Jumping into the scholarly literature on guns and gun violence in the United States can be intimidating, both because of the range of disciplines that address the subject and because of the intensity of debate over a few contentious questions. A non-exhaustive list of fields contributing to “US gun studies” would include not only my own field of history but also public policy, legal studies, criminology, sociology, political science, literature, and public health. Despite the diversity of applicable disciplines, they have gravitated toward a few central questions. Some fields are interested in the origins of US “gun culture,” its relationship to the founding generation, the Second Amendment, or the rapid development of the country in the nineteenth century. Others are oriented toward contemporary issues, typically those like the role of firearms in the United States’ exceptional levels of violence among wealthy countries.
Eight years ago I was a historian of the twentieth-century United States with no background in gun studies but with an interest in the field related to a new project. Now I’m writing a new book, Gun Country: How Gun Culture, Control, and Consumerism Created an Armed Mass Movement in Cold War America, for the University of North Carolina Press. The following key works from a number of disciplines, while not exhaustive, have nevertheless helped orient me to central questions in the field, and they serve as a strong introduction to what scholars have accomplished.
Philip J. Cook, “The Great American Gun War: Notes from Four Decades in the Trenches.” Crime and Justice, 2013
Cook is a renowned public policy scholar at Duke University who has spent decades publishing in the field of gun studies. This article provides an overview to that field. He notes at the outset that less than fifty years ago, observers bemoaned the lack of critical research on guns and gun violence in American society. Since then, the field has made impressive strides. Cook sets up two “fronts” on which the scholarly battles play out in what he calls the “Great American Gun War”: first, a cohort of mostly social scientists that studies the political, social, economic, and cultural impact of guns in the United States; and second, a group of mostly historians and legal scholars that debates the “true meaning” of the Second Amendment.
Frank Zimring, “Is Gun Control Likely to Reduce Violent Killings?” University of Chicago Law Review, 1968
Zimring is one of the founders of the scholarly field of gun studies, and this 1968 article is among its foundational texts. When he began writing at the University of Chicago Law School (today he continues to work at the University of California, Berkeley), there was almost no scholarly research on guns and their impact on crime and daily life in the United States. In 1968 Zimring worked on the underappreciated but important U.S. National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, appointed by President Lyndon Johnson after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Zimring served as a research director on the commission and coauthored Firearms & Violence in American Life (1969), the first comprehensive report of its kind. He has long argued, across hundreds of articles and many books, that guns are the essential element in explaining the unique lethality of US violence.
David J. Silverman, “Guns, Empire and Indians.” Aeon, 2016
Two recent extraordinary books—David J. Silverman’s Thundersticks (2016) and Priya Satia’s Empire of Guns (2018)—have expanded our chronological and spatial understanding of North American gun history. This article by Silverman and the one below by Satia neatly encapsulate the important arguments each makes. Silverman’s book traces how Native Americans from the seventeenth century built their societies around firearms, access to which could determine the fate of a particular group or nation against its rivals. As he writes here, Indians lived in “a world awash with guns and, with it, waves of terrible gun violence.” The article tells one story of the Mohawks in the 1630s that demonstrates that deterministic narratives about Indian societies and “guns, germs, and steel” are too simplistic and fail to account for the way those societies adapted to and even thrived with new technologies.
Priya Satia, “Guns and the British Empire.” Aeon, 2018
In the prize-winning Empire of Guns (2018), Satia writes of the significance of the firearms industry to the rapid growth of the industrial revolution in Great Britain. In this article she draws our attention not to the American colonies but the empire on the other side of the world, in South Asia, where British authorities intentionally stifled the growth of a well-respected Indian domestic arms industry, believing their own economic success required Indian dependency on the British technology and know-how.
Sanford Levinson, “The Embarrassing Second Amendment.” Yale Law Journal, 1989
While gun rights proponents today are quick to point to the Second Amendment as the foundation for their individual right to own a gun—a right only confirmed for the first time by the US Supreme Court in the controversial 2008 Heller v. D.C. decision—for much of US history, Americans generally neglected this constitutional provision. Well into the 1970s, the general legal and academic consensus was that it was a relic of the eighteenth century, a restriction on the federal government’s ability to deny the states the right to arm militias in light of contemporaneous fears of standing armies commanded by tyrants. With the creation of state National Guard units at the turn of the twentieth century, the amendment appeared moribund, and the 1939 United States v. Miller decision seemed to confirm it.
