Hunting Deer In Pennsylvania? Don’t Bring A Modern Sporting Rifle.’

At the end of this month the Pennsylvania Game Commission will hold their first quarterly meeting of 2017, and the agenda will include approval of new changes in hunting regulations which go into effect.  Hunting is a big deal in Pennsylvania; only one state (Wisconsin) issues more resident hunting licenses, and the only state which derives more licensing revenue is Colorado because buying a license to hunt elk ain’t cheap. So when the Game Commission sits down to revise hunting regulations, the changes will affect a lot of Pennsylvania hunters this year.

hunting             Yet despite these impressive numbers, the truth is that hunters in Pennsylvania, like everywhere else, are a vanishing breed.  Since the early 1980’s, the Pennsylvania deer-hunting population has dropped by more than 25%, and in a 2004 survey, more than one-third of all Keystone State hunters said that declining health and increasing age would keep them from engaging in the sport any more.

So what do you do if you’re an industry that depends, in part, on hunters to buy your products and those particular consumers tell you that they no longer want or need the products you sell? You come up with a new type of product, sell it to a new group of consumers and let them decide how best it can be used.  Voila! – the modern sporting rifle, a marketing slogan of the gun industry whose nomenclature bears absolutely no resemblance to even the remotest definition of the word ‘truth.’  But now that we have a President who also seems unable to discern the difference between the words ‘true’ and ‘false,’ what difference does that make?  Well, in the case of the Pennsylvania Game Commission it seems to make a big difference, at least when it comes to the 2017 version of their hunting regs.

What the Commission is proposing is a rule change which will define the capacity of any rifle that can be used to hunt big game, which in Pennsylvania basically means the ol’ white-tail deer.  Pennsylvania contains some of the most rural (and beautiful) uninhabited landscapes in the eastern half of the Lower 48, and the deer abound, even if the number of hunters keeps dwindling down.  And what the new regs say is that if you want to go into the woods to take a pot-shot at Bambi, your rifle cannot have a ‘total aggregated capacity’ (breech and magazine) of more than five rounds.  Which means that you can’t go hunting with an AR-style rifle and only put 5 rounds in the mag. It means you can’t take an AR-style rifle (that’s an assault rifle, by the way) into the woods to go hunting at all.  Period.

Try as they might, the geniuses in the gun marketing community have obviously not convinced the Pennsylvania Game Commission that an AR-style rifle is no different in form or function than the old, semi-automatic Remington or Winchester hunting rifles that have basically stopped selling because the kind of people who used to buy them are either too dead or too old.  The industry has been lying about ‘modern sporting rifles’ ever since Chuckie Schumer and Di Feinstein first started going after assault rifles in 1994. And the NSSF has convinced a lot of people who should know better that any rifle that can’t fire all its ammunition with one squeeze of the trigger is just another type of sporting gun which can and should be used for any kind of shooting at all.

The military rifle – M4 – that our troops use in battle theaters does, in fact, allow its user to pull the trigger once and shoot a three-round burst.  But the gun can also be set to fire one round at a time, just like any other semi-automatic rifle.  So when a soldier decides that the tactical situation calls for using his rifle in semi-auto mode, does this mean he’s going into battle with a ‘sporting’ gun?  At least the Pennsylvania Game Commission seems to understand the difference.



How Was The West Won? Not With A Gun.

Want to see where the West was really won?  You don’t have to go out West.  All you need to do is take I-70 out from DC, drive through the tiny West Virginia finger that runs north from Wheeling, and then follow State Route 7 alongside the Ohio River until you roll into the town of East Liverpool, which is actually on the Ohio side of the river itself.

survey            Now when you get into East Liverpool grab State Route 39 and follow it along the river until you reach a little stone monument (about a mile out of town) that marks something called the ‘Point of Beginning,’ which is where the West was actually won.  This is the spot (the exact spot is 1,000 feet south of the monument which is now underwater) from which almost the entire remainder of the country was surveyed beginning in 1785.  And why did the colonial government begin surveying and mapping the immense westward landscape three years before the Constitution was ratified and the United States came to exist?  Because farmers, traders and all sorts of other folks were moving beyond the borders of the original colonies and the issues of who owned what piece of land and who could own what piece of land had to be resolved.

When we talk about the western part of the continental United States we’re not talking about some country’s little back yard. I recall, for example, driving through Monaco which covers roughly 2 square kilometers of land mass and thinking that it really didn’t matter, from a territorial point of view, whether this tiny sliver of soil was attached to France or not. But when we talk about the territory from the western bank of the Ohio River to the Pacific coast, we are talking about 1.8 billion acres of land, and that’s not geographic chump-change in anyone’s book.

The problem in 1785 however, is that all of this land had at one point belonged to the British Crown who, in typical feudal fashion, had given out hunks of it to this colonial administrator or that.  But all of those arrangements became null and void by what happened at the Battle of Yorktown and its aftermath in 1781, and while it would be another seven years until the United States ratified its own independent status as a sovereign nation, deciding what to do with this enormous, largely vacant territory couldn’t wait.

Well, it wasn’t exactly vacant.  There did happen to be a lot of human beings living in many parts of this extraordinary landscape, Jefferson referred to them politely as ‘dependent nations,’ but a Supreme Court decision, Johnson v. M’Intosh, decided in 1823, basically legitimized what had been going on for the previous hundred years or more, namely, that indigenous populations in colonial zones had no property rights at all.  Oh well, oh well, oh well.

