The Gunning of America – P. Haag

“Gun: Tool or totem item?”

Folks, this week’s book is that rare unicorn: A non-fiction book written by a woman which I bought ON SALE. Yes. I was visiting this book every so often, but you know about my stance on hardcover books. And I figured I’d wait until it came out in paperback – but the book gods had something better for me in store. So I got a hardback for a paperback price, and a good read on top of it!

Image result for gun shells row

The Gunning of America is discussing about how America became obsessed with guns. Often, we only look at the staggering number of guns in circulation in America. Gun right defenders then point to Switzerland, which also has a high number of weapons in households – however, as the author points out, the US has something Switzerland doesn’t: a gun culture.

And that’s what this book is really about – how this gun culture was created. It wasn’t always there, and it was a focused effort to bring it into existence. And as depressing at that may sound, there is also some hope in it: if the gun culture was artificially constructed, it can be torn down, too. There is nothing natural about America’s relationships with guns – there is no reason that they can’t stop being obsessed with guns.

So what do we mean when we talk about gun culture? Well. As always when discussing a cultural myth, there are various aspects for it. But mostly, think about the Wild West. What pops into your mind? Sheriffs, settlers and outlaws, all armed with rifles. Shootouts between the good guy and the bad guy. Rambunctious celebrations in saloons. That kind of thing.

Well, sorry to disappoint you, but that’s all a fabrication for marketing purposes. Yeah. Just like the ‘diamonds are forever’ campaign by DeBeers, the Winchester and Colt marketing departments managed to fabricate a story so good, it took over reality.

I’m not saying the Wild West was not … well, wild, but it certainly wasn’t as violent as the movies and songs would like you to believe. It was, above all, hard. And sure, in the absence of government, settlers had take matters into their own hands. But precisely because the settlements were so sparsely distributed, there wasn’t a lot of possibility for conflict. If your nearest neighbour is a day ride away, how often are you going to meet him?

Image result for winchester marketing wild west

So why was this myth created, then? The depressing, but true answer is – to sell guns.

But let’s start in the beginning.

If I were to ask you about famous rifle manufacturers, even if you do not know anything about rifles or guns, chances are you’d come up with two names. And you would be right. Winchester and Colt. Those two men started the gun business in America as we know it today.

It is important to note that neither men invented the gun they became famous for – Colt for revolvers and Winchester for rifles, respectively. They weren’t inventors, they were business men. And they didn’t invent the gun. They invented the gun market.

After the revolutionary and especially the Civil War, the gun manufacturers expected a serious lag in gun sales. For until then, gun business was exclusively war business. The companies weren’t really interested in private consumers to buy their guns. All of this changed in peace time. They first started to look elsewhere – namely, to Europe. For a couple of decades, it was the wars in Europe (or the wars fought by European powers overseas) that kept the American gun industry in business.

(In this tale, nobody’s hands are free of blood.)

After  that income stream dried up too, there was only one customer group left: private American citizens. In all of this, gun manufacturers didn’t see a moral problem at all – for them, a gun was a trade good like any other. There were no limitations in place at all on who they could sell to. The first legal restrictions didn’t come into place until the early 20th century, and then it was only to forbade trade to foreign powers who would be in contact with the US.

There is nothing new about amorality in capitalism. Goods are sold to whoever bids highest for them – the tragedy is that for a long time, guns were regarded as any other good, no different from horses or flour.

And just like any other good, the gun needed a market. And to create this market, Winchester & Colt started this massive marketing campaign. They turned settlers into soldiers. In their marketing materials, the settler was valiantly fighting Indian savages, nature and outlaws – all of those, of course, with a gun in his hand.

Image result for colt advertisement

The entire idea of the Wild West got romanticized – as an honest land for honest men (with a gun). The author calls this ‘moral surgery’, which is a great term that I will be using from now on. It essentially means that the less appetizing aspects of the truth were forgotten – like the fact that cowboys were majority people of colour, or that it was less violent than what we think it was.  We can see the effects of this myth-creating  today – a gun makes a man. It makes a man self-sufficient. With a gun, a man can fight the government, invaders, and anything else the world might throw at him. It is the gun that makes the man powerful. (I wish I could learn more about the cross-section between the definition of masculinity and gun culture in America today.)

And it is this myth that sells guns – because gun purchasers want to be part of this myth. They want to be powerful, and strong, and valiant. It is not so much the gun itself that they desire, it is the image that goes with it.

Image result for winchester advertisement vintage

This idea kind of blew my  mind – because in our world, guns are no longer ordinary goods. But it also shows that in the gun debate, both sides are talking of different issues. When people argue for gun control, they talk about limiting the access to an item. When gun rights advocates hear this, they see their way of living threatened. While I’m on the side of the gun control advocates, I think it’s important to acknowledge this difference between both groups.

(Perhaps gun rights advocates do not care so much about the guns themselves. They care more about what they perceive as threat to their core values.)

And there’s another idea on gun control in this book: don’t just focus on gun owners. Think about gun manufacturers, too.

Gun manufacturers are amoral. They do care about their bottom line, but they do not care about much else besides. They only care about the gun myth as a tool to help them sell more weapons and ammunition. If we manage to turn this myth into a disadvantage to them, they will be quick to drop it. It is worth thinking about how we can bring them into the fold of gun restriction.

There’s hope after all, folks!

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