America’s guns have changed in my lifetime

The guns I grew up with wouldn’t have been much use in a massacre.

Comparing the United States to other countries is one of the most powerful arguments for gun control. Recurring mass shootings is a problem unique to the US, and so it requires an equally unique explanation. Other industrialized countries also have mental illness, video games, abortion, secularism, and all the other factors NRA-sponsored politicians and pundits raise to divert attention from guns. But other wealthy countries don’t have America’s mass-shooting problem, or its gun-violence problem in general, because they don’t have America’s guns.

It really is that simple.

The best attempt I’ve seen to counter this argument is to compare the US not with any other country, but with our own past: The problem can’t be the sheer number of guns in the US, because Americans have always owned a lot of guns.

Gallup has been asking about gun ownership since the 1960s, and the percentage of American households with guns has been fairly stable, perhaps even showing a slight downward trend.

Mass shootings weren’t considered a major problem in 1960, this counter-argument goes, so the cause can’t just be guns. Whatever the X-factor is, it has to be something that has changed in recent decades. That, presumably, is how people come to blame video games, abortion, and secularism, despite their presence in other countries.

The flaw in this logic is that the guns of America’s civilian arsenal have changed a lot in recent decades. Yes, a lot of Americans have always owned guns. But they didn’t own guns like this.

You’ll often see this point made about the guns of the 18th century, the ones the Founders had in mind when they wrote the Second Amendment — as in this cartoon.

What’s not as well appreciated is how much guns have changed in living memory. My memory, for example.

Sometime in my pre-teen years in the late 1960s, my Dad thought it might be a bonding experience for us to go hunting. So he bought a 12-gauge shotgun for himself and a .410 shotgun for me. His held five shells and mine three. Both moved new shells into the firing chamber with a pump action. Pumping could throw off your aim, so without a lot of practice it was just about impossible to shoot even the five or three shells quickly, at least if you wanted to hit anything.

And while reloading wasn’t that hard, once you got onto it, it wasn’t nearly as quick or easy as snapping in a new clip. But it didn’t need to be. The point was to keep firing until your quarry either fell or fled, which would probably happen in a matter of seconds. After that, you were looking at another extended period of stalking — that’s why the sport is called “hunting” rather than “shooting” — so you had plenty of time to dig a few shells out of a pocket and slide them into the shotgun.

Dad also owned a .22 rifle, which typically lived out on our farm, about 15 miles from our house in town. I don’t remember how many bullets it held, but it wasn’t many. I occasionally shot targets with it, but not with any practical goal like hunting or self-defense. (A post on a survivalist message board is blunt about such a rifle’s self-defense limitations: “A .22 round has virtually no ‘stopping power’. It takes a hit directly to vital organs like the heart or brain to ‘stop’ somebody with a .22.”)

That was our whole arsenal. We were, I believe, a more-or-less typical gun-owning family of the era. (At least in the rural Midwest. Perhaps things were already different in the South; I wouldn’t know.) Many of my friends had a similar exposure to guns, which they used (rarely, and under adult supervision) to hunt quail or ducks or rabbits. (I once ate fried squirrels that a neighbor had killed. They did indeed taste like chicken.) I heard about men going on deer-hunting trips, but I don’t remember my friends bragging about hunting deer themselves.

One possible use for our guns never came up: killing people intentionally. Everyone knew, of course, that a shotgun or a rifle of any caliber could kill someone. Occasionally I would hear about hunting accidents, or that someone (though not anyone I knew personally) had committed suicide with a gun. My dentist once surprised burglars at his vacation home, and they shot him with a shotgun they were stealing from him. (At least that’s the story I remember hearing. He lived, but ever after had marks on his face from where the pellets hit. Years later he became the father-in-law of my best friend from elementary school.)

But shooting people was an accident to be avoided, not something we trained to do. For practice we shot at bottles or clay pigeons, not human figures on paper. Dad and I never talked about repelling a home invasion with our shotguns, and I doubt he had such a plan. (Our home would have been pretty easy to invade in the summer, when we often just fastened a screen door with a hook. The shotguns were in the basement and unloaded. Using them quickly would have been difficult. If Dad secretly kept a more convenient gun, I believe I would have found it when I cleaned out the house after he died.) And we certainly never discussed joining a group that might fight against the government.

The guns also were not a part of our identity, either as individuals or as a family. They were sporting equipment, like baseball gloves or basketballs, and had little symbolic significance. So we did not assemble a collection to display with pride, or join a shooting club, or hang around in gun shops. I don’t think I knew what the NRA was.

I had a toy M-16 as a kid, so I knew about such weapons, which soldiers were using in Vietnam. Apparently the civilian semi-automatic version, the AR-15, was already on the market. But it never occurred to me that we might buy one. (Why would we? If you hit a rabbit with a burst from an AR-15, there wouldn’t be much left.)

