Aiming for Manhood: The Transformation of Guns
into Objects of American Masculinity
Amy Ann Cox
While the debate continues over the actual use of guns during the first few centuries of American development, questions regarding the cultural meaning of gun use and ownership continue to be neglected (Bellesiles 2000, 2002; Gruber 2002; Lindgren 2002; Main 2002; Rakove 2002a,b; Roth 2002). Understanding the cultural messages attached to guns provides a window into comprehending more fully firearm ownership and use. It might also assist in explaining changes in gun-ownership rates during certain periods, and firearm purchasing patterns. Many contemporary gun-owners associate certain values with their own gun ownership, many of which they view as arising from American history (Kohn 2004: 17, 103-6). Also, the values and meanings attached to guns affect readings of the second amendment (Dorf 2002; Finkleman 2002; Rakove 2002a,b; Schwoerer 2000; Spitzer 2002). This chapter specifically examines the transformation of guns from a multipurpose tool that assisted in the performance of masculine tasks to a cultural symbol of masculinity by examining how these changes affected New England men from the colonial period to the mid-nineteenth century.
A recent study of American gun culture probed the cultural meanings attached to guns today and discovered that gun owners view many of the ideals strongly associated with guns as having historical roots. These shooters believe that: “guns signify American core values: freedom, independence, individualism, and equality,” and that “being a gun owner means being a good American” (Kohn 2004:17). Also, male shooters see “familiarity with guns as the status quo for American manhood.” They portrayed gun use in terms of a rite of passage into manhood and keeping a gun for defensive purposes as a partial fulfillment of their male responsibility as fathers and husbands (Kohn 2004: 17, 105-6).
Using guns to assist in the fulfillment of masculine duties certainly has roots in the colonial period, a time when guns—serving as tools to accomplish manly endeavors—implicitly contributed to colonial ideas about manliness. However, many of the manly tasks that guns supported might also be accomplished using