an array of antique handguns and long guns

A Brief History of Guns in the U.S.

How to explain Americans’ astonishing personal arsenal? Start with politics, fear, and marketing.

By Cathy Shufro

Let’s start with a few facts about firearms in the U.S.: Americans own 393 million guns, the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey reports.

Firearms can be found in 44% of U.S. households, according to a 2020 Gallup survey.

And, tragically: Almost half of Americans know someone who has been shot, a 2017 Pew Research Center report noted.

How did we get here? Marketing, politics, racism, fear, and other forces have contributed to America’s exceptional proliferation of guns.

Soon after the end of the Civil War, gunmakers with surpluses sought peacetime customers. They convinced dry goods stores to sell handguns alongside flour and sugar; they ran classified ads in newspapers; and they told parents that a rifle would help “real boys” to develop “sturdy manliness.” Private gun ownership dramatically expanded.

The end of slavery catalyzed the formation of armed groups, some seeking to protect newly freed Black men, others to terrorize them. After Reconstruction failed, supremacist military groups like the White League in Louisiana used guns to threaten and sometimes murder Black men attempting to vote.

While the popular imagination holds that gunslingers sauntered down the dusty streets of Western towns, that’s largely a myth, according to UCLA law professor Adam Winkler, JD. “Frontier towns—places like Tombstone, Deadwood, and Dodge—actually had the most restrictive gun control laws in the nation,” Winkler wrote in the Huffington Post. When visitors arrived in Dodge City, Kansas, they encountered a billboard announcing, “The Carrying of Firearms Strictly Prohibited.”

Indeed, by the early 1900s, 43 states limited or banned firearms in public places. Gun control would become sharply divisive only with the federal Gun Control Act of 1968, made law after the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy. The legislation limited interstate sales of firearms but did too little to satisfy gun control advocates including President Lyndon Johnson.

By the late 1990s, fear became a potent selling point as cultural attitudes changed. In a 1999 poll, most gun owners said they kept guns for hunting and target shooting; only 26% cited protection as paramount. By 2015, however, 63% cited self-defense as a primary motivation for gun ownership, according to a 2015 National Firearms Survey. In reality, having access to a gun triples a person’s risk of suicide and nearly doubles the risk of being a homicide victim, according to a 2014 Annals of Internal Medicine meta-analysis. For a woman living with an abusive partner, the risk of being murdered increases fivefold if the partner has a gun, according to an American Journal of Public Health study led by Jacquelyn Campbell, PhD, MSN, a faculty member of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy at the Bloomberg School.

As gun owners increasingly emphasized self-defense in recent decades, restrictions on carrying concealed firearms evaporated. Whereas in 1990 concealed carry in public spaces was illegal in 16 states (including Texas), by 2013 all 50 states and Washington, D.C., allowed some civilians to carry hidden guns.

At the same time, gunmakers have redesigned their wares. “Technology has focused on making smaller and smaller handguns, with more lethality, and with almost no attention to safety,” says Josh Horwitz, JD, who directs the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. For example, the popular $450 Smith & Wesson M&P Shield 2.0 pistol is 6 inches long and carries 15 9mm cartridges. And children now have their own firearms, like the 2½-pound, .22-caliber Crickett (“my first rifle”). Its gunstock comes in pink, camo, and “amendment”—Second Amendment text overlaid on American flags.

  • 1791

    Congress ratifies Bill of Rights, including the Second Amendment.

  • 1934, 1968

    First major federal gun control laws are passed.

  • 1977

    Activists opposed to gun control seize control of NRA at national convention.

  • 1985–86

    Congress creates “gun-show loophole” by limiting federal firearm licensing requirements.

  • 1993

    “Brady Bill” requires background checks for gun buyers at federally licensed dealers.

  • 1994, 2004

    Federal Assault Weapons Ban becomes law; then Congress lets it lapse.

  • 1996–2019

    Congress imposes limits on CDC gun research, shrinking federal funds for studies.

  • 2005

    New law gives gun industry unprecedented protections against lawsuits.

  • 2008

    Supreme Court votes 5–4 to recognize individual right to bear arms for “defense of hearth and home.”

  • 2009, 2020

    Gun sales spike during Obama presidency and surge again as pandemic begins.

Horwitz says lobbyists and owners of military-style weapons increasingly embrace “the insurrectionist idea.” Since 2009, he has warned of armed citizens who claim that “threatening violence against government officials is within normal bounds of political discourse.”

The multiplication of “stand-your-ground” laws marked another shift in American attitudes, with Florida taking the lead in 2005. Today, 34 states give gun owners the right to use deadly force outside of the home with no duty to retreat or use other means to protect themselves. The laws “make it much easier for a person to legally kill someone,” writes University of Texas sociologist Harel Shapira, PhD, who credits the laws with “the militarization of everyday life.”

“In almost any aspect of public health, culture and policy are reinforcing and reflecting each other,” says Daniel Webster, ScD ’91, MPH, director of the Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy. “You gradually see carrying a gun around as normative.” Forty years ago, if someone brought a gun to a party, Webster says, “you would have been shocked. It would have been incredibly abnormal.” Now, gun ownership is a lifestyle choice, one rooted in the individualism “baked into our culture and our laws.”

In recent decades, the National Rifle Association has identified its greatest foe as the government itself. After Congress passed the Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994, NRA President Wayne LaPierre told members that the bill “gives jack-booted government thugs more power to take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property, and even injure or kill us.”

“The gun lobby thrives on fear and drives fear,” says Horwitz. In many ways, he adds, “this is about white men feeling less powerful.”

Horwitz notes that gun sales rose during the past year. “People are afraid of other people with guns, so now they’re buying guns. Breaking that cycle is really important. Are we too far down the road? I don’t think we are, but we’ve got to make major changes in how we approach gun violence, soon.”