Answering a question (sort of) about guns!
[So, I started writing an answer to this question, and as is my wont, I got a little carried away - ‘a little’ here being something getting on to a thousand words, a length normally reserved for Blog Prime Doctor Who reviews, and the Tumblr answer box has a prohibitive character limit, so it’s here. But there you go. Hope I’m not too incoherent]
Well… it’s a very, very complex and entrenched issue, (and being British myself, I wouldn’t claim to have a particularly deep or developed understanding of it) but rather as someone with an interest in American politics, I think I’ve got a rough grasp of some of the conflicting ideals around gun control. Beware, however, because generalisations aplenty lie ahead. I’m talking broad strokes here, and I’ll be referring to large groups of people, so obviously this is not true for all the people within those groups.
From the way you’ve framed the question, you’re looking at it as a matter of utility, as, I would think, most people do - ‘for what purpose will you use these guns?’ - or as a privilege to be earned, but a certain segment of the American public (and without wishing to stereotype), more than likely from the south of the country, and right-leaning (even Tea Party/Libertarian) in their political persuasion see it as a matter of fundamental freedoms.
The Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which, in case you’re unfamiliar, is the one with the ‘right to bear arms’ wording (specifically “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”) is of major importance here. These people see government as a fundamentally malign entity that’s out to take their money and constrict their freedoms in any way possible (that last point particularly).
To the sort of people who value gun ownership, any sort of government tends toward authoritarianism and control, and their having guns is a vital check against that. They would argue that this was, in fact, the law’s original purpose, but the Constitution and the earlier Amendments were written at the tail end of the 1700’s, and things were obviously very different then. Mind you, an awful lot of the American right believes, in the words of this Economist article, “…that the complex political arguments of today can be settled by simple fidelity to a document written in the 18th century.” For a better-written and more in-depth analysis of the Second Amendment and its judicial interpretation, I’d refer you to this other Economist article.
So there’s that component of it. There’s also the frontier mindset you alluded to in your question. Some Americans have a ‘frontiersman’ mentality and owning a gun can play into that. In the early days of America, there were legitimate dangers ‘out there’ - native Americans, wild animals &c. and no standing army (wherefrom derives the ‘militia’ bit of the Second Amendment), and while this is obviously not the case now, the veneration of guns has remained where the utility has subsided.
An argument often brought out is that of ‘self-defence’. You might think that people not having guns in the first place would make things easier, but with gun ownership as widespread as it is (88 guns per 100 people), it would be rather difficult to get them all back (and obviously, if they were to attempt to implement some sort of amnesty program, the sort of people turning them in would (most likely) not be the sort of people from whom they should be taken (or rather, that the sort of people who shouldn’t have guns aren’t going to get rid of them that easily).Whenever a major shooting incident (such as the Aurora, Colorado shooting recently) occurs, the more insane elements of the rightwing press in America advocate more gun ownership, since then ‘maybe someone would be able to take down the maniac’ or something along those lines. I don’t buy it, personally, and as far as I can remember (though I’d need to find the reference to be absolutely sure) the person (by a significant margin) most likely to be injured if person A is carrying a gun is person A themselves.
There’s also an element of familiarisation to it. If you or I saw someone walking down the street with a holstered gun at their side, we’d run the hell away. However, in parts of America, it’s perfectly normal to carry weapons in public. In 49 of the 50 states, in fact, ‘concealed carry’ - the practice of walking about with firearms concealed on one’s person - is legal, whether as a blanket right or with a permit. In fact, there have been (and as far as I know, still are) legal battles ongoing as to the right of students to carry concealed weapons on university grounds.
These are just some of the arguments that get bandied around, but you could write books (and people have) about an issue this complex and entangled in politics, identity and ideas. I haven’t even really got into the arguments against, or the statistics. Personally, I’m with you - it seems insane to me that so many people would be so attached to something with the express purpose of killing or doing harm. There’s no real comparable example that I can think of. Gun ownership is a very hot-button issue in American politics, especially amongst Republicans. But if you’re interested in finding out more, there are a great number of very long and extensively referenced Wikipedia pages which go over the issues, history and legal precedents in exhaustive detail. I’d start with Gun politics in the US, Political arguments about gun politics in the US and the Second Amendment.