual rights. The individual rights approach stresses the need to protect individual rights from government infringement, such as freedom of speech and the right to own guns, whereas the group rights approach accentuates group rights and the need for equal protection [6]. In her analysis, legal scholar Mary Anne Franks refers to the right to own guns as a ‘superright’ that gun rights advocates portray as superior to other rights and the rights of others. Simultaneously, gun rights advocates also depict it as a right that is under constant attack and therefore requires to be defended, even using force if necessary [7]. In this context, gun rights are absolutist in that they leave no room for compromise. Attempts to regulate guns are portrayed as an infringement on Second Amendment rights and rejected on the grounds that this would restrict the rights of law-abiding citizens. It is argued that guns are not the problem, but criminals who misuse them to commit crimes, even though studies show that the proliferation of firearms is linked to the prevalence of homicides by firearms. Consequently,

pointing to gun ownership as an absolute right disables political debate and the negotiation of interests, as it puts the rights of gun owners above the interests of others who, for example, wish to feel and be safe from gun violence. At the same time, the personal responsibility of gun owners and the social cost of gun ownership are underrepresented in the gun rights debate. Moreover, the debate is characterized by hyperindividualism [8]. Legal scholar Robin West notes that “[r]ights and rights-consciousness render us unduly atomized” and create “individualized, rights-spun cocoons, increasingly incapable of even approaching each other, much less achieving any meaningful moral or political empathetic connections with fellow citizens” [9]. Richard Thompson Ford, legal scholar and civil rights expert, even argues that over-accentuating individual rights can encourage narcissism and extremism and “provide […] a convenient vehicle […] for a culture of entitlement, self-obsession, and self-righteousness” [10]. In summary, the gun rights debate is characterized by the fact that gun rights are presented as non-negotiable, which makes discussion and compromise impossible. In addition, it is limited to the individual rights level and the interests of the community are excluded.

Another development is the public exercise of gun rights as a ‘superright’. Gun owners assume their gun rights openly in society and no longer carry just for self-protection, but to send a political message, to amplify their voices, and to silence others. Numbers of armed protest exploded in spring of 2020. Initially, armed demonstrations were related to opposition to COVID measures that were passed around this time. Following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, Black Lives Matter protests erupted and were oftentimes met with armed counter-protest by groups who disagree with the messages of the movement. The argument was that demonstrators armed themselves to protect the affected cities from violence, looting, and destruction by ‘rioters’. However, there are grounds for suspicion that this armed counter-protest intended to discourage demonstrations and threaten protesters. In late 2020, the main themes of armed protests shifted to support for Donald Trump, the police, and the Second Amendment. Since then, the majority of armed protest have typically represented conservative viewpoints more generally, such as opposition to abortion rights and LGBTQ rights. The presence of guns in public, in general but especially in the context of political protest, can cause fear in other protesters and displace them and their opinions. Besides subjective feelings of fear, studies show that armed protests are more likely to turn violent, and uninvolved participants are particularly at risk of being injured.

Armed protest is possible in states with liberal gun laws that allow residents to carry firearms publicly. Unrestricted carry (also referred to as ‘constitutional carry’) allows open or concealed carry without a permit [11] and is in effect in 25 states (as of January 2023). In 2010, only two states were unrestricted carry states, and the expansion of liberal gun laws is largely attributable to the efforts of the gun lobby. Most other states allow open and concealed carry for permit holders. However, not only is the acquisition and public carrying of guns becoming increasingly easier in most states. The extension of stand-your-ground laws to now 38 states signals that state governments tolerate the use of gun violence by civilians in self-defense. Stand-your-ground laws exempt individuals from the duty to retreat to a safe place in case of a threat and allow the use of deadly force for the purpose of self-defense under the condition that the defender’s presence in the place is lawful. The ‘castle doctrine,’ originally determining the home as the place where individuals have no duty to retreat, was also expanded, e.g. to the workplace, one’s vehicle, or in general a place where one’s presence is lawful. Lowering the threshold for civilian use of lethal force through stand-your-ground laws was intended to deter and reduce crime. However, studies find that they may increase total homicides as they remove the incentive to deescalate conflict. Furthermore, such laws facilitate racist violence because they disproportionately harm Persons of color (POC). Not only are POC more likely to be affected by gun violence, but in cases where the shooter is a Person of color and the victim is a White person, it is five times less likely that courts rule the homicide justifiable.

