An ad from 1900 for Winchester, one of the firearms empires that sold America an image of itself as a nation of guns.

America Wasn’t a “Gun-Loving Country” Until a $13.5 Billion Industry Made It So

Historian Pamela Haag’s The Gunning of America refocuses the gun debate on the moguls who made America into the land of guns – and mass shootings.

BY Steve Ryfle

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The advertisements ... began to talk about guns as tied to masculinity and to desires that every "real boy" has.

After the latest mass shooting—by some statistical measures, the 273rd in the U.S. this year—Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) quickly assailed his colleagues for failing to act while such horrific incidents become normalized:

My colleagues in Congress are so afraid of the gun industry that they pretend there aren't public policy responses to this epidemic. There are, and the thoughts and prayers of politicians are cruelly hollow if they are paired with continued legislative indifference. It's time for Congress to get off its ass and do something. 

Murphy’s calling out of the gun industry and of Congress’s cowardice is significant. With annual revenue of $13.5 billion, and a record 27 million guns sold in the U.S. last year, the firearm and ammunition industry would seem to command a central role and responsibility in the impossibly polarized debate over gun violence and gun rights. Studies show a correlation between America’s high rate of firearm ownership and gun-related homicides, including mass shootings. Yet the industry, the beneficiary of our country’s obsession, remains a powerful but mostly invisible presence, shielded from public scrutiny and protected by laws that thwart lawsuits from families of mass-shooting victims attempting to hold gun and ammo makers liable for crimes committed with their wares.

Author and historian Pamela Haag lifted the veil from the firearm industry in The Gunning of America (Basic Books, 2016). Neither a staunch pro-Second Amendment supporter nor a gun-control advocate, Haag wrote what is essentially a nonpolitical book about perhaps the most highly politicized issue ever, and she did so accidentally. Haag set out to write about the bizarre life of Sarah Winchester, the eccentric gun heiress who erected an Escherian, maze-like mansion where she lived in solitude, haunted by ghosts. Instead, Haag discovered the largely unexplored history of the American firearms business. Charting America’s relationship to guns through the rise of the firearms empires built by Oliver Winchester and his competitors, The Gunning of America shows convincingly that the firearms magnates built their industry not in the name of freedom or individualism or any political ideal, as we’re often told, but in pursuit of that most American of ideals: profit.

Haag spoke to In These Times by phone.

The idea that guns are part of America’s DNA is a powerful force our culture. But the gun industry apparently had no such notions when it began manufacturing on a mass scale.

That's right. Oliver Winchester wasn't selling guns by invoking nostalgia for the Revolutionary War or the Minutemen. Samuel Colt wasn't harkening back to the colonial era to sell his newfangled revolver. They were much more practical and pragmatic even in how they viewed their product. Now, by the end of the 1800s and going into the 1900s, that … decisively begins to shift. And at that moment, the gun industry is facing a much more urban America, post-frontier world. The advertisements increasingly made reference to American history and talked about subconscious desires to have guns, and “shooting instinct” as the Winchester company called it. So they began to talk about guns as tied to masculinity and to desires that every “real boy” has. It [became] more an object of emotion that practical need. 

It’s also interesting to find that the early gun industry didn’t wrap itself in the flag and the Second Amendment at all.

[One] of the glaring absences in most of the history of the gun industry is the Second Amendment. That wasn't even really mentioned in any of the literature that I came across until maybe in the 1920s… It certainly wasn't used as a marketing device. Today, it is: I know people who buy guns simply to express to political affinity. They don't actually want to use them but they are fed up with liberal gun control regulations and buying a gun is a consumer political act, and it has everything to do with the Second Amendment. But it's important to recognize that that heavy political symbolism is very much our invention; it's something that is part of very recent history and, mind you, [not] going back to the founding days of the country. It certainly wasn't something that the gun industry was exploiting or thinking about.

The rise of the firearms industry in the 1800s and early 1900s can be seen as a precursor to the military-industrial complex. After the Civil War, gun purchases by the government fell off and that’s when the manufacturers started developing large overseas markets.

Yeah, this is one of the things that was just so surprising to me when I delved into the gun industry archives. I found myself absorbed in the records and asking myself, “Why am I reading about contracts with the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire? Why is this story not about Buffalo Bill as much as it's about Egypt or Czar Nicholas II of Russia?”

