It’s not a Norman Rockwell picture. There’s no wholesome family sitting in a well-furnished home. It’s the picture of capitalism that created a market for weapons of destruction. Gun Country: Gun Capitalism, Culture, and Control in Cold War America explains the engine that’s driven America to own more guns per capita than any other country on the planet – by a wide margin.
As World War II wound down, there were suddenly a large number of handguns sitting in boxes on shelves in warehouses. When every member of the military wasn’t carrying a sidearm, they needed to go somewhere. It turns out that some enterprising individuals, like Sam Cummings, began importing these weapons to market to the US consumer. These weapons were cheaper than what could be produced by US firearms manufacturers for two reasons.
First, the surplus weapons were taking up space, and it was a good thing for the foreign governments to find a new home for them. They were sold as used for prices intended to get them out of the government warehouse. This led to some cases where the weapons were imported as “scrap” even though the importer knew they would be sold as-is.
Second, when the supply of surplus weapons was exhausted, the foreign labor rates and exchange rates made it less expensive for firearms to be manufactured. Admittedly, this sometimes meant there was a lower quality of manufacturing; but for many, it was the difference between being able to afford a weapon and not.
With a supply of inexpensive firearms, it was necessary to create demand. Marketing was rising as a powerful force in American society, and guns were no exception. Vance Packard in The Hidden Persuaders explains how psychology became progressively more intertwined with advertising and how people are motivated to buy things to make them feel better about their lives. Gun Country explains it as “chasing that elusive daydream of remaking the self through consumption.” If only it were possible to elevate fear with a simple purchase – one of the two strategies marketed by the gun industry.
For firearms, the motivation took two paths. The first path was the sport of hunting and target shooting. It was the path of rebuilding the skills of marksmanship that the Army would have loved to have in ready supply before the war. It was also the thing that we had lost as we moved to a more stable food supply through agriculture. This was the positive approach.
The negative approach relied on a sense of fear – the same mechanism that is used today. We know that violent crime peaked in the 1990s. (See Bowling Alone.) However, we also know that continued news coverage of violent crimes increased everyone’s perception of the rise of violent crimes.
Critical to the marketing of firearms was not just the increase in violent crimes but also the race relation tension that reached its peak in the 50s and 60s. This tension increased fear and the belief that you needed a gun to protect yourself. This fueled the sale of firearms in record numbers (for the time).
During the 1960s, it was common to see mail-order firearms, including the Carcano rifle:
That’s the exact ad that Lee Harvey Oswald responded to when he purchased the weapon that he used to kill President Kennedy.
Closing the Mail Order Loophole
The first firearms legislation was the National Firearms Act in 1934. Largely, it restricted the sale of automatic weapons. In 1938, the Federal Firearms Act restricted who firearms could be sold to – for instance, excluding those with a felony conviction. However, the standard by which one could determine that someone was – or was not – prohibited was quite loose. In fact, a child could sign a form that they were able to purchase a weapon and send it back, and no verification was done, nor questions asked. Some enterprising reporters demonstrated that this was the case.
It was the 1968 Gun Control Act that finally closed the door for firearms sales by mail order. Firearms, when transported, must be transported between Federal firearm licensees. It wasn’t until the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 that we gained a comprehensive background check system.
Much has been made of some firearms – particularly the AR-15 – because of its military use. The problem is the implication that military firearms are somehow more powerful than civilian firearms. This is largely not the case. In some cases, the purchasing public has more discerning tastes than the governments that supply soldiers. Take the case of the Carcano rifle that Oswald used.
It was a cheap, bolt action rifle, which means the operator flips up and back a piece of metal that sits behind the cartridge when fired. It gains the ability to do multiple shots by a magazine mechanism under the weapon. It’s a military rifle with a problem. The weapon could be fired with the bolt being fully secured in place – ejecting it backwards and into the operator. Even trained military personnel were hurt in these kinds of accidents, so it wasn’t something that was generally safe enough for the public. The extra attention and higher risk made it something that serious sportsmen didn’t want to touch.
But there’s more. The ammunition that these weapons used wasn’t in standard use in the United States. At the start of the imports, there wasn’t a manufacturer of cartridges (bullets) that would fit in the rifles. The problem wasn’t that the cartridges were larger or packed more firepower (gun powder) but rather that they were smaller than typically used in the US. The typical lever-action gun strapped to the sides of horses’ front legs in Western movies is a 30-30. It’s larger and more powerful than the kinds of weapons that were being imported – and, incidentally, the AR-15 that is so sullied today.
