It is important to analyze turn-of-the-century vigilantism, because the anti-government rhetoric and fetishization of firepower of the contemporary gun-rights movement come from vigilante values. The gun lobby invokes the classic fears behind vigilantism: of a threat to personal safety by the lower orders or an assault on vital interests by government officials. It seeks to establish the right of a private individual to wage social war, at will, against "government tyranny," the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, or any class of people deemed "dangerous" to public safety. In the words of the NRA spokesman Fred Romero, "The Second Amendment is not there to protect the interests of hunters, sports shooters, and casual plinkers.... The Second Amendment is there as a balance of power. It is literally a loaded gun in the hands of the people held to the heads of government." Gun-rights fundamentalists wish to protect from regulation not only the hunter's rifle or the shopkeeper's .38 but also military weapons that are capable of killing large numbers of people very rapidly.
Vigilante values are invoked in the abstract by the leadership of the NRA and similar organizations. But those values are acted on by a variety of groups that use military-style weapons to gain or maintain social or political power. Self-styled militias such as the Montana Freemen, the Militia of Montana, and the various "Common Law" sects typically operate as vigilance organizations, using their weapons to intimidate others in their communities, usually to gain some advantage or immunity: to evade taxes or debts; to win boundary disputes with neighbors or with the Bureau of Land Management; to evade or nullify government regulations and policies that offend them, such as school integration or laws against spousal and child abuse. The terrorism associated with white-supremacist organizations such as Aryan Nations, WAR, Christian Identity, World Church of the Creator, the Phineas Priesthood, and The Order is framed by its exponents as a form of political struggle, analogous to the revolutionary terrorism of the IRA and the Basque ETA. Some of these groups do have roots in political organizations—including the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazi Party. But typically they are private enterprises, founded by charismatic leaders or organized around a single armed and alienated family, which value guns as instruments of political strength and seek to acquire as much firepower as they can.
The number of guns in circulation is certainly an element in the modern gun culture, but the cultural ethic that sanctions private violence is the critical element. Switzerland and Israel, where army reservists maintain their own weapons, have comparable levels of distribution. Yet those weapons are rarely used for private revenge or crime. Nor can we put all the blame for gun violence on the excesses of the contemporary media. European and Japanese audiences consume violent American films as avidly as we do, and their own studios produce highly successful ultraviolent movies without comparable national homicide rates. What makes the difference is not just the availability of weapons but the ethic, rooted in our cultural history, that teaches the people how, when, and on whom violence may be used.
Arming America is a groundbreaking study of the material basis of the gun culture. I hope Bellesiles will continue his work, bringing the same stringent quantitative analysis and a deeper reading of cultural history to bear on guns and the civil violence of the twentieth century.