In 1883 a young New Yorker named Theodore Roosevelt went out on a hunting trip to the Dakota and Montana territories. His goal was to get a trophy-sized American bison and mount the trophy in the family home at Oyster Bay. The reason he went on this hunt, and he did bring back a bison trophy, was he had been told that the bison herd was about to become extinct.
This was not the only game animal that was fast disappearing from its natural habitat; the white-tailed deer was also an endangered species by the end of the nineteenth century, the carrier pigeon was almost gone (and did disappear), and had it not been for the foresight and advocacy of conservationists and naturalists like Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell, many other animal and game species would have also faded away.
How did this happen? It happened because almost from the moment that Europeans arrived on America’s eastern shore, hunting became a commercial endeavor in response to a growing population that wanted and needed animal products both to consume for food and to use for clothing and other consumer wares. Bear in mind that hunting in Europe, particularly England, was an activity reserved only for the nobility and the Crown. Commoners, on the other hand, didn’t hunt, they poached, and as late as 1820 in Britain poaching was still a crime for which one could be hung. But the United States had vast amounts of open space and if much of that space belonged to Native Americans nobody really cared. These open spaces and the animals that roamed or flew there meant meat on the table for the average diet, leather coats for men, fur coats for women, feathers for decorative purposes and style – all of these products created opportunities for commercial endeavors resulting in the massive destruction of herds, fish and fowl.
And when it came to killing off all those animals, what could be more efficient than using a gun? But with all due respect to how Davy Crockett ‘kilt him a bar when he was only three,’ very little of this hunting activity was done either then or now for sport. Know how many hunting licenses were sold in 1955? Roughly 14 million. Know how many were sold in 2014? Roughly 14 million. That’s an astonishingly flat trend line for nearly sixty years. But there’s only one little problem. During that same period, the country’s population grew from 166 million to 319 million, an increase of nearly 100% while the number of hunters hasn’t changed at all. In other words, hunters constituted 8% of the national population in 1955, now they constitute a whole, big 4%.
Let’s remember something else. Guns aren’t like television sets, laptop computers or cars. They don’t wear out. And hunters are a funny breed because once they find a gun that really shoots perfectly for them, the last thing they’re going to do is trade it in. There have been some product changes that have kept the hunting gun market from total collapse, most of all more powerful calibers like 44 magnums replacing the venerable 30-30 for deer, or 3 ½ inch magnum shotgun shells for those hy-flyers zipping by or those turkeys cluckety-clucking through the woods.
Take a look at Pamela Haag’s study of the marketing strategy adopted by Winchester Firearms which recognized that the idea of the gun as a necessary ‘tool’ was failing to attract consumers before World War I. So Winchester began marketing its products to what they referred to in company discussions as ‘gun cranks’ – people who wanted guns even if they didn’t particularly need them for any practical use.
Sound familiar? The gun industry now sells guns as protection against crime, even though the number of times that people use guns as protective devices is actually little to none. In 1910 Winchester discovered that people would buy guns even though there was no practical reason to own a gun. Boy, things have really changed.