A Continent Disarmed? Gun Culture, Gun Control and the Making of Western Europe (ca. 1870-1970) EU-GUNS


The ERC-funded research project “A Continent Disarmed? Gun Culture, Gun Control and the Making of Western Europe (ca. 1870-1970)” (EU-GUNS) is a comparative historical study which examines the lawful possession and use of small firearms by law-abiding civilians in six Western
European countries (France, the United Kingdom, Germany/Federal Republic of Germany, Italy, Spain and Sweden) between ca. 1870 and ca. 1970.

General overview
Today, it is taken for granted that European citizens are largely unarmed. However, Belle Époque Europe was an entirely different world: guns were objects of daily use: they were advertised in boys’ magazines, and gentlemen used to walk with a revolver in their pockets. National legislations largely allowed this. The outbreak of the First World War changed almost everything and ignited a long and silent revolution that turned being armed from an individual right to a privilege that only state authorities could grant. It was only from the First World War onwards that gun licenses were introduced in many European countries for the first time and wide-ranging gun control measures were implemented, becoming part of states’ sovereignty claims. Significantly, these processes occurred in the very decades in which Europe witnessed unprecedented levels of mass violence, total warfare and destructive civil wars. EU-GUNS assumes that European polities and societies learned from the military, political and social catastrophes of the 1914-45 period that international and domestic security were inseparable. This promoted awareness – among political authorities and in civil society alike – that gun control and the cultural depoliticization of guns were the pillars of public order, social peace and, more generally, effective political systems.
The project argues that the distinctive relationship between civilians and guns resulted in collectively binding social and cultural norms which originated from top-down legislative measures and police regulations, as well as diverse societal and cultural processes (e.g. the deglamorization or praising of guns). The consequences were huge. Individually, this changed what it meant to be a citizen: while gun control took away the right to be freely armed, it entitled citizens to the right to be protected by the state and contributed to demasculinising political rights by separating maleness from gun use. On the collective level, the protection of unarmed citizens became one of states’ main tasks, granted as compensation for the loss of the individual right to bear arms. This contributed to shaping a wide-ranging notion of security which included personal safety (enforced through centralised police forces and justice systems) and social security policies. The project will show how, especially after 1914, gun control became a widely accepted social necessity and one of the cornerstones of state sovereignty.

Along with the eclipse of violence from the international and military stage after 1945, the virtual disappearance of guns from daily life shaped the Western European social fabric, and contributed to making it a remarkably stable and peaceful system after the Second World War.

Methods and Research Areas
The project adopts an innovative approach. It challenges conventional associations between gun use and mass violence, warfare and criminality, and focuses instead on lawful practices and law-abiding civilians. This offers a valuable vantage point to investigate changes in forms of citizenship, individual and collective rights, and states’ powers and sovereignty claims.

This will be investigated by combining scholarships and methods from three research areas that have usually been regarded as separate or even mutually exclusive:

1. Gun control: investigating legal knowledge and practices aimed at both arming and disarming the civilian population, and their entanglements in European and non-European contexts;
2. Gun culture: examining what cultural beliefs and symbolic meanings people attributed to guns; the transformation of gun cultures across time and space; the social values, gender imbalances and power relations conveyed by gun ownership; connections with broader political and social transformations; the impact of technological changes.
3. Gun practices: studying violent and non-violent lawful social practices; their social, cultural and political legitimation and acceptance; and their relation to ongoing social and cultural transformations. Guns will be investigated both as instruments of violence (e.g. in hunting, self-defence or suicide) and as non-violent instruments (e.g. in sports). The focus on practices will also serve as a test bench for the effectiveness of state gun control policies.

These research areas will be investigated through a set of methods which include:
- A synchronic and diachronic symmetrical comparison and focus on transnational exchanges and transfers.
- The extensive use of primary sources.
- Interdisciplinary contributions.

- 4 specific methodological approaches (entangled legal history, guns as material objects, advertising and security studies) to fully unleash the potential of the research and connect the gun question to the broader context of European history.

EU-GUNS ultimately claims that the gun question has the potential to act as a powerful interpretative lens to rethink one century of modern history in Western Europe.

This far-reaching undertaking promises to have a ground-breaking impact:
- First, through high-impact scientific publications, the project will fill a major gap in the current literature by providing the first comprehensive history of the gun question in Western Europe.
- Second, the study of the lawful dimension of the gun question will provide a fundamental benchmark to fully grasp the cultural matrices of political violence, thus contributing to the debate on terrorism and paramilitarism in Western Europe.
- Third, it will develop a new interpretative framework to prompt further investigations into other geographical areas, both in Europe and beyond.

For the first time, this project will use the gun question as a means to rethink one century of European history, shedding light on the relationship between the extension of state powers, violence control and individual rights: a triad which ultimately lies at the core of the making of modern Europe and the nature of European citizenship.

The project ends in

Principal Investigator
Matteo Millan (Università degli Studi di Padova)

This project was financed by the European Research Council (ERC) in the framework of the EU Horizon Europe program for research and innovation (N. Grant Agreement 101124518)