There are an absolutely insane number of guns in the United States: More than 300 million, more than one per person.
Per capita, our gun ownership rate is 112 percent. That's higher than any other country in the world, by a lot. In second-place Serbia, the per capita rate is about 60. In most every other country, it hovers about 20 guns per 100 residents. In many, many places, it's even lower. Virtually no citizens in Southeast Asia and Japan are packing heat.
How the United States got here has a lot to do with how we regulate weapons. Our gun-control policies are much weaker than those in many other countries. But what makes our gun culture so unique? Why are U.S. gun policies and ownership numbers so wildly outside the mainstream?
To explain that, Jennifer Dawn Carlson, a sociology professor at the University of Arizona, points to this chart, created by Gallup:
“I actually think this is the key,” Carlson told me in an email. “As you can see, the lines crossed in the late 1960s and haven't touched since.”
That's important, Carlson says, because it was in the 1960s and '70s that Americans began talking about guns and gun rights as a crime issue. This framing, Carlson explained, turned the issue of gun ownership into a divisive political one, rather than a public health crisis. The battle lines — are guns a way to protect against crime, or the cause of it? — were drawn. And we're still fighting those fights today.
Crime is not nearly so core to the narrative in other countries. In Canada, for example, gun-control activists framed the 1989 Montreal Massacre, when a young man burst into a university classroom and killed six women, as a women's right's issue. And places where guns are seen as a tool for self-protection, like South Africa and Guatemala, often also have high incidences of gun violence.
Adam Winkler, a professor of constitutional law at the UCLA School of Law and author of “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America,” also sees the 1960s as a key part of the story of America's exceptional gun culture.
Of course, he notes, the right to bear arms is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. Throughout the 1800s, state courts upheld an interpretation of that law that focused on the individual's right to own weapons. But things really changed in the 1960s.
That's when the National Rifle Association transformed itself from an organization focused on hunting and training into a political machine. As Winkler explained, that wasn't inevitable. The organization's leaders endorsed the 1968 Gun Control Act. They even considered retreating from Washington and moving to Colorado Springs. That angered a group of gun rights hard-liners in the membership who staged a revolt that transformed the NRA into a gun rights group virtually overnight, Winkler said.
And to win political wars, the NRA has leveraged people's fear. The 1970s were a time of starkly rising crime rates, when major cities were on the verge of bankruptcy and blight.
“People thought crime was rampant,” Winkler said. And the NRA made crime a central part of its story. When crime spiked in the '70s, the NRA argued that Americans needed weapons to protect themselves. In ads, the organization depicted people using their weapons to defend themselves against intruders.
The NRA is “really an American phenomenon,” Winkler said. As he explained, most other industrialized countries began seriously regulating firearms in the early 20th century. By the time the gun rights movement got started in the United States, there just weren't a lot of civilian gun owners in other places. So there wasn't the same sense, in other places, that something could be lost.
“There were very few people with guns to protect,” Winkler said.