Pamela Haag describes herself as an “award-winning nonfiction writer, essayist, cultural commentator, and historian.” And she has just published a new book, The Gunning of America, which fills some interesting gaps in the history of America’s first manufacturing industry, a.k.a., small arms. The book is based on painstaking and detailed research in documents from, among others, the company archives of Winchester, Remington and Colt, supplemented by generous citations from primary and secondary sources, including personal correspondence of the early gun makers, articles and notices from the daily press and a pretty comprehensive knowledge of other contemporary, secondary works. In other words, this is a serious history book.
What Haag attempts to show is that guns may not have been an intrinsically American phenomenon had it not been for the marketing energies and activities of the founders of companies like Colt, Remington and Winchester, all of whom attempted to push as many guns as possible into domestic and foreign markets in order to protect and improve company bottom lines. On more than one occasion, companies like Colt and Smith & Wesson were only able to keep the factory doors open by aggressively pursuing government contracts both here and abroad; the senior management of Winchester never stopped reminding the sales force of the necessity to sell every single gun.
One of the gaps filled by this book is its focus on guns not as representing political beliefs or cultural attitudes, but as a business in and of itself. The author quite rightly says that “the gun business, as a business, remains invisible, a secret in the closet of the gun culture,” and this book is an effort to bring it out of the closet, so to speak, and examine it on its own business terms.
The problem in trying to look at the gun business through a business prism develops, however, when the author attempts to compare how the gun business marketed itself in past times as opposed to the way it explains itself now. The author is absolutely correct when she says that current-day efforts by the industry to picture itself as ‘exceptional’ based on a unique relationship that America has with guns is not an accurate picture of how and why the civilian ownership of hundreds of millions of small arms came about. Rather, the idea that every American should have a gun was a marketing strategy of gun makers from the earliest times precisely because some way had to be found to convince consumers that guns were not just another ordinary product that they could either own or do without.
What makes Pamela Haag’s argument somewhat problematic, however, is that while she captures nicely and accurately the marketing message employed by the gun business today, she basically ends her discussion of the actual workings of the gun industry in the 1920’s, nearly a century ago. So while she is correct in saying that by 1900 gun sales were relying on demand caused by “desire and affinity, rather than utility,” the marketing message has now swung back to the argument for utility, except that utility is now defined in a much different way.
The reason that the numero uno gun company in America happens to be an Austrian outfit by the name of Glock is because the gun industry has replaced the iconic figure of the gun totin’ Western sheriff (or the gun-totin’ San Francisco cop) with the gun-totin’ armed citizen whose right to defend himself and his family doesn’t just derive from the 2nd Amendment, but comes straight from God. And if you think I’m overstating the case for the alliance between guns, concealed-carry and the Almighty, just listen to Wayne-o’s convocation speech delivered at Liberty University earlier this year.
I like books that are well written and well researched and this one is both. And I agree with Pam Haag that in our efforts to reduce gun violence the spotlight needs to shine more brightly on gun makers themselves. Too bad she couldn’t gain access to the archive of the NSSF.