One of Oliver Winchester's life-saving sales was in 1866 to the Juarez forces in Mexico. So from the start, guns were coming across from the U.S. into Mexico, arming what is today the Middle East, arming the Russian Empire, arming Sardinia, Japan, Chile. So that really kind of kept the industry alive in key years, when [the domestic market] was abysmal.

Today the mystique of the gun is very much about the rugged individual pioneer, but again, when we shift the perspective and we look at the industry, a very different story emerges where this began as an innovative industry to support the U.S. government, to be a weapon of war. And the civilian market was what these industrialists developed a bit later, when they had to, when it became clear that relying on kind of this boom and bust of war wasn't necessarily the best business approach, and they put even more effort into cultivating that civilian domestic market. But the intimacy between the gun industry and the military far, far predates the Cold War. It was very clear in World War I, for example. Essentially, the U.S. was reliant on private arms manufacturers to meet wartime needs—this was where the innovation was, where the production capacity existed. It's at this moment that the gun industry gets criticized as war profiteers. But really by this point the gun industry preferred its civilian market. World War I was, for all but Colt, a very disastrous business moment. They spent so much to expand, to produce, to fill wartime needs. That was more an act of patriotism than of good business. After the war, Winchester and others were deeply in debt. 

The civilian gun market exploded in the inter-war years, and this is also when the first hearings on regulation of guns were held.

One of the things I kept asking myself as I was doing research is, “When did the world that I would recognize today around guns really begin to emerge?” And I think that is in the inter-war years, in the 1920s and the early 1930s, and there were a few reasons for this. There were some Americans who were questioning the place of guns in this transformed country that was much more urban. But there were other Americans who were becoming more attached to guns as markers of masculinity and a valued commodity. So it was kind of moving in both directions at the same time. In the 1920s there was an explosion of bootlegging gangster violence in the cities, and that was mostly armed by submachine gun. So there was a lot of disgust with the bootlegging violence and there was still a great deal of dismay over the carnage of World War I. And at the same time, once FDR was in office there was a belief that the government can help solve these problems, which is very different from today. So that congealed into the first comprehensive attempt at firearms regulation at the federal level in 1934, with the National Firearms Act.  

You write, “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.” That’s a big takeaway—the industry is the Wizard of Oz, powerful yet invisible.

Yeah. The gun industry has never sought publicity in the way that the NRA does. It shirks it.

I think as the NRA became more visible in the 1900s, the industry has become less visible and seems to be less relevant to the political conversation, because the political conversation has gotten very polarized around Second Amendment versus gun control, and individual rights versus collective safety. There are a bunch of polarities that have really crystallized in this debate, all hinged on individual gun owners versus non-gun owners, and the industry seems to have no rhetorical place in that debate at all—despite the fact that at the most basic level we are a gun culture because we have a gun industry that made guns and wanted to sell them, and that has never changed. It isn't because the industry is diabolical; it was an ordinary, everyday business that sold its product. And that is such a simple and basic fact, but it doesn't fit into the polarities of the modern gun control debate; they kind of slide under the radar.

The Gunning of America concludes with your recommendations for how gun violence might be addressed. You put the onus on the gun industry, but the solutions you’re recommending are voluntary, not legislative. Do you see any traction on this issue forthcoming?

There are places where change can happen just on the level of corporate accountability and reputation. I just don't think they're tried that often. The gun industry has, at times, voluntarily done things to address gun violence. There are dealers who quietly stop selling a particular assault style rifle that has been involved in a [mass] shooting, for example. Or Winchester stopped selling a particularly destructive ammunition that they had been manufacturing in the 1980s. But this happened because somehow it was brought … to the public attention. They were made vulnerable in ways that any corporation can be made vulnerable.

They're actually not always in lockstep with the NRA. Smith & Wesson tried to devise this code of ethics for their dealers that was actually really ambitious in 1999, and the NRA urged their members to boycott them. So [examples] do exist where the industry has different interests than the NRA and are vulnerable in certain ways. The problem is that no one thing is going to entirely solve the issue or make a difference.

Ultimately I think most of this is simply is going to have to be a matter of voluntary decisions by people who are going to have to perhaps put public safety above their profits. Will that ever happen? I don't know.

Steve Ryfle’s reporting and criticism has been published in the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Tribune, Virginia Quarterly Review, Cineaste, and other publications. He is co-author of the biography ISHIRO HONDA: A LIFE IN FILM FROM GODZILLA KUROSAWA (Wesleyan University Press), due in 2017.

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