But beginning in the 1960s, a concerted effort among a cohort of right-leaning legal scholars began publishing essays, mostly in law school journals, arguing that the amendment had long been misinterpreted—in reality, they wrote, the founders intended to confer an individual right to own a firearm independent of service in a militia. This article by Sanford Levinson, a celebrated liberal legal scholar, drew attention to this changing understanding of the amendment, arguing that legal scholarship may have long been motivated not by an attempt to understand the founders’ intent but instead by scholars’ own political leanings. The article was an important turning point for the mainstreaming of what came to be called the “Standard Model” of the Second Amendment: the idea that the founders intended for it to confer an individual right to firearms ownership independent of military service.
Saul Cornell, “‘Half-Cocked’: The Persistence of Anachronism and Presentism in the Academic Debate Over the Second Amendment.” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 2016
Reading this article by Saul Cornell, a historian at Fordham University who authored the most important historical monograph on the Second Amendment, A Well-Regulated Militia (2006), feels like stepping into the middle of a years-long argument. The article is Cornell’s response to a prominent legal scholar, James Lindgren, who had recently written dismissively of historical interpretations of the Second Amendment in the wake of the 2008 Heller ruling. To an outsider, much of the discussion is impenetrable, but that’s in part why it’s worth reading: the reader feels the tension and the import of the debate in all its arcane details. The article also captures the disciplinary divide on this subject between historians and legal scholars. Historians can be snappily contemptuous of legal scholars’ sloppy research and cherry-picked quotes, while legal scholars can sneer at historians’ insistence on seemingly tenuous contextual arguments. Plus, the footnotes are an essential bibliography in their own right.
Robert H. Churchill, “Guns and the Politics of History.” Reviews in American History, 2001
The elephant in the room of US gun history and historiography is Michael Bellesiles’s Arming America (2000), a book about gun culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that promised to reshape not just the historical debate about guns in American society but the contemporary one, too. It made a splash, for sure, winning, among other awards, the Bancroft Prize, the historical profession’s most significant achievement for a monograph. But quickly Bellesiles’s fame became infamy, as a small army of mostly pro-gun researchers combed through his voluminous footnotes and discovered too many inconsistencies to simply write off as carelessness. Eventually an independent blue-ribbon committee concluded that Bellesiles may have falsified some of his research, and the author was stripped of the award and resigned from his position at Emory University. In this detailed review, which appeared before the scandal, Churchill, a libertarian-leaning historian of gun culture, takes Bellesiles to task for a number of research and interpretive issues. Despite the high level of scholarly discourse, contemporary gun politics is always simmering beneath the surface.
Randolph Roth, “Guns, Gun Culture, and Homicide: The Relationship between Firearms, the Uses of Firearms, and Interpersonal Violence.” William and Mary Quarterly, 2002
The Bellesiles scandal involved the question of “counting guns” in early America and the sources that Bellesiles used (or, as critics said, fabricated) to do so. Bellesiles argued that high levels of US gun violence were a consequence of its “gun culture,” which he claimed did not exist until manufacturers invented it in the mid-nineteenth century. In this article, Roth, author of American Homicide (2012) and a historian who utilizes social science methods to examine violence across US history, tests Bellesiles’s claim of the relationship between gun proliferation and violence. Roth’s meticulous work again points to inconsistencies and problems in Bellesiles’s research and conclusions.
Brian DeLay, “How Not to Arm a State: American Guns and the Crisis of Governance in Mexico, Nineteenth and Twenty-First Centuries.” Southern California Quarterly, 2013
DeLay’s article, which offers reflections on the transnational history of Mexico since the early nineteenth century, demonstrates the best kind of work a historian can do: take a contemporary problem—in this case the “Iron River of Guns,” the deadly present-day flow of firearms from the United States into Mexico, where most gun purchasing and ownership is illegal—and connect it to a longer history to help us better understand past and present. As DeLay shows, the movement of firearms across the United States’ southern border has long affected the stability of governance and civil society in Mexico. DeLay’s reflections on this long history bring to mind the quip attributed to turn-of-the-century president Porfirio Díaz about his country: “so far from God, so close to the United States”—and its guns.
