No, Gun Culture Was Not Manufactured by the Gun Industry

Recent book claims the gun industry successfully created American gun culture solely with clever marketing. It is Pamela Haag’s The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture (Basic Books, 2015).

This is nonsense. The gun industry was born and grew in response to a real need expressed in consumer demand. This is easily discoverable from a quick look at accessible archives. That a Yale professor could make such an easily refutable claim reminds me of another familiar case.

No, Gun Culture Was Not Manufactured by the Gun Industry

Bellesiles Redux

If you were around in 2000 or so, you might remember. In 1996, Professor Michael Bellesiles of Emory University published Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture. Bellesiles claimed that in the Colonial period, the government tightly regulated gun ownership and use; that guns were very scarce before 1840, that there was essentially no civilian market for handguns before 1848, that violence between whites was rare, and that few Americans hunted until the 1830s.

In response, Bellesiles resigned his tenured position, and Columbia University revoked the Bancroft Prize it had awarded him.

Most academics initially responded with fawning reviews of this courageous attack on the “gun lobby”. A few troublemakers (myself leading the villagers with torches to the castle where Bellesiles’ monster dwelled) pointed out that he was not just misinterpreting the documents of the past, but that he was making up his own!

Eventually, academics such as James Lindgren of Northwestern University started to ask questions based on their own areas of specialization. Bellesiles’ attempts to defend himself became increasingly difficult to believe. He could not produce notes from his examination of probate inventories; this data had given a certain credibility to his initial claims of a nearly gun-free America.

Worse, he could not produce the spreadsheet from which the graphs in Arming America were created. He claimed the paper notes were destroyed in a flood and could not be restored from their mushy state. He said someone set his front door on fire, and he had to move his family because of “threats” from angry gun nuts.

A very detailed account of this scandal by James Lindgren gives some idea of the scale of the problems. This included Bellesiles?? claim to have read probate inventories in archives that Bellesiles had not visited. In another case, he claimed to have “count[ed] records in the Gloucester County courthouse in Chelsea, Vermont, when there is no Gloucester County or Gloucester County courthouse…”  Independent verification of his summaries of probate records often found them at great variance from his claims.

Emory University asked a panel of prominent historians to look at the controversy, and their report was devastating. Example after example of Bellesiles’ responses to the committee and their comments make it clear that he was not believed. In many cases, committee staff were unable to find Bellesiles’ cited documents. Their conclusions included:

But in one respect, the failure to clearly identify his sources, does move into the realm of “falsification,” which would constitute a violation of the Emory “Policies.” The construction of this Table implies a consistent, comprehensive, and intelligible method of gathering data. The reality seems quite the opposite.

In response, Bellesiles resigned his tenured position, and Columbia University revoked the Bancroft Prize it had awarded to Bellesiles for Arming America, the very first time that has happened. Bellesiles, at last report, now tends bar. As this paper of mine, and my book-length examination demonstrates, Bellesiles intentionally falsified hundreds of footnotes (at least).

Bellesiles to Haag

The similarity of Bellesiles’ book to Haag’s claims are astonishing. She has one astonishing admission buried in one of the early endnotes at p. 407 n. 9:

“Michael Bellesiles’ Arming America (New York: Knopf, 2000), whose count of gun ownership, which [Churchill] 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 Bellesile’s [sic] conclusions, namely, that the alliance between the government and the gun industrialists in the antebellum years was crucial to the development of a commercial market.”

Haag acknowledges an emotional commitment to the gun control cause that Bellesiles was cagey enough to avoid.

As we saw above, the problems of Bellesiles’ work were far broader and more severe than some questions about counts of guns in probate inventories. Making false claims of finding inventories in archives he never visited, and in non-existent courthouses, is a bit more than “questionable sources and technique.”  It suggests that Haag took Arming America at face value, and made no effort to review the voluminous literature detailing Bellesiles’ spectacular “crash and burn.”

