Analysis: both Ireland and the US took an extreme approach towards firearms due to their tumultuous pasts

A tension between violence and peace lies in the belly of Irish history. Ireland was founded on the fruits of a Civil War, domestic terrorism and political schisms. The nation's most notorious political scandal revolves around the gun: the Arms Crisis. An event to rival Watergate, it saw three government ministers accused of attempting to illegally import arms for use in Northern Ireland. The topic is explored in RTE Documentary On One's podcast series and TV documentary GunPlot.

Yet scattered throughout history were people like abolitionist Daniel O'Connell. He was a man who advocated for peaceful protest to liberate Irish Catholics and the abolition of slavery. After the Irish free state was established, the nation transformed into a sturdy democracy, complete with strict firearm legislation.

But Ireland's abandonment of arms is interesting when compared to a nation with similar founding ingredients. For example, the United States is also the product of colonialism, civil wars and organised militias. However, instead of shedding its association with guns, the US seems to have doubled down. In 2020, there were 43,558 gun violence deaths in the US, based on research by the Gun Violence Archive.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today with Claire Byrne, documentary makers Ronan Kelly and Nicoline Greer on the GunPlot podcast series

While Ireland and the US share a handful of historical similarities, they possess vastly different economies, population sizes and crime rates. But why did one nation rebrand as a poster child for peacekeeping and the other conflate gun ownership with civil rights? The stark divergence begs the question: does a nation's history dictate its relationship with arms?

There are two parts to America's history with guns, explains Dr Robert Spitzer, Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at SUNY Cortland: the mythology of its gun history and the reality of its gun history. While gun ownership existed as far back as the arrival of European settlers to the US, it was not as widespread as many believe, thus weakening the idea that gun ownership tamed the frontier and played an essential role in the establishment of the nation.

Although guns were a constant presence throughout history, Spitzer explains that there were also gun laws and America's guns were more tightly regulated within the first 300 years than in the last 30 so the concept that gun ownership, gun rights and gun laws are incompatible is largely a new phenomenon. "That’s because this is how we view our politics now in a much more polarised way," he says.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Documentary On One, epsiode 1 of GunPlot

Lecturer in law at NUI Galway and political commentator Larry Donnelly compares the cultural identities of the US with European nations when it comes to firearms. "I think in Europe we talk more about societal solidarity and the society trumping more broadly, whereas in America it’s much more of an individualist culture. And the individualist culture at the end of the day means that the individual needs to defend him or herself and their family".

Dr Kristin Goss, a Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at Duke University, explains how firearms became entrenched in such popular American values as independence, anti-statism and liberty. She says gun manufacturers would advertise firearms and link them to individual values, particularly masculine values. "There was also sort of this whole cultural iconography in which guns were used, so you can think of the wild west shows which were really popular". What has mystified academics, Goss says, is why the US diverges from other countries of similar stock as there does not appear to be the same culture of arms in other former British colonies like Canada and Australia.

Ireland is also au fait with the long-term effects of colonial settlement, but it left a vastly different cultural imprint here. Dr Aogán Mulcahy, Associate Professor of Sociology at UCD, explained that Irish society was effectively pacified in the wake of the formation of the state. Ireland's population declined from the famine up until the 1950s and the exit of Ireland’s youth likely helped shape its relationship with arms, as crime is usually a young man’s occupation. "So in that sense why was there no weapons? Well, partly because there were no people using weapons to some extent" said Dr. Mulcahy.

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From BBC News, why do so many Americans love their guns?

Irish society at this time was also dominated by the Catholic Church, which Mulcahy says behaved like a "kind of moral authority". The nation was also largely void of the racial tensions that plagued countries like the US. "It was relatively homogeneous, it was overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly Catholic," points out Mulcahy.

In contrast, it is difficult to contemplate gun ownership in the US without looking at policing and race. In the early years of the US between settlement processes, genocide and expropriation of land, the lines between who was acting on behalf of State interests and who was acting of their own volition became blurred. As Dr. Jennifer Dawn Carlson, gun scholar and Associate Professor School of Sociology & School of Government and Public Policy at the University of Arizona, explains, "simply by virtue of being a white person, someone with white skin could stop, detain, question, effectively have policing power over someone who appeared to be of African descent."