Robert R. Dykstra, “Quantifying the Wild West: The Problematic Statistics of Frontier Violence.” Western Historical Quarterly, 2009
Dykstra presents another way in which historians can contribute to broader public understanding of the past: they can assess and dismantle inherited mythologies that often obscure the truth more than illuminate it. In his work across several decades, Dykstra has confronted mythologies about the American frontier. Here he writes about the mythologies of violence in the so-called Wild West. Such mythologies have been central to gun culture, leading many Americans today to believe that phenomena like high rates of gun violence or social practices like the open or concealed carry of firearms connect them to popular eighteenth- and nineteenth-century traditions. In reality, gun death rates in frontier towns we identify with the “Wild West” were quite low, in large part because those towns imposed restrictions we’d think of today as gun control.
Akinyele Omowale Umoja, “‘We Will Shoot Back’: The Natchez Model and Paramilitary Organization in the Mississippi Freedom Movement.” Journal of Black Studies, 2002
There is a rich and growing literature on the links between the Black freedom movement and firearms across US history. Umoja has authored one of the best monographs in that genre, We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement (2013), which evolved from this article. Here he writes of the case of paramilitary organizations supporting the freedom movement in the town of Natchez. Umoja’s work, along with that of Charles E. Cobb Jr. and Timothy B. Tyson, among others, has complicated our understanding of the postwar Black freedom movement, which is often simplistically framed as a dichotomy between Martin Luther King’s “peaceful” movement and more militant figures like Malcolm X and groups like the Black Panthers.
Jennifer Carlson, “Mourning Mayberry: Guns, Masculinity, and Socioeconomic Decline.” Gender and Society, 2015
Carlson is a sociologist who has published two of the most important and innovative recent monographs in gun studies: Citizen-Protectors (2015) and Policing the Second Amendment (2020). This article derives from the former, which examines the practice of armed carry among mostly men, white and Black, in the greater Detroit area. Carlson offers a portrayal that is both critical and empathetic, locating the inspiration for armed carry among men in a feeling of social breakdown and national decline that has challenged men’s identities as family protectors and community guardians.
David Yamane, “Gun Culture 2.0 and the Great Gun-Buying Spree of 2020.” Discourse, 2021
Yamane is another sociologist doing innovative and provocative work to help scholars understand the role of guns in American society. He has written widely about the concept of “Gun Culture 2.0,” the shift from hunting and shooting sports to self-defense, which coincides with some evidence of the increasing diversity of US gun ownership. In this article he addresses the most prominent recent development in gun culture—the 2020 gun-buying boom, a remarkable shopping spree, spurred by the pandemic and a summer of protest against police brutality, that was unprecedented even in a country accustomed to them.
David Hemenway, “The Public Health Approach to Motor Vehicles, Tobacco, and Alcohol, with Applications to Firearms Policy.” Journal of Public Health Policy, 2001
Gun control proponents frequently describe gun violence as a “public health problem,” and there has been extensive research to support that claim. David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, is among the most prolific scholars advocating such an approach. In this article, he compares the failure to acknowledge firearms as a public health problem to the ways public health professionals have approached three other consumer goods that the public has generally agreed present sufficient dangers to require consistent federal regulation. Of course, the catch, critics often observe, is that there is no mention of motor vehicles, tobacco, or alcohol in the US Constitution.
Erin Grinshteyn and David Hemenway, “Violent Death Rates: The US Compared with Other High-Income OECD Countries, 2010.” American Journal of Medicine, 2016
It’s worth concluding a concise list of sources illuminating gun culture and gun violence in the United States with a glance overseas. It is a truism of the gun control movement that the United States is an outlier in both gun ownership and violent death rates, and there is a causative relationship between the two. Here, Grinshsteyn and Hemenway offer empirical confirmation. The most reasonable explanation for the United States’ high levels of violent death is its population’s extraordinary access to firearms.