Reflections on the American Gun Control Culture

Brennan Gardner Rivas
Engraving of two men dueling in a forest, each with a second in a topcoat trying to stop them, with a coach in the background half hidden in the woods.

The Burr and Hamilton Duel, 11 July, 1804, at Weehawken, N.J. Circa nineteenth century. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Discussions of American gun culture—its definition, origins, and impact—are nothing new to public discourse. A half-century after its initial publication, Richard Hofstadter’s pathbreaking essay about misrepresentations of American history being at the heart of our national gun culture still rings true.[1] In the 1970s and 1980s, scholarship examining the relationship between firearms and violence remained scant at best, but now there is no shortage of social scientists willing to explore the topic and highlight the human cost of this country’s unusually lax gun policies.

As an historian who has spent my career thus far tracing the development and enforcement of nineteenth-century gun regulations, I tend to emphasize another strand of this country’s tortured relationship with guns—a corollary whose absence from our national story has become a stumbling block for scholars of law and history alike. The often-overlooked American tradition of regulating guns is as strong as the national tradition of celebrating them.[2] Lamentations about our gun culture have overshadowed the power and presence of our “gun control culture,” to borrow Adam Winkler’s evocative formulation.[3]

In most instances where eighteenth- and nineteenth-century men might expect to carry or use firearms beyond the confines of their own homes, regulations directed their activities in great detail. Federal and state laws provided for the organization and arming of militia units, the storage of their weapons, and the responsibilities of their constituent members; federal law outlined the calling up of the militia, the provisioning of military forces, and the funding of arms manufacture; local law and custom dictated who could summon the posse comitatus (literally, the power of the county) to address an emergency and how civilians could be deputized into public service as police.

It was the prospect of men carrying and using weapons outside of these circumstances and beyond the boundaries of Burkean “regulated liberty” that posed a threat to public peace and order.[4] Deadly daggers and pocket pistols could be hidden in a man’s clothing, and a sword could be secreted away inside his cane. Such weapons could be schlepped into public markets and assemblies unnoticed only to reveal themselves to fellow neighbors when heated words were exchanged and a man’s reputation attacked. If the “difficulty” did not immediately result in a recounter, and particularly if the participants were members of the socio-political elite, a resort to trial by combat could easily come to pass. American men, North and South, might avenge their besmirched honor by invoking a laborious and intricately choreographed custom of challenging an enemy to a duel and meeting in an isolated (and preferably jurisdictionally ambiguous) locale to shoot, stab, or otherwise maim and kill him.[5] This procedure was regulated—but by the precepts of the code duellorather than a representative government.

American communities had some protection against these honor-fueled expressions of manliness that threatened the public peace. English common law tradition, which some colonial assemblies and state legislatures reenacted in statutory form, generally prohibited the carrying of arms into public spaces outside of militia or other civic service. Laws criminalizing dueling began to appear in the eighteenth century and multiplied around the turn of the nineteenth. The temptation to react violently to insult by drawing a knife or pistol produced prohibitions against concealing such weapons within a pocket or waistband.

A photograph of a snub barrel pistol made out of silver and wood resting on a gray background.

Derringer gun John Wilkes Booth used to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. Artifact in the museum collection, National Park Service, Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site, Washington, D.C. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The proliferation of bowie knives, pocket pistols, and revolvers during the antebellum nineteenth century made the suppression of dueling and weapon-carrying an uphill battle for Americans. The seemingly unshakeable power that honor-violence held upon American society meant that many people still preferred to settle a “difficulty” by drawing blood—or they could at least be cajoled into doing so when their reputations were on the line. But even though a man’s willingness and readiness to resort to lethal violence formed a significant element of nineteenth-century culture and gender norms, the behaviors it involved did not go uncriticized.

One of the earliest and most vocal opponents of dueling was Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, a prominent South Carolinian and Revolutionary War veteran. After the death of Alexander Hamilton, a fellow member of rank within the Society of the Cincinnati, he urged the organization to take a public stand against dueling. He believed that if the society’s members would refuse “either to send or accept a challenge, it might tend to annul this odious custom.”[6] Pinckney subsequently drafted a memorial and sent it to clergymen and political leaders across his home state hoping that they might mobilize the power of the church and public opinion to discourage duelists.

Newspaper editors proved to be some of the strongest supporters of a movement against dueling and weapon-carrying. Their trade in the exchange of news and ideas meant that they received challenges in disproportionate numbers and were all too familiar with the mounting death toll caused by men defending their honor.[7] Commentaries bemoaning the practices filled the pages of nineteenth-century publications.[8] Even those who might provide some feeble justification for the “deplorable practice” of dueling, like Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, spoke with utter disdain about “the bowie knife and the revolver” which were used in recounters that lacked the decorum, mutual consent, and equality of terms provided by the code duello. In the end, the “knife and revolver business” was nothing more than a “pretext of self-defence—thirsting for blood.”[9]

Much like Senator Benton himself, scholars today who look back on duels, brawls, and male honor culture have tended to emphasize the ineffectiveness of the various laws designed to curb these violent behaviors.[10] Because public opinion generally understood and supported a man’s defense of his and his family’s honor, local officials often turned a blind eye and juries tended to acquit duelist defendants.