In short, our gun-owning household didn’t have anything like the destructive capability that millions and millions of American households have today. If I had ever gone on a rampage with our guns, I couldn’t have run up anything like the body counts we’ve seen lately, and most of my victims would probably have lived. Once the police arrived, I couldn’t have held them at bay for long.

I don’t even remember having that fantasy. Owning a shotgun made me an occasional hunter, not a warrior. My warrior fantasies, such as they were, involved joining the military, not going out in a blaze of glory on Main Street.

So no, past America is not comparable to America today in terms of an individual’s ability to commit mass murder. The percentage of gun-owning households may not have changed that much in the past 60 years, but the guns Americans own certainly have.

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  • aloysiusjet  On June 6, 2022 at 9:43 am

    Does the ability to buy an automatic rifle contribute to a desire to shoot people who have “wronged” you? Do all the war games where the player wins who kills the most help push a person (nearly always male) to want to kill/be a hero and add to that one can buy an AR15 type weapon (in Uvalde, same day). I agree that the initial desire might fizzle if the weapons were not so readily available.

  • Brian Douglas  On June 6, 2022 at 10:11 am

    I saw an interesting opinion piece on the CNN app this morning by a retired law enforcement officer. Among his suggestions, would be to reclassify AR-15s as Class 3 Firearms which seems to me would be an administrative procedure that would not require any congressional action only action by the Treasury Department (ATF). Is the gentleman correct? Could it be this easy? Here is the link:

  • Don Porter  On June 6, 2022 at 11:01 am

    My experience growing up in Houston (born in 1942) was essentially identical. A couple of shotguns in a closet – reluctantly pulled out when Dad felt compelled to join friends on a deer hunt, which happened rarely. And a .22 that killed mostly tin cans. On a visit to grandma’s when I was about 11 or 12, Dad instructed me to shoot “that rabbit”, which I could not see. That led to my first eyeglasses. I think the point that AR-15s and the like are now prevalent and easily available is indeed an explanation for the mass shootings. Not for suicides, though. America exceeds in that category as well. I doubt that statistics are available (the NRA sees to that) but do we have even a guess at the actual current mix of firearms making up that 400 million or so?

  • philipfinn  On June 6, 2022 at 11:14 am

    No one seems to remember how in the 60s, we had assassinations. All Boomers can tell you where they were and what they were doing when three events took place: Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon, The Vietnam War ended (arguably the Kent State Massacre) and the Kennedy Assassination. They were the first calls for gun control, beyond the “disarm the Blacks” movement which was ironic in how the majority of assassination target were Blacks.
    Mass shootings, IMO, are a Western version of Suicide Bombings.

    • weeklysift  On June 6, 2022 at 4:29 pm

      I nearly did a section on how violent “Happy Days” America was, but the post was already getting too long. Apparently, the US has always had more violence than comparable countries.

      • philipfinn  On June 6, 2022 at 5:57 pm

        If all you knew about American history was what you saw on movies and TV, you would think nothing happened in the TWO CENTURIES between 1492 (Columbus) and 1693 (Salem Witch Trials) with perhaps a footnote to Jamestown or Thanksgiving.
        But, in fact, The New World served as a proxy war for the Counter-Reformation, once they figured out they hadn’t found a western route to the Spice Islands.
        It seems, as Adam Serwer wrote, “Cruelty is the point”.

  • Hyacinth Strachwitz  On June 6, 2022 at 11:28 am

    When I as in high school I target shot with a muzzle loading replica Hawken Rifle. It evoked American history and the frontier and was more than adequate for shooting a deer. How could Republicans object if that was the only kind of weapon private citizens could own? Kept in a locker at the gun club, naturally. Because they want to hunt deer with an assault rifle? They should watch the Deer Hunter.

  • Dan B  On June 6, 2022 at 1:29 pm

    You can’t make this stuff up:

    “Who are these people,” Navarro said during his court appearance on Friday. “This is not America. I mean, I was a distinguished public servant for four years and nobody ever questioned my ethics. And they’re treating me in this fashion.”

    Nobody except the U.S. Office of Special Counsel:

    And maybe some other people too:

  • BillCinSD  On June 6, 2022 at 2:30 pm

    So true… I’m 60 and grew up in a rural area of MD’s eastern shore. Long guns, primarily shotguns, were ubiquitous as this was/is prime waterfowl country. Our small town has several gunsmith/sporting goods stores with lots of guns for sale. Many, if not most, of my friends and neighbors had such guns. It wasn’t uncommon to see a shotgun in a rear window gun rack of a pickup. What they didn’t have were the militaristic, tactical type weapons we see today. Also as noted, the “attitude” was different and gun ownership was not such a hot political issue which divided our community. Of course this was all before the “Revolt at Cincinnati” which unleashed the NRA… Thank you for the excellent article. It’s the America I remember. I miss her…

  • Timothy Swanson  On June 6, 2022 at 2:44 pm

    I grew up in the 80s, so even later than you. My family got into guns from a southern transplant pastor who hunted. We never did do the hunting thing, but we enjoyed target shooting. The most beloved gun was a Marlin lever action 30-30 – a fairly archaic gun, and more used for cowboy action stuff than serious deer hunting, although that was its original purpose. We did have a home defense revolver that we practiced with, but never had a need for. And, of course, .22 rifles. Even now, my few guns are along that line: guns with a history or for “plinking” but nothing of a modern military nature. (I do have a Russian WWI era bolt action, which holds all of four shots and is a beast to reload.) I haven’t been out to the range in years, though, because of the change you mention. It used to be the serious target shooters, the hunters practicing, and people having fun. Now, it seems to be all douchebros with their AR-15s and antisocial bumper stickers.

  • Jeff Copeland  On June 6, 2022 at 3:50 pm

    I notice that the number of households with guns has declined slightly, but that means that the number of guns PER household has increased. To drag out the obvious, that means a larger number of guns in a smaller number of hands. Under what POSSIBLE circumstances do I need multiple AR-15s?

    The Kennedy assassination shocked Congress into closing the loophole that allowed you to buy a sniper rifle by mail order. I’m still amazed that Biden, as a Senator, was able to shepherd an assault-weapons ban through Congress. But Scalia’s Heller decision (as usual, for Scalia, bending the law to match his pre-conceived conclusion) opened the floodgates.

  • Anthony Vinson  On June 6, 2022 at 3:58 pm

    I’m 61 and my experience tracks with yours. Guns were, as you wrote, sporting equipment rather than fetishized totems. (Pun intended) I saw the shift begin in the 80s and steadily increase through the 90s thanks in part to alarmists on talk radio.

  • Neal  On June 6, 2022 at 7:23 pm

    Your new COVID infection rate apparently is County data. But I gather your hospitalization and mortality rates are national. That paragraph is a bit ambiguous.

  • ecjspokane  On June 6, 2022 at 9:05 pm

    My guns experience was like that described – pump 12-ga, single-shot
    .410 and 1912 pump .22. I was given the .22 and still have though I
    haven’t shot it for decades. As a military historian I did a lot of
    weapons research from 16″ battle ship rifles to the smallest ones, as
    well as their civilian counterparts. The semi-auto military style
    weapons are designed for only one thing – killing as many people as
    possible. They are lousy hunting weapons for any but spray-and-pray
    shooters, who should not be allowed to hunt.

    No civilians have any need nor reason to have them except for
    overthrowing the government. Give me a Mauser-action bolt-action for
    hunting, please. And a tactical shotgun for home defense.

    Take care and keep the great thoughts coming.

    Eric Johnson
    Spokane, WA 99202

  • Richmond Shreve  On June 6, 2022 at 9:28 pm

    The mythology we love in America creates the implicit belief that an independent individual who uses superior force is the best way to prevail over evil: the Lone Ranger, Batman, Superman, Spiderman, Dirty Harry, Rambo, . . . and too many more to catalog properly. All of these hero stories perpetuate a belief in virtuous violence. Stories about heroes who de-escalate potentially violent confrontations wouldn’t be box-office blockbusters.

    So why are we surprised that millions of Americans earnestly believe that a handgun or a military-style rifle is necessary to keep handy to protect the home and hearth. Is it really so strange that young men have fantasies about defending all they hold dear with their personal firepower? What’s all that camo clothing, survival equipment, and “tactical” accessories about?

    It’s delusional.

  • Roger  On June 8, 2022 at 10:54 pm

    I had a Johnny Seven OMA (One Mann Army) toy as a kid. (So did Tom Hanks, BTW)> And we knew what make-believe was.

  • ccyager  On June 11, 2022 at 6:37 pm

    I’ve always hated guns. My father enjoyed hunting just about anything but he had stuffed his first buck’s head and hung it in the kitchen above the kitchen table for us to look at every day. He decided when I turned 12 that I needed to know about guns so I’d “respect” them. He had 3 hunting rifles he kept in the basement. He took me out in the country one day, set up some cans on a wall, and taught me how to shoot a .22 hunting rifle. I hated it. I hated the smell, the recoil, the sound. I’ve not touched a gun since. My brother had a BB gun he used to harass the squirrel population but he wasn’t interested in any other guns, and he left the BB gun behind after graduating high school. There were many hunters, though, in my hometown, and it was an accepted sport. To my knowledge, no one considered a gun a tool for killing human beings he didn’t like or had made him angry (I’m using the male pronoun here because it doesn’t seem like there have been any female mass shooters. Please correct me if I’m wrong.).


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