Why do Americans own 300 million guns? Building a civilian arsenal of that size really is an extraordinary achievement, particularly when you consider that the U.S. counts for roughly 5% of the world’s population but together we own maybe one-third of all civilian small arms in the world, maybe almost half the number of handguns and long guns that exist on the entire planet.
Now if you go to the so-called experts on gun ownership, the NRA and the other gun-marketing organizations, they’ll tell you that guns have ‘always’ been part of American history and that God plus the Founding Fathers gave us the uncontested ‘right’ to protect ourselves with guns.
Actually, like all good marketing slogans, this one has a bit of truth to it but it’s mostly hyperbole. In fact, early colonial governments enacted gun-control laws to make sure that the guns which the colonists needed for hunting didn’t wind up in the ‘wrong hands,’ i.e., the Injuns. And later on, when Roy Rogers and Gene Autry opened up the West, most frontier towns also enacted strong gun-control laws to keep things under control.
But until 1890, when the government announced that the ‘frontier’ was dead and gone, it was presumed that if you lived outside of a city, you needed a gun in order to secure necessary food for the table. But the problem was that hunters had been so adept at bagging game that many of the animals whose meat had filled American stomachs were no longer to be found. The white-tail deer were disappearing throughout the East, the bison was just about extinct, the huge flocks of carrier pigeons that had darkened the skies had disappeared, altogether the balance between Man and Beast was definitely tilting towards Man.
Enter Theodore Roosevelt who, by the age of eight and living in a Manhattan townhouse, was already captivated by the idea of studying every animal specie that he could find, and the way you studied an animal was to kill it, then stuff it and preserve it, then put it on view for others to do the same. This is the opening theme of an important new book by Darrin Lunde, who happens to be the manager of the Smithsonian’s Division of Mammals, which happens to be one of the largest collections of animal species, a collection that was started largely through the efforts of TR.
Roosevelt happened to grow up at a time when Americans became interested in natural history, largely because the Industrial Revolution was quickly transforming much of the natural landscape along with threatening the animals, fish and plants which comprised the natural environment. His father, Theodore Sr., founded the American Museum of Natural History in New York; Roosevelt himself became a close friend of America’s first naturalist, John Bird Grinnell; going out into the wild and hunting game in order to learn more about wild animals remained TR’s passion for his entire life.
The attempt to use the hunting experience to understand nature came to full flower for TR between 1883 and 1887 when he lived and hunted extensively on his cattle ranch, the Elkhorn, located in the North Dakota Badlands, now part of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Lunde chronicles the growing awareness on the part of Roosevelt that many of the big game animals he hunted were quickly disappearing; this awareness led to the founding of Boone & Crockett, the push for hunting regulations and the development of our national parks.
Roosevelt’s passions were hunting and guns. But behind these two passions, and this is where Lunde’s book really stands out, was an awareness on the part of our 26th President that hunting needed to serve the interests of science, that guns were a means to advance our knowledge and appreciation of natural things.
The GVP community is uncomfortable with the notion of guns as self-defense ‘tools’ and rightly so. But maybe a more balanced message about gun ownership could be developed by reminding Gun Nation why Teddy Roosevelt loved his guns.