Two Americas

Michael Metzger

There have been 24 school shootings in the U.S. in 2018. The Second Amendment is not the problem, however. These massacres are the result of two Americas.

Americans are a unique lot. We own the most guns per person in the world, about four in 10 saying they either own a gun or live in a home with guns. Nearly three-quarters of gun owners say they couldn’t imagine not owning one.

We’re also unique in that America is known for the pursuit of life, liberty, happiness—and the most mass shootings in the world. The United States makes up 4.4 percent of the world’s population but 31 percent of global mass shootings.

Our uniqueness is the result of two Americas. The First America came from the first settlers. The colonists were known for “obstinate individualism.”[1] No country on earth is as individualistic as America. But in the First America, law limited individualism.

One example is the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It gives citizens the right to bear arms, since it was felt a “well regulated Militia” was “necessary to the security of a free State.” But the framers assumed citizens would exercise this right within the framework of the English common law. For the most part, they did.

Common law was based on several assumptions, including the sanctity of human life. Citizens were expected to honor it. This meant a citizen had a legal duty to retreat from a threatening situation if possible. With the exception of dueling (which was generally frowned upon), failure to do so made a citizen culpable if homicide followed. This assumption helped form the First America. It prevailed until the mid-1800s.

The Second America was formed between the 1860s and 1880s as settlers crossed the Appalachians and streamed west. This was the era of the cowboy, the rugged individual. It was also created the Second America, what British historian Paul Johnson describes as being “constitutionally violent.”[2]

Frederick Jackson Turner recognized this in 1893. He claimed that what made America unique was its “moving frontier” as a solution for all of its social and economic problems.[3] But the frontier was untamed, isolated. Honor often meant taking the law into your own hands. Honorable people don’t retreat from threatening situations, as Oliver Wendell Holmes famously noted. “A man is not born to run away.”

New England clergy was appalled but not in the picture. They represented the First America. The Second America was evangelical, birthed in early 19th century revivals. Their last revival was 1857-59. The Civil War wiped out much of its impact with the exception of rugged individualism, established in a series of subsequent court rulings.

In 1876, the supreme court of Ohio held that a “true man” was not “obligated to fly” from an assailant and could kill him in self-defense. The next year Indiana’s court issued a similar ruling. Rudyard Kipling, on a visit to the West in 1892, strongly disapproved of a Portland, Oregon jury that refused to convict a cowboy who had killed a man on the ground that the fight had been “fair.” In scripture, fairness is justice. In the Second America, justice is protecting family and fortune from real or perceived threats.

This was valorized in 20th century books and films. The list is too long to recite, but I grew up on a steady diet of cowboy movies and films portraying individuals who beat the bad guys by taking the law into their own hands. Jack Reacher is simply the latest edition of untethered individualism rooted in a culturally violent Second America.

Social media has helped make us aware of the two Americas. Second America sees how the First is often elitist, snooty. The First America is East/West Coast but includes university towns in between (Austin, Boulder, Ann Arbor). They see Second America as “flyover country.” Second America folks read about this in social media. Many resent it. A few feel aggrieved. Life isn’t fair. Some take matters into their own hands.

Does this explain why nearly a third of global mass shootings occur in the United States? Most mass shooters grew up in the Second America. If I’m close to the truth on this matter, U.S. mass shootings are more a cultural problem than a constitutional one.

Samuel Johnson might agree. “How small of all that human hearts endure, that part which laws or Kings either cause or cure.”[4] In scripture, heart is a metaphor for conscience. The Clapham Sect changed the world by evoking the conscience of the British people. Our mass shootings problem likely requires better gun laws. But it also requires pricking the conscience of both Americas. Elitism and anger are no solutions.


[1] Paul Johnson, A History of the American People (HarperCollins, 1997), 65.

[2] Johnson, History, 523.

[3] F. J. Turner, The Frontier in American History (Cambridge, 1920).

[4] Lines added by Samuel Johnson to Goldsmith’s “The Traveler” (Line 429).


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  1. Mike, by your own account, “Second America” has existed for at least 150 years. Mass shootings are a comparatively recent development. Ergo, if a “culturally violent Second America” was the cause or even a major contributing factor to this phenomenon of mass shootings, it would have emerged much earlier and recurred throughout “Second America’s” existence. But it did not. The answer must lay elsewhere.

    With all due respect, you might want to rethink your post’s simple, binary analysis. For example, the prevalence and strictness of gun laws tend to coincide with high levels of gun-related crime. Urban areas like Chicago, New York and Los Angeles have some of the most restrictive gun laws, yet they lead the nation in crimes involving guns. As a group, criminals do not seem to be impressed with (let alone deterred by) laws against illicitly acquiring and using firearms.

