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America as a Tactical Gun Culture

On August 25, 2020, in my hometown of Kenosha, Wisconsin, seventeen-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse joined several other white vigilantes with AR-15-style rifles. They came purportedly to defend businesses from people protesting the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a twenty-nine-year-old Black man. A few days earlier, a police officer had shot Blake seven times in the back outside of his car, while his sons were in the backseat.

Despite violating a city curfew, Rittenhouse and other vigilantes were given bottles of water by the police, who told them, “We appreciate you guys, we really do.” Within hours, Rittenhouse had shot three protestors, killing two of them. Overnight he became a hero among the far right, which enabled him to crowdsource his $2 million bail. After his release, Rittenhouse was photographed with members of the far-right nativist group Proud Boys, flashing a white supremacist sign and wearing a T-shirt that said “Free as Fuck.” Shortly after the January 6 attack on the Capitol, he would fly to Miami and lunch with Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio. The day after his acquittal in November 2021, he returned to Florida for a meeting with Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago.

Rittenhouse’s actions, acquittal, and celebrity status are the culmination of a tactical turn in U.S. gun culture, which began in the late twentieth century. Tactical clothing, training, weaponry, and language have now become commonplace among private gun owners and law enforcement, rendering both nearly indistinguishable from soldiers. Individual gun owners are increasingly seeing themselves as de facto militia members regardless of whether they engage in paramilitary training or formally associate with an organization. Even law enforcement officers who don’t serve in tactical units are now “armed, dressed, trained, and conditioned like soldiers,” writes Radley Balko in Rise of the Warrior Cop (2014). The U.S. Department of Justice has supplied police departments with funding for military-grade hardware since the uprisings of the 1960s, and the U.S. Department of Defense’s 1033 Program has turbocharged the supply lines since 1997, directly funneling billions of dollars’ worth of “excess” military equipment to local police. Black communities had been suffering under these militarized police for decades, but the 1033 Program didn’t really come to the attention of average white Americans until 2014, when they watched media coverage of local police in Ferguson, Missouri, rolling into Black Lives Matter protests with armored personnel carriers and body armor.

This tactical turn is a distinct phase in the long history of what historian Richard Hofstadter called “gun culture,” and is a reaction to the rise of legal egalitarianism, evolving gender norms, a waning white majority, and increasing demands by communities of color to share social, political, and economic power. In his classic article “America as a Gun Culture” (1970), Hofstadter developed a critique of the “American historical mythology about the protective value of guns” and the role the National Rifle Association (NRA) had in sustaining it. He also expressed his bewilderment with the “otherwise intelligent Americans” who clung, he wrote, “with pathetic stubbornness to the notion that the people’s right to bear arms is the greatest protection of their individual rights and a firm safeguard of democracy.” The idea that an armed citizenry is necessary for democracy, he wrote, is easily refuted. Fifty years later, he is still right.

Hofstadter’s critique was misplaced, however, inasmuch as he assumed that the nationalism of these gun enthusiasts—their talk of democracy and “the people”—was inclusive. The freedom they defended was, indeed, not intended for everyone and the purpose of an armed segment of the population, as U.S. history has consistently demonstrated, was to enforce its exclusivity: an armed white citizenry, working in tandem with law enforcement, has for centuries sustained white rule in the United States through legal and extralegal violence. Violence is necessary to maintain what Martin Luther King, Jr., called “a democracy for white Americans but simultaneously a dictatorship over Black Americans.” As for those “otherwise intelligent Americans” Hofstadter referred to, the history of white supremacy is replete with those who speak about universal rights yet doggedly pursue a white-dominated racial order.

Read entire article at Boston Review