Gun-centric ideology and identity

Taken together, these developments – placing the individual right to gun ownership above group rights and creating a legal and cultural environment in which carrying a firearm is welcomed and (lethal) gun violence condoned – facilitate a cultural supremacy of gun ownership. Sociologist Jennifer Carlson who studied the reasons why men own and carry guns argues that the “turn toward gun carry has transformed the meanings of American citizenship for the men who carry guns” (Carlson, p. 10) and that they do so to exert authority by claiming the right to police others. This citizen-protector model of citizenship has been fostered and spread by the NRA for a long time. In this narrative, killing for the defense of oneself or others becomes a respectable and morally just act, and legal gun ownership is a prerequisite for this [12]. The promotion of gun ownership and use as a hallmark of good citizenship is just one aspect of the gun-centric ideology purported by the NRA. Over the last century, the NRA has developed a worldview to retain members and mobilize them for political activity to prevent gun laws. The organization constructed an ideology centered around small government, law and order, and other conservative ideological stances but remained nonpartisan until the 1970s, when it eventually joined forces with the Republican Party. From then on, the Republican Party advocated for gun rights to attract gun owners, especially NRA members, as voters. Both gun rights and the use of guns for self-defense subsequently became conservative ideological stances[13].

The social identity promoted by the NRA is characterized by self-reliance, independence, and liberty, inspired by self-sufficient Western heroes who use revolvers and rifles to enforce extrajudicial justice [14]. In the face of declining trust in government and law enforcement, this narrative still strikes a nerve today and the NRA as well as the Republican Party fend off gun control by emphasizing the self-reliance of gun owners and the associated right to self-defense. A 2017 survey of the Pew Research Center confirms the success of this narrative: 74% of gun owners stated that the right to own guns is essential to their personal sense of freedom, and among conservative Republican gun owners, the percentage goes up to 95%. Additionally, since the last third of the 20th century, the reason for gun owners to own firearms shifted away from gun-related leisure activities like hunting and sport shooting to gun ownership for self-defense and protection of home and family, and today, 67% of gun owners say they own a gun for safety reasons.

What role do guns play in Gun Culture Supremacy?

Gun owners give a broad range of reasons when asked why they carry guns in public. Jennifer Carlson found that the decision to carry in public is a reaction to overall socioeconomic decline that causes feelings of economic and physical insecurity that are handled through gun carrying. It is also an expression of masculinity and taking over the role of the citizen-protector provides men with relevance to compensate their declining role as the breadwinner of a family [15]. Similarly, sociologist Angela Stroud concludes that, with respect to men, guns provide masculinity, help protect the family, and compensate the loss of strength due to age. For women, who represent around one quarter of gun owners, guns facilitate self-protection rather than family protection, compensate strength differences, and make them feel empowered [16]. Both studies uncover the cultural connection of guns to the ideal of personal responsibility and conclude that not the practical use of guns is in the center but the symbolic value: The gun identifies the carrier as a law-abiding citizen who protects family, self, and society and in return deserves to be treated with dignity.

The role of guns in Gun Culture Supremacy goes beyond the practical purpose of self-defense, intimidation, and crime deterrence. Guns are the symbol and carrier of the social identity of gun owners and signal the associated values and norms to others. While gun owners want to communicate their group-membership, self-reliance, and role of the citizen-protector, they are also aware of the fear and intimidation they may cause in others and use this in their interest. Gun Culture Supremacy wants to establish and demonstrate dominance over other groups and suppress their arguments and opinions.

Patches with gun-related and political messages sold at a gun show in Kenner, Louisiana

This is a concerning obstacle to any democratic exchange of ideas and opinions. Gun Culture Supremacy assumes that gun ownership is the basis of supremacy. The gun-centric social identity purported by the NRA portrays gun owners as a morally superior group of law-abiding citizens, as the good guys who prevent crime and protect society, who therefore are entitled to own guns. In this narrative, the individual right to gun ownership is placed above group rights and public safety. Second, gun ownership signals the claim to supremacy to society. The identification as a gun owner is closely linked to conservative ideology and Republican partisanship, and carrying a gun publicly indicates that an individual holds certain values. By locking out other demands and opinions, e.g. by intimidating protest participants or placing individual gun rights above public safety, gun owners’ claims are elevated above those of other members of society. Finally, guns are no longer only a symbol but also a means to enforce the claim to supremacy when all other ways and arguments fail to achieve the desired goal. As the above examples show, firearms are increasingly used to address conflicts in the interpersonal as well as political spheres.

What does Gun Culture Supremacy mean for the polarized United States?

The political fight over gun control measures in the face of mass shootings, political violence, and high numbers of gun deaths divides the American society and political arena. The Democratic Party advocates for stricter gun laws, e.g. preventing mentally ill people from gun purchases and implementing universal background checks, which both have broad support among Americans, even though these are the only measures that have majority support from both parties. However, the Republican Party is blocking most efforts under the guise of protecting gun rights of law-abiding citizens, so that the gun control issue is almost completely deadlocked.

Moreover, gun rights are tied to norms and values, and gun owners who consider their ownership part of their identity perceive gun control as an attack on themselves, their lifestyle, and their place in society because they, as gun owners, are morally superior law-abiding citizens who are entitled to gun rights. Gun Culture Supremacy is characterized by an absolutist approach to gun rights that leaves no room for compromise. It disables political debate as it puts gun rights over reasonable demands and interests of other groups and limits the debate to the individual rights level.