    Regarding America’s westward expansion in the latter half of the 1800s and “taking the law into one’s own hands” — That form of justice is often a fact of life in minimally developed, unsettled regions. There is no ready access to law enforcement or systems of courts. Sometimes there is not even much in the way of laws at all — it is a Darwinian environment where the “law of the jungle” rules. Evil people will sometimes seek to prey on others, often in “culturally violent” ways. So, to ensure a modicum of civilizational structure and to protect basic human and property rights, well-intended people band together to defend themselves against chaos. That life-affirming response to injustice and evil was hardly unique to “Second America” as it expanded west across a wild continent. On the contrary, that response is nearly universal throughout human history. It enables rudimentary civilizations to survive against the Barbarians.

    I often enjoy your posts, but occasionally your assessments miss the target. This week’s musings will benefit from further reflection.

  2. Kent:

    Without a doubt, every column I wrote would benefit from further reflection. Thank you for your comments.

    As for mass shootings being a recent development, I add one note. The first mass shooting took place in 1790. Mass shootings are not a recent development. There was an uptick in the rate as Second American developed. It has remained about the same over the last 150 years.

    As for your comments regarding well-intended people coming together in minimally developed, unsettled regions, I agree. It is a universal response–which raises a question. How do you explain the preponderance of these shootings occurring in the US? Wouldn’t a universal response be spread more evenly across the globe?

  3. Mike,

    Cudos for taking this on but I also believe it merits further reflection.

    One of the immense complexities of this issue is that many people gravitate toward ready symbols that can unify sentiments desperate for an outlet.

    The commonly touted statistic that Americans have more guns than anyone else ergo America has more more violence is maligned. America is the richest country in the world – we have more of almost everything material than everyone else in the world – TVs and violent video games and personal devices that isolate users from humanity being among those items, but for some reason they are not as gravitational as the menacing gun. Additionally, a gun is not a toothbrush, it is a tool of which there are many variants with many differing uses – the guns I own are like my toolbox – thoughtfully purchased for specified uses. For one to say having more than one gun is excessive is akin to saying having more than one tool in your toolbox is excessive.

    If a gun were not available, mass killers who share a lot of traits would seek another method to express their anger – one of the first school massacres in our country was done with a bomb – the Colombine killers had bombs as well – guns were their horrendous backup plan in the atrocity – but the press focused on the gun. We are not going to ban propane, gasoline, cars, knives, etc – we must collectively look deeper.

    Regarding the need for citizenry to have guns for potential use against other people, the statistics bear out that the more gun ownership within a local population, the less crime, but the more likely for suicidal activities and the infrequent but horrendous public shooting/ suicide. In less policed area of our country the citizenry relies on other citizens for mutual protection and it works – statistically better than it works in highly policed urban areas – again, the causes/ outcomes are likely deeper than guns.

    For our country to unify around mitigating the potential for these atrocities, we need to focus our resources on causes rather than enablers – a close friend doing research on the surge in suicide in our country believes that the increasing trend comes from isolation associated with spending too much time on the internet and the content thereof. People who commit suicide and commit mass killings in our country share a lot of common traits.

    With that said, I’m logging off and going outside. A venomous snake killed one of my dogs last week – I’ll have my snake gun with me.

  4. Hank:

    I was hoping you’d chime in. Thank you for your comments (you too, Kent). This is a complex subject. I admit it. Have much to learn.

  5. You guys get up early. Mike, it’s a rare art that you are very good at, offering analysis over centuries and not just years or a few decades. You find commonalities “of the heart” – when it is soft in the right ways and hard in the wrong ways – that are compelling. Kent and you have a “fact” to settle: mass shootings are a recent development or they go back to 1790 and a “rate” has remained steady for 150 years. It may be important to settle that fact because it might be a piece of the puzzle for better analysis. Between us readers your analysis is a great start for asking more questions. Purely speculative: anyone asked about the parenting received by the youth who are shooters? Anyone examine the relationship choices of the adult shooters? If we found these broad poverties in the shooters we could make politically-charged but accurate assessments that THESE people are likely shooters. And then what do you do when that might be 50% of our population? Grass-roots solutions aim at getting the gospel right, marriage right, and parenting right are a long road. Until then I think, Mike, that the two Americas describe responses to gun law changes, but I find it difficult to agree that second America is aggrieved with first America in these shootings.

  6. I for one, would be interested in the 1790 shooting incident, considering that the weapon was a single shot rifle? Care to give the reference for that?

  7. Hi Mike,

    Are you referring to the 1790 murder of a family by Barnett Davenport in Connecticut? If so, I would not consider beating someone with a gun equivalent to a mass shooting. Yet I would be interested in further historical analysis. This is thought provoking. -Brian

  8. For the sake of intellectual honesty, I would question the intitial statistic that is used frequently to set up this issue. Not every school shooting is a student bringing a gun to take matters into his own hands. This article is a couple months behind, but addresses the first 18 ‘school shootings’.

    I don’t think a 31 year could knitting suicide in a school parking lot is a good example of a school shooting. According to the article, only 4 of the 18 shootings were kids bringing guns to school with the intent of shooting others.

  9. Stay tuned, everyone. The next weeks will we hear from two others who offer a different take on this issue. They are voices I respect.

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