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Shots Fired: How 400 years of gun ownership built America's culture

Colin Warren-Hicks, The Virginian-Pilot on

Published in News & Features

HAMPTON ROADS, Va. -- Cody Beckner, like many Americans, prefers to stay armed.

The 27-year-old from Hampton likes to carry one of his favorites, a 9 MM Canik handgun with a Holosun red-dot sight. He wears it on his hip when shopping, concealed when eating out. Most days, he keeps an AR-15 in his Ford SUV. Most nights, he keeps a gun next to his bed.

Beckner, a leader of the Hampton Roads-based Virginia Kekoas militia, understands many people disagree with his take on the Second Amendment. He joined Kekoas in 2021 looking for a community that shared his gun rights and survivalist mindset — “Always be prepared,” he says — and found it with the group’s approximately 15 other members. Beckner is proud of his place in America’s gun culture.

The U.S. is the only country in the world with more civilian firearms than people. Some people buy guns for sport, such as target shooting and competition; to feed their families by hunting; or they carry guns for a sense of control, to control others through fear or to combat their own. A growing number of owners carry to show that they can: Their firearm is a political signpost.

The America of the past 400 years has never existed without a culture of gun ownership.


‘Frontier ethos’

The men who colonized and founded Jamestown did so carrying guns.

The General Assembly of Virginia, the first elected governing body in a British North American colony, put its first laws on the books in 1619, including America’s first gun law:

“That no man do sell or give any Indians any piece, shot, or powder, or any other arms offensive or defensive, upon pain of being held a traitor to the colony and of being hanged as soon as the fact is proved, without all redemption.”

In the 1620s, farmers were legally bound to stay armed while working. After 1632, it became illegal for men to go to church without their weapons. Colonial and state governments eventually enacted over 600 militia laws, many mandating men to civilian-military service. That they were required to get and keep their military-grade weaponry is tied to what retired professor Robert Spitzer calls a “frontier ethos” and the romanticizing of American history and self-reliance.

“When you think about the settling of the Western lands, especially in the 19th century, you think about gun ownership; although it turns out there were lots of laws restricting where you could carry guns and all sorts of other things, that’s kind of the tradition,” Spitzer said.

Spitzer is a distinguished professor emeritus at the State University of New York at Cortland and the author of six books on gun policy. He now lives in Williamsburg where he’s an affiliated scholar at William & Mary. He said while traditionally “gun culture” has referred to gun owners who hunt or use arms for sport, politically motivated gun sales are relatively new; but, no matter what, American gun culture has always thrived. In his book “The Politics of Gun Control,” he writes: “Regardless of one’s personal or political feelings about guns, however, the gun culture is an undeniable component of American history and the gun debate.”


‘Some people go to car shows’

On a recent Sunday afternoon, people of different ages and ethnicities queued for a gun show at the Virginia Beach Convention Center. Some men slung rifle bags over their shoulders. Couples stopped at a ticket kiosk before shooing the kids inside. U.S. Navy veteran Lawrence Sullivan was pushed through the lobby in his wheelchair.

Sullivan, 56, of Norfolk, equates gun culture with the hunt. He first shot a BB gun when he was 7. About a year later, his dad took him hunting for squirrel, rabbit and partridge. Later in life, they stalked deer together.

“But, mainly, it was just to get out in the woods,” he said. He bought a 9 MM that day. He now settles for aiming at targets. As he spoke, Tyler Hilborne and Batuhan Vural walked by.

Hilborne, 32, and Vural, 26, both of Virginia Beach, said they own guns for target shooting. Hilborne said he thinks of gun culture as the social media images of guys posing with modified AR-15s and body armor, geeked on the power of weaponry.

“That’s the extreme end of it,” Vural said. Hilborne said that he figured most gun owners, like himself, are casual hobbyists.

“It’s just the same with cars,” Vural said. “Some people go to car shows, things like that.”

They agreed that shooting guns can be a bonding activity between friends.

“Better than just sitting at home,” Hilborne said, “watching Netflix and drinking beer.”

Not too far away, Ozell Weather stood in the convention center with one foot propped on an ammo canister chatting with his adult son, who holstered a pistol on his hip.


‘Adapt and adjust’


Weather, 57, of Virginia Beach, grew up hunting in upstate New York and still hunts. But he also carries for self-defense. He looked at the pistol on his son’s hip.

“When I was coming up,” he said, “there was no need to carry.”