Haag’s book commits herself to Bellesiles’ theory of gun culture formation in America. Worse, at p. 409 n.15 she asserts that “[t]here are very few histories or cultural histories of guns in the United States….”  Except of course for my bookArmed America (2006), which demonstrated not just that Bellesiles was a fraud, but that his claim about gun culture formation was wrong.

Haag acknowledges an emotional commitment to the gun control cause that Bellesiles was cagey enough to avoid: On the first page of the introduction, she admits this book was caused by “the tragedy of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newton, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012.”  She then launches on p. x into several pages of assertion that there was some guilt associated with gun manufacturing.

Nevertheless, I wanted to know what allowed Oliver Winchester and his successors not to feel at least a little encumbered by the fact that they manufactured and sold millions of “fearfully destructive” guns. We hear a great deal about gun owners, but what do we know about their makers?  The gun debate has been mired in rights talk for so long—what gun owners have a right to do—that it is forgotten as a matter of conscience.

I do not (yet) assert that Haag has intentionally falsified her work, but she starts with assumptions that raise serious questions about whether she looked for and misread evidence to prove her assumptions.

She begins by saying that the gun culture was created through intentional manipulation of public tastes to create a gun culture for commercial reasons: On p. xviii, she says,

“Why do Americans love guns?” is, simply, that we were invited to do so by those who made and sold them at the moment when their products had shed much of their more practical, utilitarian value.

By this, she explains on p. xviii, “Logically, sales should have dropped, but the WRAC [Winchester Repeating Arms Corporation] did quite well from 1890 to 1914.”

Her argument is that as America urbanized, guns no longer served as critical a need for hunting, or defense against Indians.

There are problems with this argument. As the U.S. Census Bureau shows in Table 10, America remained a primarily rural population until 1950. She also seems unaware that urban America, then as now, had significant criminal violence problems for which a gun might be a very practical and utilitarian tool.

The Loathing of Business

It would be surprising indeed if Haag’s clear upset about Sandy Hook and the evils of capitalism did not color her interpretation of documents.

Haag also exhibits a not-terribly-subtle hostility towards business on p. xxiii. “A perceptual habit of the gun industry and technology—to fracture parts, labor, and relationships into smaller pieces, to focus deeply inward, to see components over the whole—was also a habit of conscience, the innovation in technology and accountability one and the same.”

On p. xxv, she also takes to task Adam Smith’s description of capitalism in similar terms: “Smith described complex interdependency, but he absolved the capitalist from conscious accountability for distant human fates beyond the narrow actions of his accounting.”

It would be surprising indeed if Haag’s clear upset about Sandy Hook and the evils of capitalism did not color her interpretation of documents, in much the same way that Bellesiles’ implicit desire for a gun-free American Eden colored his “research.”

Haag could well have started from a wrong assumption and reached the right conclusion, but examination of her work provides evidence of very careless research and many factual errors.

One of her claims on p.48 is that Samuel Colt “had sent out an agent to California to tap into the gold-rush market in 1853, but he found the market saturated. This new crop of settlers was more interested in agriculture than gold, and they had little need for the guns.”

So what should we conclude from looking at ads like this from the January 1, 1853 Sacramento Daily Union?

J.A. McCrea thought there was a market for handguns in California. Perhaps he was mistaken and this ad was a mistake. Why then did he run this same ad 199 times in 1853 and 281 times in 1854?  Why keep advertising something for which there was no demand?  McCrea was not the only such fool:

There are three possibilities here.

  1. Merchants continued to advertise products for sale in a “market saturated” with guns. If advertising was cheap, this might make sense. But the Sacramento Placer Times charged $4 for 10 lines of a column and $2 for every “subsequent insertion,” which in 1850 would seem a discouragement to wasting money advertising unsellable goods.
  2. The gun industry marketing was very successful in creating demand for guns, which demolishes Haag’s claim about Colt finding the California Gold Rush gun “market saturated.”
  3. Demand in California was strong enough for guns that either Colt was wrong in his claim, or Haag has misinterpreted Colt’s letter on this subject. In light of Haag’s clear hostility to the gun industry and gun ownership, it is worth examining Colt’s letter that she claims makes this statement.

