In other words, the language people use when talking about guns is often designed to appeal to Americans’ deepest sense of cultural identity, an image that has been crafted and reinforced by gun imagery and mythology for centuries. “That imagery, from the mythology of the flintlock-toting yeoman … to the urban soldier in the 1960s,” Spitzer said. “This is all wrapped up in a single bundle of individualism, personal initiative, the protection of liberty, and many other values that have been lumped together.”
The link between guns and American identity is so profound that even when people aren’t talking about guns, they often use gun-related descriptions. Something that’s ready to go is “locked and loaded,” strategic missteps are “misfires,” people “shoot” for their goals, and antagonistic remarks are observed thusly: “shots fired.”
“No wonder it is hard to get rid of gun violence when Washington cannot even get rid of gun vocabulary,” Peter Baker wrote for The New York Times in 2013. “The vernacular of guns suffuses the political and media conversation in ways that politicians and journalists are often not even conscious of, underscoring the historical power of guns in the American experience. Candidates ‘target’ their opponents, lawmakers ‘stick to their guns,’ advocacy groups ‘take aim’ at hostile legislation and reporters write about a White House ‘under fire.’”
The prevalence of these expressions feeds back into a culture that includes guns as a crucial part of the American story, an image that gun manufacturers have perpetuated for profit. “One of the chief marketing ploys was to glamorize handguns as tools used by Western pioneers,” Spitzer said.
Yet gun laws at the time when early settlers were fanning out across the United States, he says, were more strict than they are today. “As settlers moved west in the 19th century, one of the very first things that was done was to enact anti-carry laws. If you came to a village, you had to check [your gun] at the sheriff’s office. Every state except three enacted laws barring or severely restricting the concealed carry of firearms,” Spitzer said. “We see in the last 30 years the exact opposite phenomenon. The implicit argument for doing it is, ‘This is our tradition and Americans need to be responsible for their own safety,’ but in fact our history is sort of flipped. Regulations were much stricter in the so-called Wild West than they have been in the past 30 years.”
Misperceptions about the actual history of gun laws, Spitzer believes, are rooted in pop culture. People were fascinated by these tales of shootouts, and “exaggerated or grossly distorted” versions of actual events often traveled farther than truth. As Adam Winkler points out in his book, Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America, even Dodge City, Kansas—the legendary frontier town once home to the gunslinger Wyatt Earp—had a prominent street sign displayed in 1879 that read, “The Carrying of Firearms Strictly Prohibited.”