Gunning for Guns

At the Cartersville Public Library on Saturday I noticed this book on the recent acquisition shelf:

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I was curious, because the title reminded me of Arming America by Michael Bellesiles (2000), which advanced a similar thesis: that American “gun culture” was the creation of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company in the years after the Civil War, that Americans were by no means enamored of guns before that. Once the wartime government contracts dried up, the company had to find new buyers, and in a genius marketing campaign rivaling DeBeers’s “A Diamond Is Forever,” convinced vast swaths of the American public that owning a gun was a patriotic duty.

This makes intuitive sense. Much work has been done on nationalism from the same perspective: many historians claim that it was an “invented tradition,” projected onto the past, that prior to the late nineteenth century people didn’t care much for their putative nations, or were even aware of them. (Although I don’t quite agree with this.) One also thinks about the transformation of the American university at the time, with the rise of fraternities, intercollegiate athletics, and other aspects of “school spirit.”

Where Haag differs from Bellesiles, from what I can gather after reading her introduction, is that she admits that guns were ubiquitous in the early republic, it’s just that they were tools, like shovels or rakes. They were not cult objects. (I thought of this when perusing the magazine rack at our local supermarket later that day: on sale were plenty of magazines devoted to guns of all kinds, but none devoted to garden tools.)

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Gun culture.

Bellesiles, by contrast, claimed that Americans did not own many guns at all prior to the Civil War, and that those they did have didn’t work very well, making Winchester’s marketing seem even more heroic (or fraudulent, if you want to put it that way).

Of course, Bellesiles’s scholarship was quite fraudulent itself, so much so that he got fired from Emory for it. This was a big deal back in 2002. I was keen to see what Haag had to say about Arming America, but neither the book, nor its author, appear in Haag’s bibliography. And there was no acknowledgement of the controversy in the introduction! The “Search Inside This Book” feature on Amazon reveals a single mention in the midst of a long endnote on page 407, which claimed that Bellesiles’s

count of gun ownership, which he concluded was quite low (19 percent), based on colonial probate records, was subsequently challenged and rejected for questionable sources and technique. Setting aside his gun inventory, this book agrees with one of Bellesiles’s conclusions, namely, that the alliance between the government and the gun industrialist in the antebellum years was crucial to the development of a commercial market.

That’s it? That’s all she has to say? Surely a significant portion of the introduction should have been given over to the problems with Arming America, and why The Gunning of America will be better. As it stands, it comes across as “nothing to see here, move along.” Or “If we ignore it, it will go away.” Or, as Dr. Wheeler puts it: “Down the memory hole!  Makes me almost believe in conspiracy theories!”

(All this, of course, is a separate issue from firearms policy today. Bellesiles and Haag are attempting to do the same thing with gun ownership that Hobsbawm and Ranger did with nationalism: if it’s constructed, then it can be dismantled. But even if America’s “gun culture” came about only in the 1860s, it still happened 150 years ago! Is this not enough time for it to have become an intrinsic part of the American psyche? On the other hand, even if Haag and Bellesiles are wrong, and Americans have loved their guns from before the passage of the Second Amendment, surely we reserve the right to change things anyway, since gun technology has itself changed quite a bit since 1787, and there are certain well-known problems with widespread gun ownership?)