Besides carrying a gun in public for self-defense, individuals increasingly bring guns to send a political message, to elevate the own voice, and suppress others. As the gun-centric social identity is closely linked to the Republican partisan identity, gun culture aggravates the political and political polarization of the country. The wide prevalence and easy availability of guns adds a dangerous and violent component to the country’s division, as open hostility increasingly manifests itself in politically motivated violence.


About the author:

Stefanie Wallbraun is a doctoral researcher at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies and researcher at the GKAT Graduate School “Authority & Trust”. Her dissertation project analyzes the impact of American gun culture on social and political polarization in the United States. She is particularly interested in the role of social identity in gun culture and polarization and the impact on social and political trust. She recently took a research trip to the U.S. and visited gun shows in several states to learn how politicized contemporary gun culture is.
To get in touch with Stefanie, follow her on Twitter @StefWallbraun or send an e-mail.


[1] Mass shootings include politically and not politically motivated shootings.

[2] M. Lenz, ‘Arms are necessary’, Doctoral Dissertation, Cologne University (2010), p. 103f.

[3] R. J. Spitzer, The politics of gun control, Seventh Edition (New York, London: Routledge, 2018), p. 19.

[4] D. J. Herman, Hunting and the American imagination (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001), p. 4.

[5] D. Yamane, ‘The sociology of U.S. gun culture’, Sociology Compass 11 (2017), 1–10.

[6] M. A. Franks, The cult of the Constitution (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2019), 12.

[7] Ibid., p. 60.

[8]J. Blocher, ‘Gun Rights Talk’, Boston University Law Review 94 (2014), 813–34, at 820–7.

[9] R. West, ‘Rights, Capabilities, and the Good Society’, Fordham Law Review 69 (2001), 1901–32, at 1912.

[10] R. T. Ford, Rights gone wrong: How law corrupts the struggle for equality, 1. ed. (New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2011), p. 23f.

[11] The requirements for permitless carry can vary by state law.

[12] J. Carlson, Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), Chapter 1: American Dreams, American Nightmares.

[13] M. J. Lacombe, Firepower: How the NRA Turned Gun Owners into a Political Force (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021).

[14] O. G. Davidson, Under fire: The NRA and the battle for gun control (New York: Henry Holt & Co, 1993), p. 42.

[15] Carlson, Citizen-Protectors.

[16] A. Stroud, ‘Good Guys with Guns: Hegemonic Masculinity and Concealed Handguns’, Gender and Society 26 (2012), 216–38.

References

Blocher, J., ‘Gun Rights Talk’, Boston University Law Review 94 (2014), 813–34.

Carlson, J., Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Davidson, O. G., Under fire: The NRA and the battle for gun control (New York: Henry Holt & Co, 1993).

Ford, R. T., Rights gone wrong: How law corrupts the struggle for equality, 1. ed. (New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2011).

Franks, M. A., The cult of the Constitution (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2019).

Herman, D. J., Hunting and the American imagination (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001).

Lacombe, M. J., Firepower: How the NRA Turned Gun Owners into a Political Force (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021).

Lenz, M., ‘Arms are necessary’, Doctoral Dissertation, Cologne University (2010).

Spitzer, R. J., The politics of gun control, Seventh Edition (New York, London: Routledge, 2018).

Stroud, A., ‘Good Guys with Guns: Hegemonic Masculinity and Concealed Handguns’, Gender and Society 26 (2012), 216–38.

West, R., ‘Rights, Capabilities, and the Good Society’, Fordham Law Review 69 (2001), 1901–32.

Yamane, D., ‘The sociology of U.S. gun culture’, Sociology Compass 11 (2017), 1–10.



Cite this blog post
The Editors (2023, February 8). Gun Culture Supremacy: The cultural shift of gun ownership and the rise of political violence in the United States. HCA Graduate Blog. Retrieved May 21, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/pg62

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3 Responses

  1. Thomas Burnham says:

    A minor correction: 18th/early 19th Century militia members would have owned muskets, not rifles.

    I think this article hits the nail on the head in a lot of ways, and gun-culture is certainly mostly associated with the right wing, but I’m not sure myself gun-culture is this monolithic. There are collectivist and not just hyperindividualist gun cultures in the US, exemplified by collectivist but often decentralized organizations such as the Socialist Rifle Association, John Brown Gun Club, Redneck Revolt, etc. Also, armed/open-carrying left-wing counterprotestors have been appearing at events around the US which are threatened by the armed/open-carrying right-wingers mentioned in this article. Just one example: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/aug/30/texas-drag-brunch-armed-protesters-roanoke

    Perhaps outside the scope of the article, and maybe not representative of the majority, but definitely seems relevant to the idea of polarization.

  2. Céline Guilleux says:

    Dear Hypotheses blogger,

    We found your article particularly interesting. To increase its visibility so the community can more easily appreciate it, we made it a headline article on en.hypotheses.org and hypotheses.org portals.

    Best regards,
    The Hypotheses team

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