Our gun myths are all wrong: The real history behind the Second Amendment clichés that have sustained our lethal gun culture

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tags: Second Amendment, guns



Pamela Haag holds a Ph.D. in history from Yale University. Her work on a diverse range of topics has appeared in many venues such as American Scholar, NPR, Slate, and the Times (London).

Excerpted from "The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture"

Perhaps the most powerful cliché is gun exceptionalism. Many people on both sides of the debate about guns believe that America has a unique and special relationship to guns, and that this exceptional relationship—whether celebrated or condemned—is a foundation of American gun culture. Americans have always loved guns, common wisdom holds, or, “guns are part of the American identity.”

A main thesis of this book is a simple but important one. We became a gun culture not because the gun was symbolically intrinsic to Americans or special to our identity, or because the gun was something exceptional in our culture, but precisely because it was not. From the vantage point of business, the gun was a product of non-exceptionalism. Perhaps not in the earliest years of its manufacture, when the government construed the gun as an exceptional instrument of war and common defense, whose more efficient production merited guaranteed contracts and markets, generous funding, protective tariffs, and a freewheeling exchange of innovation across public armories to germinal private industry, but in the key years of its diffusion, and for many years thereafter, it was like a buckle or a pin, an unexceptional object of commerce. No pangs of conscience were attached to it, and no more special regulations, prohibitions, values, or mystique pertained to its manufacture, marketing, and sale than to a shovel. Indeed, there were no special rules concerning the international trade of guns until modest presidential embargo powers became effective in 1898. By that time, Winchester’s company sat at the center of its own web of gun commerce that radiated outward to six continents. No exceptional regulations existed when Winchester and his competitors were first “scattering the guns,” in his terms, to create US markets. Although the gun industry produced an exceptional product—designed to injure and kill—it followed the ordinary trends and practices of the corporate industrial economy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In short: the gun was no exception.

Ironically, had the gun been perceived in its early commercial years as a unique and extraordinary thing in society, we might never have become a gun culture. Under those circumstances, politics, law, and other regulatory forces might well have stepped in early on to circumscribe or shape the gun’s manufacture and sale, as they did in some other places around the world. For the United States, the gun culture was forged in the image of commerce. It was stamped, perhaps indelibly, by what historian John Blum called the “amorality of business.” America has an estimated 300 million guns in circulation today, but the gunning of the country started extemporaneously, and it was etched strongly by the character, ambition, and will of gun capitalists rather than by diplomats, politicians, generals, and statesmen. Gun politics today are consumed by Second Amendment controversies, but the Second Amendment did not design, invent, patent, mass-produce, advertise, sell, market, and distribute guns. Yet the gun business, which did, and does, is largely invisible in today’s gun politics.

In the context of business amorality and unexceptionalism, Winchester cast his industrial lot and fortune on a faster and mechanically improved rifle, and he did so not as a gunsmith or even as a gun enthusiast, but as a nineteenth-century capitalist. Others later recalled that Winchester had never personally owned a gun, had never displayed guns in his home, and had never shot a gun before he built his family and corporate fortunes off of them. He was, at the beginning, a men’s shirt manufacturer. If he identified with any group, it would have been with the vanguard class of self-made men who scorned esoteric learning, but, with the help of enterprise, mechanization, and technology, took the world in hand, shattered it into discrete pieces, and then redesigned and reassembled it into more profitable versions of itself. Spellbound by the hows of industrial production, and indifferent to the whats—the industry’s object—Oliver Winchester went into the gun business the way his compatriots went into corsets or hammers.

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A second cliché of American gun culture holds that with guns, “demand creates its own supply,” in the words of sociologist James Wright. In a nation of gun whisperers, so believers say, guns were commonplace, and their later industrial production was a reflection of pre-existing demand. The view from the ledger book is different, however. The creation, discovery, invention, and reinvention of gun markets— the visible hand of the gun industrialist at work—was a recurrent, bedrock project of the gun business. It is also a recurrent theme of this book.

To start at the beginning: Historians of the colonial period have stumbled into controversy when they have attempted to count guns; but studies find, in general, that guns, in various states of repair or disrepair, were neither ubiquitous nor rare. Most find a higher rate of gun ownership in the southern colonies—a few placing it around two-thirds of households—and lower rates in the northern ones—anywhere from one-third to just under a half.

In the craft phase, America had as many guns as were inherited, requested, or required. In the industrial phase, after Samuel Colt and Oliver Winchester founded private armories that made six-shot revolvers and rapid-firing repeater rifles—new and patented firearms—it had as many as could be mass-produced by machine. From the gun industrialist’s perspective, supply creates the need for demand: volume production required volume consumption. And the gun was no different from other commodities in this arithmetic of industry.




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