Furthermore, ads for shooting galleries (what today we would call a shooting range) appear repeatedly in California Gold Rush newspapers.

Searching articles instead of ads found 2886 matches for “shooting,” a few of which are metaphorical (“grass shooting up on the prairies”) but most are of this form:

All of these incidents are from the first seven months of 1850.

J.D. Borthwick’s Three Years in Calafornia [sic] (1857), described how San Francisco was awash in places of entertainment with signs that announced “No weapons admitted.”  While Borthwick thought little of the entertainments available, he did say that it was nonetheless worth going,

“[I]f only to watch the company arrive, and to see the practical enforcement of the weapon clause in the announcements. Several doorkeepers were in attendance, to whom each man as he entered delivered up his knife or his pistol, receiving a check for it, just as one does for his cane or umbrella at the door of a picture-gallery. Most men draw a pistol from behind their back, and very often a knife along with it; some carried their bowie-knife down the back of their neck, or in their breast; demure, pious-looking men, in white neckcloths, lifted up the bottom of their waistcoat, and revealed the butt of a revolver; others, after having already disgorged a pistol, pulled up the leg of their trousers, and abstracted a huge bowie-knife from their boot; and there were men, terrible fellows, no doubt, but who were more likely to frighten themselves than any one else, who produced a revolver from each trouser-pocket, and a bowie-knife from their belt. If any man declared that he had no weapon, the statement was so incredible that he had to submit to be searched; an operation which was performed by the doorkeepers, who, I observed, were occasionally rewarded for their diligence by the discovery of a pistol secreted in some unusual part of the dress.” [emphasis added]

Rifles appear repeatedly in 1850-59 California newspapers: 3272 matches, including ads for the “Sharp’s Patent Rifles.” Sometimes these are articles in which rifles play a part:

“The Spaniard on the opposite side of the table then rose, and fired a revolver at Mr. Clark, missing him. Mr. B.F. Moore then came in, and the Spaniard fired at him, but missed. He then took up a rifle and fired, at about five inches’ distance, blowing off the top of the Spaniard’s head.”

Colt’s letter (or at least Haag’s characterization of Colt’s letter) is clearly wrong: A strong and vigorous gun culture already existed in California before 1853. Worse, that Haag never questioned the validity of this idea suggests either a gross ignorance of California’s turbulent history during the 1850s or an intentional unwillingness to verify the claim she purports to have found.

Semiautomatic?

Throughout her book, Haag uses the word “semiautomatic” to refer to guns that are not. On p.179, “The family name, which became the rifle name, eventually stood for the genus, becoming a synonym for repeating, semiautomatic rifles.” On p.88, “As the semiautomatic ancestor of automatic machine guns, the Henry performed ‘a terrible work of death…”[emphasis added]  On p. 204, “Winchester had emerged the preeminent name for semiautomatic rifles.”

But the Henry and Winchester rifles were not semiautomatic rifles. “[T]he semi-automatic rifle—that is, the military rifle fitted with self-loading mechanism but fired by the trigger shot for shot” does not describe the Henry or Winchester rifles, which must be reloaded by operation of the operating lever. Because Haag describes the mechanism and how it works on pp. 180-1, this is clearly not ignorance, but perhaps an attempt to transfer some of the horror she associates with guns in the historical period she is examining to modern semiautomatic weapons (or maybe the other way around). This is especially problematic because the proper term “repeater” or “repeating” appears in several places in her book, such as on p. 179.

Regardless of her motivation, this repeated use of the wrong word casts serious doubt on either her level of research or her honesty. It would be like referring to the role of airplanes for reconnaissance in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 instead of the more accurate “balloons.”

I confess to being surprised that a Yale professor would produce such a sloppy and factually defective book, but Bellesiles surprised me too.