Insight into our modern polarization over guns

The Wall Street Journal today published an excerpt from a interesting-sounding book called The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture, by Pamela Haag.

After asserting that in the early part of our history, guns were not so much romanticized as seen as tools that a lot of people needed, the account gets to the point when marketing came into play:

BN-NR025_guns_JV_20160421123914Though some Americans always loved their Winchesters and Colts, many others saw guns as dowdy, practical tools. They would shop for them by perusing advertisements in farm-focused periodicals like the American Agriculturalist or the Rural New Yorker.

As the frontier was settled and U.S. cities grew, fewer Americans even needed guns as tools. By the turn of the 20th century, the industry had embraced the emerging science of marketing. Gun companies began thinking about how to create new demand for their products. In this respect, their business was no different from the stove or soap business.

Having started with customers who needed guns but didn’t especially love them, the industry now focused on those who loved guns but didn’t especially need them. In the late 1800s, gun companies were innovators in advertising, among the first merchandisers to make extensive use of chromolithography, an early technique for producing multicolored print. Their calendars and other promotional materials were works of art, depicting exciting scenes in which gunmen faced off with bandits or beasts….

I like that bit about how “the industry now focused on those who loved guns but didn’t especially need them,” which helped encourage many people’s emotional attachment to these items.

The piece concludes:

Gun-industry advertisements began to invoke the “natural instinct” to own a gun or a “real boy’s” yearning for one. A 1920 ad in Literary Digest neatly summarized this spirit: “You know [your son] wants a gun. But you don’t know how much he wants it. He can’t tell you. It’s beyond words.” Gun marketing had moved from describing how guns work to describing how guns make their owners feel.

This period, before the outbreak of World War I, saw the birth of today’s American gun culture. Within a few decades, as guns became more prominent in criminal activity and suicides, an antigun culture also began to rise. Many Americans recoiled from these new forms of everyday violence, even as others increasingly cherished their firearms and the personal meaning they found in them. The U.S. was on a slow spiral toward the modern, polarized politics of guns.

And here we are, a nation split between people who are appalled by the existence of guns and others who would rather die than relinquish them.


26 thoughts on “Insight into our modern polarization over guns

  1. Barry

    STEWARTVILLE — A would-be burglar got more than he bargained for Saturday night when a homeowner greeted him with a gun, authorities said.

    Deputies were called at 10:54 p.m. to the 300 block of Fifth Avenue Southeast in Stewartville for a report of a burglary in progress.

    A 24-year-old man told officers he’d heard a noise; when he investigated, he found a man inside the home. The resident — holding a handgun — confronted the man, who said, “oh, (expletive),” then ran out.

    Officers found indications of forced entry into the home, said Capt. Scott Behrns, but nothing was taken.
    No description of the suspect was available.

  2. Barry

    Cane-wielding ‘pacifist’ homeowner kills suspected intruder with own gun

    A gun toting suspect who broke into a New Mexico home early Wednesday proved no match for the homeowner, a pacifist armed only with a cane who police say disarmed the suspect and shot him dead.

    The unidentified, 59-year-old homeowner in the Albuquerque suburb of Placitas was awakened around 6:30 a.m. when the suspect entered his home, said Lt. Keith Elder, of the Sandoval County Sheriff’s Office. Elder told the Albuquerque Journal the two men struggled over the suspect’s handgun, and the homeowner ended up shooting the intruder. Elder said investigators believe that the gun belonged to the suspect.

    The suspect died at the scene. The homeowner was not charged, but the incident is under investigation, said Elder.

    The man’s attorney told KOAT-TV his client was injured in the incident and left shaken up.

    “My client is completely traumatized,” Cravens said. “He’s a pacifist and was forced to deal with an extremely violent situation.”

  3. Bryan Caskey

    If you want to read a really interesting book about the modern marketing of guns, read this. It’s a fascinating account of how the Glock pistol broke into the US and was marketed.

    It’s a fairly short read and very well-written. You don’t need to know anything about guns, nor do you even really need to like them. The book starts with the (infamous) 1986 Miami Shootout, and how that lead the FBI to move away from revolvers at precisely the time the Glock is starting to become available, and Glock did all the right things to market and sell it’s product.

    You’ll like the marketing aspect of it, Brad.

