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.

Steve Ryfle October 2, 2017

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

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:

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

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 Ryfles 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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