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Arming America: The Origins

Emory University history Professor Michael A. Bellesiles has written a 600-page book to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that America was not a gun-crazy culture until the mid-19th century, when the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution, and a wily entrepreneur named Samuel Colt made firearms part of the American Way of Life.

Has Bellesiles succeeded in making a good case? No question about it. Through an exhaustive—and, at least to this reviewer, exhausting—investigation into thousands of primary records spanning four centuries, Bellesiles shows that, until the years just following the War Between the States, gun ownership was in fact extremely rare in this country, and for some very good reasons.

But before we get into the book itself, it’s worth asking why on earth it had to be written in the first place. What is the problem, to paraphrase Neil Postman’s question about the Internet, that this thing was created to solve? Why has Bellesiles asked us to read 600 pages, 150 of them footnotes, arguing a thesis that few of us have ever sat around the campfire debating?

The answer is that he is attempting that most difficult and thankless of tasks: giving the lie to a deep-seated and largely unexamined cultural myth. In this case, it is a myth that, indirectly, brings us tragedies like the fatal shootings in Jonesboro, Ark., in 1998 and at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., the following year.

More than a year after Columbine, efforts to tighten up background checks for those who want to buy guns remain stalled in the Congress. And we don’t see anti-gun-control legislators worrying much about whether their constituents are going to toss them out of office for it, do we?

Let’s face it: Guns have us by the balls.

We worship them at the lowbrow altars of the big and small screens, ooh and aah as Steven Seagal, Nicolas Cage, and Wesley Snipes fire round after round, ripping and popping and offing their foes by the score. Is a Hollywood blockbuster even conceivable anymore without at least a smidgen of automatic gunfire to satisfy our 9-mm jones?

Guns: a soothing balm for a complex world. They bring the social blur into focus. They bring clarity to the morally confused. Boom. And as a former sheriff’s deputy in Shreveport, La., once told me, “They give me a hell of a hard-on.” And, luckily for the fulminating American hoi polloi, there is no dearth of highbrow support for the proposition that the “fedrool gummint” ought to keep its hands off of our collective pistol.

These proponents of citizens’ rights to unfettered gun ownership typically rely on two chief lines of argument to support their position. The first is that the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees every private citizen the right to own a gun. The gun proponents love this one because it jibes nicely with their theory that given half a chance, the feds would arrive in black helicopters to confiscate their property and rape their women. It is only the fear of a well-armed citizenry that deters the New World Order bureaucrats from descending upon us like those flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz. The Constitution says so.

The Second Amendment argument has been definitively laid to rest by a number of historians, though none perhaps have done it more persuasively than Garry Wills in his 1995 New York Review of Books essay, “To Keep and Bear Arms.” Wills demonstrated that the Second Amendment has nothing whatsoever to do with individual gun ownership but instead is about the necessity of maintaining state militias. The phrase “bear arms”—as in “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed”—is, Wills pointed out, a translation of the Latin arma ferre, which means “to wage war.” The Second Amendment is clearly talking about the military use of weaponry, not prohibiting federal regulation of personal firearms ownership.

The second chief argument regularly trotted out by radical gun-ownership advocates is not so much an argument, really, as an appeal to sentiment. For that reason, it is more dangerous. It is the claim that guns have been a deep and abiding part of American history from the very outset, that if we trifle with our heritage of manly gun culture, we trifle with our cultural identity.

It is this position that has now been dealt a telling blow by Bellesiles in Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture.

The point is not a trivial one, if only because such cultural mythology has a powerful grip on our emotions and sense of self. We are the nation whose courageous militiamen defeated the better-financed and better-organized British forces by dint of heroism and superior marksmanship, aren’t we? We are the descendants of rugged individualists each of whom kept a loaded rifle over the mantle to defend his family from criminals, Indians, and other dangerous types, aren’t we? Our forefathers learned to become crack shots with the rifle because they had to put meat on the table by hunting wild game, didn’t they?

No and no and no, says the author.