  4. Assistant

    I guess my only quibble with the author’s thesis is that in fact firearms were recognized as an essential element of existence by certain groups within American society. Certainly law enforcement and criminal gangs relied upon them, as did the folks who hunted for a living. But let’s not forget about folks in rural areas who worked full time in one profession or another but hunted and fished not as a hobby, but to put food on the table for a quarter or a half of their family’s caloric intake. Firearms were critical to their existence. The missed message of The Revenant was that what sustained and motivated the horribly injured Hugh Glass was simply that he wanted to get his rifle back. Keep in mind that at the time the tale takes place, the sort of firearm Glass had cost around $40. At that time a house cost $10 to $20, the price of the Glass’s rifle was the equivalent of two new cars today.

    But lots of other folks understood the importance of firearms, but they were generally too expensive until competition forced Winchester, Colt, and Smith and Wesson to produce better firearms at a lower price. When this competition in the marketplace started to make firearms better and cheaper, politicians began introducing laws to restrict firearms ownership such that the newly freed black slaves could neither purchase nor own firearms. But, fortunately, they got them.

    In her harrowing 1892 treatise on the horrors of lynching in the post-bellum American South, the journalist, suffragist, and civil-rights champion Ida B. Wells established for her readers the value of bearing arms. “Of the many inhuman outrages of this present year,” Wells recorded, “the only case where the proposed lynching did not occur, was where the men armed themselves.” She went on to proffer some advice: “The only times an Afro-American who was assaulted got away has been when he had a gun and used it in self-defense. The lesson this teaches, and which every Afro-American should ponder well, is that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give.”

    BTW, the Winchester she spoke of, a lever-action of the type one sees in cowboy movies, had a capacity of eleven rounds.

    Did advertising create a need to own firearms? I thing that marketers were trying to get folks to purchase their guns, not some other brand. Toward the end of the 19th century, the price of reliable firearms became quite affordable. One could order a variety of handguns, shotguns, and rifles from Sears or Monkey Wards.

    What changed was not the attitude towards firearms, but the notion of what liberty meant. As the progressives gained power, they sought to limit any potential challenge to their use of power, in part by restricting the ownership of firearms, first for blacks, later for everyone else. So far, it hasn’t worked. But the progressives will maintain their fervor to eliminate private ownership of firearms.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Mike, what you say is consistent with the piece as I read it.

      Yes, if you were living on the frontier, you saw a rifle as an essential tool — rather like owning an ax, or a plow. But that’s the way you thought of it — as a tool. It wasn’t romanticized.

      What happened after the closing of the frontier is that guns started to be marketed as something one had to have EMOTIONALLY.

      And since few people NEEDED guns anymore, two groups emerged, and moved farther apart from each other — those who were susceptible to the marketing, and those who were not. In both cases, the reaction was emotional, rather than pragmatic. Hence the passion we see on the subject of guns…

      1. Bryan Caskey

        “And since few people NEEDED guns anymore, two groups emerged, and moved farther apart from each other — those who were susceptible to the marketing, and those who were not.”

        It’s a cultural difference. If you grow up in a city or relatively densely populated area, you’ve likely never seen a firearm other than on television, the movies, or in the crime reports of the news. Same with an axe or a plow, probably.

        Most people in Chicago or New York City probably couldn’t tell you the difference between an axe and a maul, just like they can’t tell you the difference between a semi-automatic firearm and an automatic one.

        This is why the number one way to convert those people to not being so dogmatically strident about gun-control is for a responsible person to take them out shooting. It’s hard to “otherize” and dismiss gun owners as “crazy people” once you actually interact with one and come to understand the subject on a rudimentary level.

    2. Mark Stewart

      I didn’t get the connection between Progressives and restricting firearms ownership by blacks.
      It was white southerners who sought to continue the pre-antebellum policies and attitudes – including the fears of a negro uprising. None of those people would generally be considered Progressive, and certainly not when it came to the continuation of institutional racism.

      Progressives don’t like firearms because they pose a challenge to their political power; they don’t accept the carnage wrought by unrestricted firearms ownership within the context of a society that mostly only needs firearms as a psychic balm. Progressives don’t like the massive annual loss of life shootings bring to society, whether accidental, suicidal, unintentional or just plain stupid.

      The same 80/20 rule applies to firearms just as it does in every other aspect of human activity. In this case, 80% of gun owners are responsible stewards of the weapons they possess. But that leaves 20% in the hands of the irresponsible and/or idiots. And the real problem is, in a flash, a responsible owner can turn into an idiot. Guns are no different than automobiles in this way. [Though please spare me the “but cars aren’t protected in the Constitution spiel – we all know that clause is as clear as mud.]

