From the shot heard round the world to the old West to the spread of modern-day "concealed carry" rights, firearms are embedded in American culture.
Guns were designed with one purpose. They don’t cut rope, drive nails, or propel baseballs. They are built to kill or maim. Very much of what you read in the news revolves around guns. Firearms are central to almost every conflict, crime, uprising, or peacekeeping mission. Governments use guns to maintain order. Rebels use guns to challenge authority.
There are more guns per capita in the United States than in any other nation. Some people like guns for hunting, target practice, and skeet shooting. If you have a gentle nature, though, you probably abhor firearms. Every time a confused young person opens fire at a school, a worker assaults co-workers, a stray bullet enters an inner-city home, or a spouse, passerby, political figure, or store clerk is attacked with a deadly weapon – every one of those violent acts is a powerful argument for locking guns away.
If you believe in the right to self-defense and liberty, however, you probably see gun ownership as natural and just. Every assault, home invasion, robbery, or hostage taking is a powerful argument that a lawfully armed citizen might have been able to stop the crime in progress.
The balance between public safety and individual freedom is not easy. From the Revolution through the settling of the frontier to the 21st century, guns have been embedded in the American experience. The Second Amendment to the Constitution appears to enshrine the right of individuals to own and carry firearms. In 2008 and 2010, the US Supreme Court issued landmark rulings that ensured possession of firearms for lawful purposes. Since then, a slew of state laws have expanded access to firearms and the freedom to carry them in public.
In the years to come, it appears, there will be even more guns in more hands in more places than ever before. As a Monitor special report notes, no one can say for sure if that will make society more, or less, safe. Scholars such as economist John R. Lott Jr. and criminologist Gary Kleck cite evidence that people who carry concealed weapons have stopped thousands of crimes from happening. But it’s hard to be sure about cause and effect.