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The Business Of Guns In America


Guns for sale at a Portland gun show.

Guns for sale at a Portland gun show.

Dave Blanchard/OPB

Most conversations about guns in America follow lines as deeply entrenched as wagon ruts on the Oregon Trail. They focus on the second amendment — on gun control and gun rights — on who should be able to buy what kinds of guns. Historian Pamela Haag set out to do something very different in her new book, “The Gunning of America.”

As she writes, she was interested in telling the story of American guns from the perspective of what the gun was — an object, produced by businesses, to be sold. When you look at guns in this way, she argues, the story is more about marketing than the second amendment, more about cold hard figures in a ledger book than a debate about rights and responsibilities. 

Haag says that you simply can’t understand how guns became what they are now without understanding the businesses that make and sell them.

On Early American Gun Ownership:

“Colonial historians have really struggled to figure out how many guns Americans had and estimates really vary. They certainly weren’t rare, but nor were they ubiquitous.” In fact, says Haag, selling guns to early Americans wasn’t an easy job. Pioneers and settlers often opted for second-hand guns and old style percussion muskets rather than newer multi-firing Colts and Winchesters. “So, our perception of the West as being very heavily armed with those weapons is quite deceptive,” she says.

On The Industrialization Of Gun Manufacturing

In the 1798, Eli Whitney signed a contract with the U.S. military to make 10,000 muskets. That was some of the first industrial enterprise in the U.S., and it meant that the supply of guns increased dramatically … and that created a new challenge. “It’s not just that demand creates supply,” says Haag. “The industry, and having supply, creates a need to move beyond natural demand – to find more demand than you would just find normally.”

On The Early Gun Manufacturers

Oliver Winchester was better known as a men’s shirt manufacturer and the inventor of a shirt collar that solved the ‘too tight neckband’ problem than as a gun maker. He had never owned a gun before he became a weapon manufacturer; he was simply looking for the next industry to invest his money. “The same thing could be said of any of the first generation of gun industrialists,” says Haag. “They were more enamored of the means of making things, than the particular things they made.”

On The Development Of ‘Gun Culture’

“In the 1800s a lot of Americans still either thought of guns as attached to war, or they thought of them as tools. I think the real moment when the gun culture becomes more recognizable is actually in the 20th century.”

Haag points out that at the turn of the century, when the frontier had mostly been settled, and the country was becoming more urbanized, and sedentary, some people began speaking out, saying that guns didn’t have a place in modern America. And it’s actually at that moment, says Haag when the gun industry begins to embrace the intangible symbolism of the gun. “They themselves began to deepen the value of their product in these ways, find ways to tie it to nostalgia, history, masculinity.” 

To hear more from Think Out Loud’s conversation with Haag, including a story about the gun industrialist’s daughter who was haunted by the deaths of her fortune’s victims, click “listen” on the player at the top of the page.

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OPB | Broadcast: May 3, 2016