      I don’t want to restrict gun ownership; I would much prefer that our attitude toward weapons went back to viewing them as valuable tools to be cared for with great respect and not as dilatant playthings.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        One of the most obvious indications of this emotional attachment among gun owners is the current fascination with the AR-15. Which, and you’ve got to admit this is creepy, went mainstream after the Sandy Hook shooting. A nut kills a bunch of children with a weapon, and suddenly everyone wants a weapon just like that…

        Anyway, my point is this. The weapon being sold like hotcakes at sporting goods stores isn’t an M-16. It doesn’t switch to full auto. It just LOOKS LIKE an automatic weapon. (The only other appreciable way it differs from other semi-auto rifles is the “load on Sunday and shoot all week” magazine.) And everybody wants one, apparently because it fills some need in them. A need I don’t understand, unless it’s about wanting to look like Rambo when you carry it…

        1. Bryan Caskey

          The AR-15 was a hugely popular rifle before Sandy Hook, just so you know.

          Also, the reason a great deal of people went out and bought AR-15 type rifles after Sandy Hook was because of the huge push to ban them. (Me? All of my AR-15 type rifles were lost in a tragic canoeing accident) 🙂 ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

          By the way, your Henry Rifle comment reminds me how much I’m ready to get one. I set myself up with a physical fitness goal in January, with my reward being a .22 caliber Henry rifle. I’m super close to meeting that goal. Hopefully, I can get there before the end of the month.

          I’ve shot them plenty, and I can’t wait to get one. I don’t care who you are, I guarantee you’ll have fun shooting a slick lever-action rifle like a Henry.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            All I know is that I did not see such rifles on prominent display in the sporting goods stores before Sandy Hook, and afterwards it seemed I saw little else.

            Yes, I know that it was in reaction to the push to ban them. But that illustrates the emotional irrationality of the behavior. If you didn’t buy one before, why run out and get one NOW.

            But I’ll never fully get the libertarian impulse. I understand, sort of, why a 2-year-old wants to do the very thing that others tell him not to do. I don’t understand when adults act that way…

            1. Doug Ross

              Why must a person who chooses to do what he wants without interference be compared to a two year old? Perhaps it is the person who wants to boss around other people who is acting like an old “get off my lawn” geezer?

              Seems like a fair deal – I won’t tell you what to do once you reach adulthood and you afford me the same respect/freedom/liberty. If my choices don’t affect (or impact you even), MYOB.

              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                It’s true that I approach issues as a father (not a geezer, unless you mean it in the British slang way, and even then it’s a stretch) rather than as a child. I only have two parents, but I have 5 kids and 5 grandchildren, so it skews my perspective.

                One of the largest gulfs in politics is the one between what libertarians regard as a person’s absolutely private business that couldn’t POSSIBLY affect anyone else, and what I see that way. To the libertarian, that applies to most human activity. To me, it’s pretty hard to find anything that fits that description. Pretty much everything we do can affect others. One of the proper concerns of public discourse is to try to discern when that effect rises to the point that it needs to be addressed by society as a whole…

                1. Doug Ross

                  If I own a gun but never shoot it except when an intruder enters my home, how are you affected? Does the mere fact that I own it cause you concern? If so, then that falls into a “you problem” not a “my problem”.

                  Same goes for any number of things… like whether as a business owner I choose to sell my product on Sunday or whether I choose to ingest marijuana because I feel it helps with the side effects of chemotherapy or whether I choose to have a ceremony where I legally marry another person of the same sex. How are you harmed by any of those things? I mean other than your desire to impose your own personal fatherly standards on me?

                2. Doug Ross

                  The wise sage Charlie Sheen covered libertarian philosophy well in Ferris Bueller:

                  Charlie: What do you care if your brother ditches school?

                  Ferris’s Sister: Everybody else has to go

                  Charlie: You could ditch

                  Sister: I’d get caught

                  Charlie: Yes. You’re pissed off because he ditches and doesn’t get caught, is that it?

                  Sister: Basically

                  Charlie: Your problem is you

                  Sister: Excuse me?

                  Charlie: Worry about yourself, not about what your brother does.

                  and.. scene…

                3. Brad Warthen Post author

                  Dang. I missed this comment before, and I can’t reply to it directly above because that’s a reply level too far.

                  Anyway, the first two are good examples. Because a guy you own will never, ever be used for anything but for the purpose you intend it, and marijuana will have NO effect other than alleviating your chemo side effects…

                  Yes, I’m being sarcastic.

                  As for the unrelated observation about same-sex marriage… You’re defining the issue inaccurately, but then you’re far from alone in doing that.

                  That issue was never, ever about what a same-sex couple did or didn’t do, or whether that affected anyone else. It was about what SOCIETY as a WHOLE chose to do.