Bellesiles, director of Emory’s Center for the Study of Violence, has a simple thesis. Modern-day gun culture may ask us to believe that American history was born in gun-inflicted bloodshed, but the fact, says Bellesiles, is that guns were never very prominent in American society until after the Civil War, when, as in so many other things, supply drove demand. “[G]un ownership was exceptional in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries, even on the frontier, and…guns became a common commodity only with the industrialization of the mid-nineteenth century, with ownership concentrated in urban areas,” he writes. “The gun culture grew with the gun industry.”

Until relatively late in the history of firearms, these weapons were just not very useful in battle. The early muskets were incredibly heavy, prone to misfiring, time-consuming to load, and inaccurate beyond a distance of 10 yards. Compared with the longbow, the standard 17th-century European weapon for non-hand-to-hand combat, the musket was a loser. You could fire 12 arrows in the time it took to reload a matchlock, and a bow’s range was 200 to 300 yards. When Europeans came to America and began their campaign to take the land from its indigenous populations, again and again they were defeated by Native Americans wielding bows and arrows and tomahawks. Spanish attempts to conquer Florida in the 16th century saw hundreds of musket-bearing troops routed repeatedly by Indians who refused to cooperate with Spanish assault strategy by engaging them on an open battlefield.

In the Colonial period, there were a host of reasons for people not to have guns—and Bellesiles’ research into probate records from 1765 to 1790 shows that only 14 percent of them indicate the deceased owned a gun, and many of the guns mentioned were more rusting heirlooms than functioning firearms. There is just no evidence, he writes, that guns were of much interest to the average Colonial settler, especially given that a flintlock cost £4 to £5 “in an age when £3 a month was considered a very good income for any trade, skilled artisan or prosperous farmer, and the average wage for a worker was £18 a year.”

Bellesiles also takes aim at the notion that our colonial forebears “put food on the table” with their rifles. For food, most—like their European counterparts—relied on farming.

If a settler wanted meat, he did not pull his trusty and rusty musket, inaccurate beyond twenty yards, off the hook above the door and spend the day cleaning and preparing it. Nor did he then hike miles to the nearest trading post to trade farm produce for powder and shot. To head off into the woods for two days in order to drag the carcass of a deer back to his family—assuming that he was lucky enough to find one, not to mention kill it—would have struck any American of the Colonial period as lunacy. Far easier to sharpen the ax and chop off the head of a chicken or, as they all did in regular communal get-togethers, slaughter one of their enormous hogs, salting down enough meat to last months.

Even the militias, which were supposed to be armed and which figure prominently in the modern mythology of America’s glorious gun past, were routinely under-armed and, when they did manage to get their hands on a few firearms, generally untrained in their use.

It was not until the mid-19th century that guns took on a prominent role in American life, Bellesiles tells us. With the declining price of steel, guns no longer needed to be made from cast iron, and therefore it was no longer necessary to constantly maintain one’s gun. Samuel Colt introduced machine production to the making of guns and embarked on a brilliant advertising campaign to connect the gun in the public imagination with frontier heroism and the romance of the West. Suddenly, guns were sexy.

The Civil War dramatically accelerated the slow cultural shift instigated by the increase in arms production in the 1840s. By 1865 it would seem that most Americans believed that the ability to use a gun made one a better man as well as a patriot more able to defend the nation’s liberties…

Technological innovation coupled with government support had powerfully altered the national character and sensibilities within a single generation.

Bellesiles brings to the subject of American gun culture a recognizably postmodern sensibility: He takes apart a “verity” and shows that there were very specific economic and political motives behind it. Not surprisingly, it was the fellow who wanted to sell you the gun who had the most at stake in your first buying the myth of American reliance ab origine on firearms. He had to place you in a venerable tradition.

Despite its 600 pages, Arming America ends a little too soon. Bellesiles doesn’t spend enough time pursuing the consequences of his findings. By the end of a book whose greatest virtue is its piling up of evidence, we are entitled to have an epilogue that brings us to the year 2000 and some discussion of what the perpetuation of the gun culture myth has meant to American society. This, alas, we do not get.

But the anti-gun-control forces will have their hands full dealing with this meticulously researched study. Bellesiles has taken a few bullets out of their magazine, and it remains to be seen whether they can find something new with which to reload. CP