Second Amendment

'Mama didn't raise a victim': How guns became part of America's culture

0407 guns

In 1870 Thomas Addis urinated on a rifle before the Ottoman Sultan and saved one of the largest gun businesses in the world. The Sultan had challenged Colonel Addis – a globetrotting salesman for the Winchester Repeating Arms Company of New Haven, Connecticut, and only a self-styled Colonel – to unclog a sandy batch of rifles using implements available to ordinary soldiers. Impressed by Addis’s ingenuity, the Sultan ordered 20,000 rapid-fire Winchesters. His men soon mowed down Russian troops, who toted mere single shooters, and showed nations and tribes around the world what it took to survive.

Back in Connecticut lay a less spectacular but, the historian Pamela Haag shows, equally significant part of the story. The Winchester Company sent Addis abroad because it was struggling at home. Few Americans purchased guns. Those who did sought to possess a practical tool, not a totem of individual freedom. Precisely when the West was being “won”, and before the first federal gun-control legislation in the 1920s, consumer demand failed to sustain Winchester and other manufacturers. Through most of the nineteenth century, the United States hardly seemed destined to become the ballistic republic it is today, when civilians own the most guns per capita of any country, tens of thousands die from gun violence annually, and toddlers shoot someone at least once a week. The aggregate statistics make the recent mass shooting in Orlando, despite its setting a record for fatalities, look like a spectacular version of normality.

Haag is not the first scholar to debunk the myth of American “gun exceptionalism”, as she calls it. In Gunfight: The battle over the right to bear arms in America (2011), the law professor Adam Winkler revealed the long acceptance of gun restrictions at state and local levels from the American Revolution onwards. Only in the twentieth century did gun advocates decide that almost any regulation, however modest, would destroy the right to bear arms. Haag offers a similar chronology but shifts the perspective. Looking beyond gun owners and the scope of their rights, Haag focuses on gun makers and the power of their business, arguing that it was the particular dynamics of gun production that compelled Winchester and a handful of manufacturers to cultivate a consumer market. Gun capitalism created gun culture.

But first, capital created the guns. Diving into the archives of Winchester, along with its Northeastern counterparts Colt’s, Remington and Smith & Wesson, Haag traces how the handcraft of eighteenth-century gunsmiths gave way to mass production in nineteenth-century factories. Churning out arms required capital accumulation above all. Thus Oliver Winchester, a well-heeled shirt-collar maker, morphed into an iconic “rifle king” despite never owning a gun until he got into the business, and he continued to view firearms in the unexceptional terms of commerce. “A gun”, he explained in 1869, “is a machine made to throw balls.”

To continue reading Stephen Wertheim's review in the Times Literary Supplement, click here.