The Politics of Guns in the Late 20th-Century United States

AHA Session 237
Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History 15
Sunday, January 5, 2020: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Gramercy West (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Kevin M. Kruse, Princeton University
Michelle M. Nickerson, Loyola University Chicago

Session Abstract

In 1972, the Wall Street Journal noted a growing “cultural rift” between a primarily urban “cosmopolitan” America and a largely rural “bedrock” America. The newspaper’s description of a divided nation anticipated the later “red state- blue state” framing of U.S. politics and highlighted numerous issues that continue to split the electorate today: abortion, racial integration, patriotism, and crime. Yet no topic in 1972 seemed to divide “cosmopolitan Americans” from “bedrock Americans” more than the issue of gun control. “What’s at stake” in the debates over firearms, The Journal editorialized, “is not merely the immediate proposals but an entire moral universe” that divided the two sides.

While the newspaper may have overstated the division between “two Americas,” it correctly predicted that guns would continue to hold a contentious place in U.S. politics. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the National Rifle Association, civil rights organizations, mothers, hunters, Cold Warriors, feminists and other groups of Americans fought over the issue at all levels of governance. While historians have rightly investigated many other contentious questions in this period, they have only begun to explore the story of guns and politics. This panel addresses this gap by bringing together presentations that examine the issue of gun control in three different contexts.

In “From American Rifleman to ‘American Rifleman:’ Partisanship and the National Rifle Association,” Cari Babitzke focuses on the identity politics of guns in the late twentieth century. She argues that conservative organizations, such as the NRA, and their allies transformed a diverse collection gun owners in this period into a more coherent community united around a shared vision of Americanness. Instead of merely having firearms for sport, self-defense, or hunting, she contends that the NRA and its allies encouraged gun owners to associate themselves with larger ideals related to individual freedom and patriotism.

Julio Capo, Jr.’s “’For Whom Male Virility is a Cultural Tradition:’ Cuban Miami and the Rise of the New Right, 1960-1980” revisits the history of conservatism in South Florida. He pushes other scholars to see Cuban Americans as complex actors who saw domestic political debates through two important lenses: their domestic role in Miami’s electorate and their opposition to Fidel Castro’s government. He specifically contrasts Cuban American opposition to gay rights in South Florida in 1977 to the community’s stances on abortion and gun rights. Capo argues that Cuban Americans connected all three issues to their stance on the Cold War and their growing influence in the city.

In “The War on Crime and the Many Voices for Gun Control,” Clayton Howard looks at the diverse coalition of activists who made up the gun control movement. He argues that while conservative opposition weakened many restrictions on firearms, differences among gun control activists also hurt their cause. Looking at debates about crime in the 1970s, he highlights some of the difficulties civil rights activists, conservative suburbanites, city police, mothers’ groups, and feminists faced in creating a united front for limiting firearms.

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