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.” 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.”
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. 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.” 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.
 Paul Johnson, A History of the American People (HarperCollins, 1997), 65.
 Johnson, History, 523.
 F. J. Turner, The Frontier in American History (Cambridge, 1920).
 Lines added by Samuel Johnson to Goldsmith’s “The Traveler” (Line 429).