                  If it was about what two people do, it would never have been an issue. The two people could have whatever relationship they wanted and call it whatever they wanted. The issue is whether the rest of society also called it marriage. It was ABOUT the public recognition.

                  So, whether you were for or against recognizing same sex marriage, the fact remains — it wasn’t ever about what two people did. It was unquestionably, absolutely about what the overall society did. And the pro side triumphed in terms of getting the overall society to go along.

                4. Doug Ross

                  Your arguments on guns and drugs are pretty weak. Well, they MIGHT be used for something else so we better make sure they are controlled — to the point where we must put you in jail if you possess either one without “our” permission. A gun can’t do any harm unless someone loads it, aims it, and pulls the trigger. Right up until the moment the bullet leaves the gun barrel, it’s nobody’s business.

                  The same sex marriage issue is also about enforcing your values on other people. You don’t have to bless the marriage. Your church doesn’t have to perform the ceremony. You can choose to scrunch your nose up in disdain when you think about two men living together as husband and husband. But what gives you the right to deny two people of any sex the same rights any other couple has? Simple things like filing jointly on tax returns, having access to Social Security survivor benefits, having a voice in medical decisions, adopting a child, having to hold a handbag while the spouse tries on clothes… all these things should be freely available to any person. And it shouldn’t require fighting each battle separately. You declare a marriage a legal commitment between two consenting adults and be done with it.

                  1. Brad Warthen Post author

                    Doug, you seem to think I have mounted arguments I have not offered at all.

                    I didn’t make a suggestion here with regard to guns, drugs or marriage. I simply talked about ways of framing the topics.

                    To go back to the original topic by way of illustration (although this applies to the others as well): Where did I make a suggestion as to what we should or should not do about them? I simply drew attention to an interesting article about how the way guns have been marketed for the past century relates to the growing polarization over them. I didn’t take a side.

                    Where I DID take a side was against the libertarian notion that certain issues are totally private and that society as a whole has no legitimate interest in them. I did’t suggest what society SHOULD or shouldn’t do about them; merely that there is a legitimate societal interest.

                    Where are these “arguments on guns and drugs” that “are pretty weak?”

                5. Mark Stewart

                  My problem with guns is when they inevitably go boom when the owners either didn’t intend them to do so, or when in hindsight they wished they would have made another decision about firing.

                  I’m not sure their is any real governmental solution to this problem, however. Just about every gun owner, who is honest, will admit to having had a moment or two when they thought, oh snap that was close! Misfired, dropped, not properly emptied, safety off, weapon accessed by children or inebriated people, or stolen from an unlocked vehicle/cabin, fired without proper awareness as to what lies out of sight down range, or what have you. Those are the times someone else’s personal experience come roaring out into the public sphere. That’s when the gun owner’s rights come into conflict with other people’s rights. And it happens all the time; we just don’t hear about most, even when really bad things happen.

                  Proper gun handling is about as common as efficacious condom use. The societal impacts of misusing are far greater, however.

                6. Doug Ross

                  Your “sarcastic” comments were meant to suggest that there are consequences of gun ownership that would allow the public good to overrule a personal right. A gun has no power to affect anyone until it is used. And trying to inject accidental discharge into the discussion opens a can of worms that would suggest regulating all manner of devices.

                  1. Brad Warthen Post author

                    Well, of COURSE “there are consequences of gun ownership that would allow the public good to overrule a personal right.”

                    I think Bryan and pretty much everyone here would agree that one’s right to discharge a firearm stops at the moment when you do so in the commission of a crime.

                    I don’t think anyone here would suggest that there is an absolute right to do anything you want with a gun. Beyond that, it’s just about deciding where the line is…

          2. Brad Warthen Post author

            Bryan, why do you want a .22 Henry, instead of a more historically significant .44?

            Personally, I know why I would — I like shooting a .22. I’m more accurate when I’m not expecting a mule kick in the shoulder.

            And I can well understand the appeal of a lever-action. One of my favorite Christmas gifts of my childhood was my Model 1894 Daisy.

            But I grew up on cowboy movie and TV shows in the 50s and early 60s. Where does your interest come from?

  5. JesseS

    It was a very weird time in American history and it should probably be noted that interest in all things “manly” might have gone far beyond companies simply developing tastes.

    This was the same world where T.R. suggested to mothers that scouting was the proper thing to get your son ready for a glorious death while fighting for the American Republic/Honor of the white race, and mothers of young children gave him standing ovations for it. Granted he wasn’t so enthusiastic about that after his own son’s death.

    Strange, strange days.


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