In short, the weapons that were being sold to the public were cheaper, but they also had less power and were more likely to kill the operator than US-manufactured weapons of the time.
People look at them like they’re weird. Militia (sometimes called “paramilitary”) are the result of the work done to control guns. Gun advocates correctly saw their ability to own a gun coming to a close. Leaning on the tiniest reading of the Second Amendment, they reckoned that they had to form a militia to keep their guns. The literal language of the Second Amendment makes gun ownership a condition of a well-armed militia, so enterprising protectors of their rights formed them.
We’ve moved on from this interpretation of the Second Amendment to a broader interpretation that allows private citizens to have firearms with very few restrictions. However, the militia have remained an artifact of gun control clamping down on gun owners and their natural defense of their perceived rights.
Law Abiding Citizen
Part of the fear being engendered into the American public was the concept of two kinds of citizens: the law-abiding and the non-law-abiding. Gun owners wanted to be a part of the law-abiding type. Much like the affinity groups that I explained in The Deep Water of Affinity Groups, they wanted to be connected to protectors of society. As protectors, they needed to be armed to be able to overcome the force of mobs – should they ever come.
Few people stopped to ask if they really were completely law-abiding or not. Speed limits were meant to be bent. Stop signs were sometimes “stoptional” (stop-optional). They’d bend the rules in a million different ways, justify the bending, and move on. (See Moral Disengagement.)
Snipers on the Rooftops
It was 1967 in Detroit, Michigan, and it was a long, hot summer. The primary conflict was between black residents and the police department. What’s interesting about this event isn’t exclusively that it was one of the deadliest and most destructive riots in the United States. Also interesting is the media’s role in creating snipers.
Numerous news outlets reported that there were snipers on rooftops. The problem is that being able to shoot people at a distance is a skill – one that the residents were never trained for. It’s also problematic that, in at least one of the cases, the “sniper rifle” was a 410-gauge shotgun – something that’s completely incapable of hitting the broad side of a barn at range, much less sniping. Mostly, the rioters had handguns, and while some were on rooftops, the media’s inflammatory approach to reporting generated more fear and likely played a role in amplifying the situation.
A similar situation occurred in Newark, where there was widespread reporting of snipers that never existed. That’s good news, since the presence of well trained and equipped snipers would have dramatically changed the police casualties, as they were often in exposed areas with no body armor on.
As a part of a broader understanding of the situation that drove gun purchasing, we need to consider how the media played a part (probably unwittingly) in the increase of fear and therefore the increase in the number of firearms sold.
However, these riots did create a unique situation. In Detroit, gun owners were required to register their firearms. Many were concerned with the problems seen in New York, where a registration was turned into a list of people to approach when the same weapons were later banned. (See America’s Gun Wars.) However, an astounding 75% of the weapons that were seized or recovered during the riots were not registered. It means that when gun control advocates suggest that registering weapons is an effective way to get a handle on gun ownership, they’ve not paid any attention to history.
It’s data like this that makes the observation that if you restrict firearms at this point, the only people who won’t have them are the law-abiding citizens.
A real challenge with gun control advocacy is the tendency to focus on the sensational, emotional component of the problem rather than what really matters. Gun control proponents are fixated on the AR-15 platform. That’s like being focused on the cars with ground effect lighting. They’re regular cars in every meaningful way. They just happen to look a bit different cosmetically. (See Bullet Basics, and What is an Assault Rifle?)
Mass shootings are tragic. There’s no minimizing the tragedy experienced by those injured and killed by mass murderers. The impact on the families is unimaginable by most. The problem is that, statistically, they’re an extremely small number of the deaths in the United States – and even those deaths by firearm. You’re far more likely to kill yourself with a firearm than you are to kill another person.
Preventing suicides isn’t sexy. It doesn’t make the news most of the time. It’s where the results can appear when it comes to preventing firearm harm, but for most people, it’s barely an afterthought. It’s much more engaging to talk about improving mental health screening for those who purchase firearms to prevent the tragedy of mass shootings – ignoring our complete inability to predict who will create the most harm to themselves or others.
The real problem isn’t that guns create violence. They don’t fabricate arguments from thin air. The real problem is that arguments can quickly become deadly in a Gun Country.