Carlson says individual rights are associated with white male independence in the debate over collective vs individual rights in the US today, while gun control advocates tend to suggest that this right was very differently understood. The racial politics of guns is often sidelined by asserting that it was a collective right, and it was about the militia. "But in fact, the militia was one of the core institutions of how the racial order of the early colonial US was reproduced". Carlson adds that if people purely focus on the categories of race that are present today it blocks out components of the historical picture.

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From RTÉ Archives, RTÉ News report from 1984 asks if the gardai should be armed

Ireland’s police service An Garda Síochána similarly holds a deep historic and cultural significance, but it was established to eradicate the memories of Ireland’s oppressor. The decision to leave the force unarmed, Mulcahy explains, set them apart from their predecessors the Royal Irish Constabulary, and marked a new chapter in Irish history. "The guards were routinely unarmed and many of the first guards....had served in the IRA during the war of independence". This makes the disassociation with guns even more surprising, as these men would have been comfortable with weapons.

Unlike the US, guns are not widely available in Ireland so routine police work does not come with the same risk. Across the Atlantic, there are organisations dedicated to ensuring citizens have widespread access to guns, such as the National Rifle Association (NRA).

But how does an organisation craft a dedicated group of politically active members to fuel its aims? According to Dr Matthew Lacombe, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Barnard College, Columbia University, it is once again a question of identity. The NRA constructed an identity around gun ownership and linked that to politics.

From the Wall Street Journal, a brief history of the NRA

Throughout its history, the NRA tapped into the concept of identity and protection against threat. From the 1930s to the 1960s, Lacombe said the enemy tended to be foreign, like foreign invasions that could attack American liberty. But this changed in the 1960s as the NRA's relationship with the government fractured and the benefits of marksmanship were outweighed by the nuclear age.

After this chapter, the organisation shifted its focus toward the second amendment or the constitutional right to bear arms. "The shift was from sort of foreign threat to liberty to a domestic threat of liberty" Lacombe explains. "To sort of protect American liberty from our own government which could fall into the wrong hands."

By contrast, Ireland is a nation with relatively conservative firearm legislation, unusual for a country with such a bloodied history. So why didn’t we reach for the gun? Dr. Johnny Connolly is Project Leader at the School of Law at the University of Limerick and thinks the introduction of firearm legislation in 1925, coupled with the foundation of An Garda Síochána, tempered Ireland's violent past.

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From RTÉ Archives, John Hume talks to RTÉ News in 1971 about the 'alarming increase' in the number of gun clubs in Northern Ireland since the Troubles began

When violence broke out in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, measures were put in place to tackle arms and all firearms were effectively confiscated. Connolly quotes the 1972 order issued at that time: "For all privately held pistols and all rifles over 22 calibre to be surrendered to local Garda Síochána". Although people were promised their arms would be returned after a month, that never really happened. "When people went to get them back because their licenses had expired, they were no longer licensed so they weren’t returned" Connolly explains. This process continued up until the 2000s, but was successfully challenged in 2004 following a High Court challenge, paving the way for the Criminal Justice Act in 2006.

Unlike our American counterparts, the eradication of Ireland's explosive past was a conscious decision. Dr Stephen Kelly, Associate Professor in Modern History at Liverpool Hope University, states that a protection over arms would never have been tolerated when the Irish constitution was composed.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Documentary On One, epsiode 2 of GunPlot

While the Republic of Ireland was content to break off its courtship with arms, Kelly points out that it still passively observed or actively enabled other nations to take up weapons. For instance, when the Troubles erupted in Northern Ireland, "it was almost this idea, 'look it’s OK the Troubles are going on, but as long as it doesn’t spill over our borders we’re content to almost condone violence and the use of political violence'." The Arms Crisis is a prime example of this passivity and it culminated in the dismissal of two government ministers.

It is impossible to definitively establish what solidifies a nation’s love affair with arms, but trauma can be processed in a myriad of ways. In this instance, both Ireland and the US took an extreme approach towards firearms due to their tumultuous pasts. They just went in opposite directions. To borrow a phrase from writer James Baldwin, "people are trapped in history and history is trapped in them".

Listen back to all episodes in the GunPlot series here


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