The push westward really began in earnest after we bought 827,000 square miles of territory from France in 1803.  We then picked up the southwest from Mexico in 1843 and grabbed the northwest from Canada in 1846. All of this territory was initially owned by the government, much of it would be sold, rented or leased to private interests over the intervening years. Even Cliven Bundy and his idiot sons would end up leasing (but not paying for) land from the Feds.  But the bottom line is that what made this immense transfer of land from public to private hands possible wasn’t the Colt Peacemaker or the Winchester Repeater – the guns that ‘won’ the West – it was the surveyor’s measuring rods and chains which were first used by employees of the Federal Land Office in 1785.

During the Age of Trump the gun industry will try its level best to argue that America owes its existence and freedom to gun ownership. After all, isn’t the whole point of gun ownership to help make America great again?  And when were we greatest?  When we won the West.  Except the West wasn’t won with guns.




‘The Gunning Of America’ Is A Good And Serious Book.

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.

         Winchester 1873

Winchester 1873

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.


When Is An Assault Rifle Not An Assault Rifle?

The origins of the term ‘Modern Sporting Rifle’ are somewhat obscure. The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) claims that MSRs were the lever-action rifles developed by Spencer and later by Winchester with a tubular magazine that held 8-10 rounds. The rifles were shorter and lighter than standard infantry guns and were used primarily by cavalry units.  The Winchester repeater saw more frequent use during the two decades it took to pacify the various Plains Indian tribes, and from that time until the present continues to be favored by hunters primarily for short-distance deer shoots.

There’s only one problem with this little NSSF history lesson: The term ‘Modern Sporting Rifle” didn’t exist back when Spencer and Winchester made their rifles.  The term was coined, in fact, by the NSSF and the gun industry to get such products accepted by chain stores like Cabela’s that were at first reluctant to display military-style weapons in retail venues frequented by families (read: mothers and children.)  The gun industry portrays the design of these rifles as nothing more than just another example of consumer goods reflecting changing tastes, as in the following quote by NSSF President Steve Sanetti:

“Nothing looks like it did 50 or 100 years ago.” Today, this is the way a rifle looks. It doesn’t have a wood stock or blued steel. Yet it has become ‘America’s rifle.’”

But hold on a minute, Steve. There are many rifles out there today that look exactly like they looked fifty years ago. The semi-auto Remington 750, still a very popular gun, has been in production (with various name changes) since 1952. The Browning BAR, another semi-auto hunting rifle, hasn’t basically changed since 1967.

What’s changed is the gun industry’s attempt to make high-capacity, military-style rifles palatable with today’s political sensitivities, not today’s marketing tastes. When I bought my first Colt AR-15 forty-five years ago, nobody had any problem referring to it as an assault rifle. The term had been around since the end of World War II, when it first was applied to an automatic rifle, the StG 44, known as the sturmgewehr (which literally means ‘assault’ or ‘storm’) issued to units of the Wehrmacht in 1944.

The landscape began to change in 1994, when the Democrats, led by Dianne Feinstein, pushed through a ten-year ban on “assault” rifles as part of a national anti-crime bill. According to the NSSF and other gun industry mouthpieces, the use of the term ‘assault rifle,’ was an attempt by anti-gun elements to get rid of these weapons by creating the fiction that they were no different from rifles used by the military.  In fact, it wasn’t only liberal, anti-gun “elements” that ganged up on the poor, law-abiding assault rifle owners.  On the eve of the vote in Congress, the following letter was sent to Republican Congressmen, urging them to vote for the ban:

As a longtime gun owner and supporter of the right to bear arms, I, too, have carefully thought about this issue. I am convinced that the limitations imposed in this bill are absolutely necessary. I know there is heavy pressure on you to go the other way, but I strongly urge you to join me in supporting this bill. It must be passed.

The author of the letter, a really hard-core member of the liberal “element,” was Ronald Reagan.

The NSSF can say whatever it wants about why the Modern Sporting Rifle is different from military weapons, but the difference boils down to one thing, namely, that assault rifles used by the military are designed to shoot multiple rounds with one pull of the trigger (automatic) while the civilian versions require a separate trigger pull (semi-automatic) for every shot. But from a design and function perspective, this is hardly a game-changer, because most assault weapons carried by the military also provide the option of being fired on either automatic or semi-automatic mode.  In fact, most assault weapons carried by our guys and gals in combat zones shoot either one or two shots for each trigger pull, because the odds of putting more than two auto-fire shots on target are slim to none.

If anyone out there really believes that the purpose of making a civilian version of the assault rifle is to somehow lull consumers into thinking that they aren’t getting their hands on a military gun, consider the description of the product by Colt Firearms, the company that manufactured both the first military and civilian versions:

Colt’s rifles are the only rifles available to sportsmen, hunters and other shooters that are manufactured in the Colt factory and based on the same military standards and specifications as the United States issue Colt M16 rifle and M4 carbine.

So here we have the company that took Gene Stoner’s brilliant design, then converted it first into the AR-15 for civilian sales and then into the M16 for military use. That’s correct folks, the current Colt M4 rifle carried by our troops (and plenty of other combatants) started out as acommercial design that was adapted to military use – not the other way around.  Oh well, what’s a few facts when facts really don’t matter, right?ar