In 2020, researchers from Boston, Columbia and Harvard universities released “What is gun culture? Cultural Variations and Trends Across the United States.” The research looked at behavior patterns and analyzed gun-related subcultures from 1998 to 2016. It defined gun culture with three categories: recreation, self-defense and symbolism around the Second Amendment. Virginia followed the national averages with a decline in recreational gun use, an increase in guns for self-defense and being viewed as politically emblematic.

Weathers started hunting at 8, and, following family tradition, taught his children to shoot at the same age. A few years ago, his son inspired him to adopt another philosophy: It’s better to have and not need than need and not have. Father and son believe crime has worsened.

“It’s one of those adapt and adjust situations in today’s culture,” Weather said. His son nodded.

A Gallup poll found that the number of adults who think having a gun makes their homes safer rose from 42% to 64% between 1993 and 2023. The National Rifle Association was founded in 1871 by two Civil War veterans who were appalled by the poor shooting skills of a typical military recruit. In 1873, they began matches to improve marksmanship skills. In the 1930s, its leadership lobbied for gun control legislation. It was not until the 1970s that the NRA morphed into the staunchly pro-Second Amendment agenda, according to the 2020 study.

Once a year, the Virginia Kekoas join other gun-rights advocates on Lobby Day at the state Capitol to demonstrate the right to open-carry guns. The militia derives its name from a Hawaiian word meaning “warrior;” the group was once known as the Virginian Knights but changed it not wanting to be associated with the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Beckner doesn’t mind the term “militia,” even though militias no longer exist as government-supported units. He believes the word fits because the Kekoas are ready to help the government if needed in an emergency.

In the last 10 to 15 years, researchers like Spitzer have observed an uptick in “what the gun industry calls the political sale of guns” with manufacturers marketing firearms as political products. Sales spiked after Barack Obama was elected in 2008 and 2012, out of fear that the Democrats would create new gun-buying restrictions. Donald Trump extolled himself as a gun person, and sales went relatively flat after he became president in 2016. According to Spitzer, the gun industry termed a phrase after the election: “The Trump Slump.”

But, the professor added, the proliferation of guns increases the chances of them being used in crime.


‘Dripping with fear’

Portsmouth Police Chief Stephen Jenkins has no problem with citizens exercising their Second Amendment rights. But firearms carry another appeal.

“We have a culture that glorifies the ownership and or use of guns,” he said, “and that is more so along the criminal aspect.”

The most commonly prosecuted charge in Norfolk in 2020 was possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, according to a study by the Virginia Bar Association. Jenkins said Portsmouth has one of the highest rates of firearm theft per capita in the state.

“My problem surrounding guns is I have a hard time believing that our forefathers believed weapons of war should be on our everyday streets.”

City police, Jenkins said, monitor social media and examine videos showing young people showing off, almost worshipping, their firearms. To exemplify just how common guns are in Portsmouth, he pointed to a recent incident. On May 28, Jenkins — while in uniform — was talking to a citizen in front of a Food Lion parking lot when a man in the lot began firing a gun into the air. Jenkins drew his sidearm and quelled the situation, he said. The person was arrested on numerous charges, many related to firearms, according to the Portsmouth clerk of courts.

Troy Ketchmore knows the dangers of guns within a culture of fear.

In 1995, he and two of his friends were carrying when he got into an argument with another man. Gunfire was exchanged, and the man was killed. Ketchmore was sentenced to prison for first-degree murder.

“If you see a kid packing,” he said, “they are dripping with fear.”

“The gun is my security to come back home tonight,” he said, thinking back on his youth. “It was a thing of, you’d rather get caught with it than without it.”

After serving 26 years, Ketchmore was paroled in 2021. Now 52, he helps run his family’s nonprofit, Ketchmore Kids, which runs classes to help kids who have gotten in trouble sometimes related to guns. He visits the Newport News Juvenile Detention center every other week and tries to steer the kids away from the mentality he and his friends had when they were young.

Ketchmore’s staff hears from kids who carry guns because they’re afraid of being bullied or being robbed after school. They can get guns cheaply on the streets and, like people who carry for Second Amendment reasons, the kids like the sense of power, safety and control guns give them. But he tells them to remove themselves from a situation in which they feel they need a gun — distance themselves from “beefs.”

“You feel like you need a gun? Why? Because you’re right there. Don’t let your ego make you feel like you have to walk down the street and take care of a beef with a gun. Just leave. I tell them to put themselves in a position to win.”

A study published in the American Journal of Public Health investigated the link between gun possession and gun assault. It found that people with a gun were 4½ times more times likely to be shot in an assault compared to those who don’t.

“They don’t understand that those singular situations that they make in the heat of anger,” Jenkins said, “have lasting ramifications for them and their families.”

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