Cristina de Middel / Magnum Photos

Unraveling the Threads of America’s Gun Culture

Megan Kang

November 15, 2023

New historical evidence charts the growth in firearm ownership

New historical evidence charts the growth in firearm ownership

A few weeks ago, my friend shared over breakfast that he feels like he needs a gun to be able to protect himself and his family in case someone breaks into his house. A college-educated man in his 30s who works at a private equity firm in Charlotte, North Carolina, he lives in a neighborhood filled with yuppies and hip breweries. Even though crime is rare where he lives, he doesn’t want to risk being ill-equipped on the off chance that someone else with a gun puts him and his family in danger. In an ideal world, he admitted, he wouldn’t need a gun, but we don’t live in an ideal world. We live in a world in which there are more guns than Americans — approximately 1.2 guns per American, a per capita rate double that of the next-highest country. 

My friend is not alone. Whether they are for protection or sport, guns appear to be woven into the very fabric of American identity and politics. In the present day, four out of 10 Americans live in a household with at least one gun. Among those who own guns, about three-quarters assert that guns are not only important for their protection but essential to their sense of freedom; moreover, a quarter claim that owning a gun is important for their identity. Across the political spectrum, guns are consistently cited as one of the top five problems in the U.S.

The profound influence of guns extends beyond politics, shaping the dynamics of crime and police interactions in the U.S. While research indicates that property and nonfatal violent crime rates here align with global trends, the U.S. is in a league of its own among developed nations when it comes to lethal violence. Our homicide rate is eight times higher than that of other high-income countries combined, which is largely due to our firearm homicide rate, which is 25 times higher. Guns have become more than just instruments; they are emblematic of a complex interplay between American culture, politics and public sentiment.

In 2023, it may be hard to conceive of a different version of American life in which guns are less central to our livelihoods. But things weren’t always this way. In the mid-20th century, criminologist Martin Wolfgang documented homicide patterns between 1948 and 1952 in Philadelphia and found that only 33% of the city’s homicides involved a gun. The figure has skyrocketed to 92% today, mirroring the national firearm homicide rate. Starting in the mid-20th century, public opinion polls documented the transition from Americans buying guns for hunting and leisure to buying them for self-protection against other people. Collectively, this work suggests that a profound transformation in American gun culture occurred between 1950 and today. 

By extending and examining a proxy for household gun ownership rates — the percentage of suicides committed with firearms — we traced a surprising trajectory back to 1949, when the metamorphosis of American gun culture began.

So, what happened over the last 70 years? Up until recently, it’s been impossible to say. The lack of a national gun registry in the U.S. and limited historical survey data have long shrouded the origins of America’s exceptional gun ownership rates in mystery. Without good data, even the most basic questions about guns — such as when and how the U.S. came to have so many guns — were untestable. 

However, recent research by Elizabeth Rasich and myself sheds light on this enigma. By extending and examining a proxy for household gun ownership rates — the percentage of suicides committed with firearms — we traced a surprising trajectory back to 1949, when the metamorphosis of American gun culture began. This is considered the best proxy of U.S. households that possess at least one gun, and has been used widely by gun researchers to understand the relationship between gun ownership and a broad range of topics such as the social costs of guns, police brutality and mass shootings. However, prior to our newly published data, it was only available starting from 1973. 

Contrary to the conventional wisdom that household gun ownership remained stable or declined in the 1960s and early 1970s, our research shows a 45% increase in the proxy for household gun prevalence from 1949 to 1990, peaking in the U.S. during the latter year. Notably, over half of this rise occurred between 1949 and 1972, the period in which researchers lacked systematic data on gun prevalence. 

Since the research on the rise of gun ownership was previously constrained to a period when crime was on a rise and guns had already begun to shift toward self-protective uses (1973 onward), current explanations for rising gun ownership largely focus on rising crime rates and decreasing trust in institutions. With the newly extended proxy, we find that the sharp increase in gun prevalence began before the period when crime was ascending and trust was falling. This uptick in the 1950s, amidst falling homicide rates and all-time high levels of trust in the government, prompts intriguing questions about the causes behind the surge in American households owning at least one gun. How and why did more households come to own guns during a period of relative calm?

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When trying to unravel potential explanations for this sudden increase in gun prevalence in the mid-20th century, we found that the unprecedented post-World War II economic boom, coupled with the federal government’s lenient stance on gun regulation, emerged as leading factors for the steep rise in demand and supply of firearms. As unemployment rates decreased and incomes rose, more Americans could afford firearms, once considered either a luxury or functional necessity. Simultaneously, cultural norms around gun ownership evolved as generations returned home from wars accustomed to wielding guns.

Examination of our history sheds light on our present-day situation. The recent surge in gun sales and loosening of firearm restrictions across the country demand our attention, with far-reaching consequences across time and space. For instance, guns purchased during the height of America’s previous crime spike in the 1990s are not only still around, but have repercussions on current generations and, by one estimate, account for one-tenth of the life-expectancy gap between white and Black males today. Additionally, the porous nature of state borders means that guns from states with looser gun laws often end up in states with stricter laws and higher crime

As unemployment rates decreased and incomes rose, more Americans could afford firearms, once considered either a luxury or functional necessity.

Despite these challenges, interventions restricting gun access, such as background checks and waiting periods for gun purchases, have proven effective in saving lives, as demonstrated in a recent study by Patrick Sharkey and myself. This evidence offers a glimmer of optimism for a safer future and underscores the need for thoughtful and targeted gun policies that prioritize public safety over the unchecked proliferation of firearms.

In grappling with a nation where guns outnumber people, a crucial lesson emerges from history: The policies and actions we implement today echo through generations. The stark reality that Americans now feel compelled to arm themselves against fellow citizens is a modern phenomenon, molded by historic events and the evolving policy landscape. History shows us that the policies and decisions we make today will determine the safety and gun culture of tomorrow. 

To tackle this issue, we must reject the notion that more guns equal greater safety. Guns, which can endure for over a century, extend their impact beyond individual households, affecting the collective well-being of communities today and tomorrow. Breaking this cycle necessitates advocating for sensible firearm policies that restrict access, a call to secure a future where Americans feel safe without relying on an arsenal — recognizing the far-reaching consequences of today’s decisions for generations to come.