Focusing on the perceived failure of statutes against dueling and weapon-carrying leaves the wrong impression, though, because it surreptitiously reinforces the idea that the United States has always elevated personal arms as a sacred totem. But the widespread denunciation of weapon-carrying, dueling, and the trappings of honor-violence shows us quite clearly that Americans were far from celebratory toward whatever flavor of “gun culture” it was that surrounded them.

In fact, the historical record shows us that nineteenth-century regulations evolved from targeting certain behaviors with weapons, like concealing them or using them in a duel, to prohibiting them in certain spaces, taxing them, requiring licenses to carry them, and sometimes banning the sale of certain kinds of them.[11] If we zoom out, the pattern and trajectory are unmistakable: as personal weapons increased in lethality and number, public criticism grew, and regulations shifted from targeting the use of weapons to targeting the possession of or access to them.

Rather than read this evolutionary character of gun policy as an unwelcome government intrusion into a preexisting individual right (as US Supreme Court conservatives are now doing), we should interpret it in light of the longstanding social disdain for the bloody consequences of carrying and using deadly weapons. Ours is not the first generation of Americans to negotiate the relationship between gun rights and their regulation—though, returning to Burke, ours is the first to endorse a revolutionary “liberty in the abstract” over a “manly, moral, regulated liberty” where guns are concerned.[12]


Endnotes

[1] Richard Hofstadter, “America as a Gun Culture,” American Heritage 21, no. 6 (October 1970). HYPERLINK: https://www.americanheritage.com/america-gun-culture

[2] Robert J. Spitzer, “Gun Law History in the United States and Second Amendment Rights,” Law and Contemporary Problems 80, no. 2 (2017), 55-84.

[3] Adam Winkler, Gun Fight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011), 173.

[4] Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (London: J. Dodsley, 1790), 7. HYPERLINK: https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.184486/page/n9/mode/2up?q=regulated+liberty

[5] Much of the literature surrounding dueling in American history treats it as a uniquely southern phenomenon. However, even though the practice of dueling continued in the American South through much of the nineteenth century, northerners of the early republic and antebellum periods sometimes followed its dictates. The Burr-Hamilton duel, fought in New Jersey, stands as an example, as do the countless sermons condemning the practice preached by northern ministers to northern congregations.

[6] Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Vice-President-General of the Society of the Cincinnati to the President of the New York State Society of the Cincinnati, Charleston, South Carolina, August 18, 1804, quoted in Lorenzo Sabine, Notes on Duels and Duelling, Alphabetically Arranged with a Preliminary Historical Essay (Boston: Crosby, Nichols, and Company, 3d ed., 1859), 342; on Pinckney’s efforts generally, see pp. 341-346. HYPERLINK: Notes on duels and duelling [microform] : alphabetically arranged, with a preliminary historical essay : Sabine, Lorenzo, 1803-1877 : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive

[7] Ryan Chamberlain, Pistols, Politics and the Press: Dueling in 19th Century American Journalism (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2009), 3; Kenneth S. Greenberg, Masters and Statesmen: The Political Culture of American Slavery (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), 26-27.

[8][8] For example, this opinion piece was republished nationally in 1840, including in the Journal of Camden, South Carolina. “Carrying Concealed Weapons,” Camden Journal (Camden, SC), October 28, 1840, 1. HYPERLINK: https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85042796/1840-10-28/ed-1/seq-1/#date1=1777&index=0&rows=20&words=concealed+Weapons+weapons&searchType=basic&sequence=0&state=&date2=1844&proxtext=%22concealed+weapons%22&y=13&x=12&dateFilterType=yearRange&page=1

[9] Thomas Hart Benton, Thirty Years’ View, or a History of the Working of the American Government for Thirty Years, from 1820 to 1850, 2 vols. (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1883) II: 148. HYPERLINK: https://archive.org/details/thirtyyearsviewo02bentrich/page/71/mode/1up?q=bowie+knife

[10] Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Southern Honor: Ethics & Behavior in the Old South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 358; Clayton Cramer, Concealed Weapon Laws of the Early Republic: Dueling, Southern Violence, and Moral Reform (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1999); Jack K. Williams, Dueling in the Old South: Vignettes of Social History (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1980), 60-72; C. A. Harwell Wells, “The End of the Affair? Anti-Dueling Laws and Social Norms in Antebellum America,” Vanderbilt Law Review 54, no. 4 (May 2001), 1825-1837.

[11] Patrick J. Charles, Armed in America: A History of Gun Rights from Colonial Militias to Concealed Carry (New York: Prometheus Books, 2019), 156-162, 174-175; Brennan Gardner Rivas, “In the Past, Americans Confronted Gun Violence by Taking Action,” Washington Post: Made by History Blog (June 2022). HYPERLINK: https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2022/06/03/past-americans-confronted-gun-violence-by-taking-action/

[12] Burke, Reflections, 7-8.

17 October 2023

About the Author

Brennan Gardner Rivas is a historian and independent scholar.

Share this Post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *