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The Gunning of America

Pamela Haag

For 36 years, until her death, craftsmen laboured day and night to construct a home with almost 200 rooms, 10,000 windows and 2,000 doors, trapdoors and spy holes, in which many of the rooms were closed off or remade as soon as they were finished and corridors and staircases led nowhere. It was said to be a monument to guilt, built to appease the spirits of Mrs Winchester’s husband, her dead infant child and the many victims of the Winchester rifles that paid for it.

The legend behind the house intrigued Pamela Haag, a historian. Her research led her to a bigger story, one that grew into one of the most important books of 2016.

In The Gunning of America, Haag shoots down the myth that her country’s infatuation with guns grew organically from its early history. It is not a direct inheritance from revolutionaries, settlers, cowboys and Indian fighters in the 18th and 19th centuries, she argues, but a consequence of mass production and innovative marketing in the early 1900s. “One answer to the question of why Americans love guns is simply that the gun industry invited us to,” Haag writes.

Gun violence was rarer than is widely imagined on the frontier, where other methods of killing were common, including “poisoning — especially with arsenic — along with throat-slitting, stabbing, and beating with fists, or with objects such as pump handles or hammers”. Settlers also tended to spurn fancy new weapons that fired multiple shots and choose more durable muskets.

Haag explores how aggressive entrepreneurs such as Oliver Winchester, Samuel Colt, Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson entered an industry that in the mid-19th century looked more like a branch of agricultural supply. Business boomed during the Civil War but dried up afterwards. The international market saved the gun companies, with Winchester earning two thirds of his 1867 revenues in Mexico, Chile and Peru, and Smith & Wesson securing a contract to supply 250,000 revolvers to imperial Russia in the 1870s.

However, by the start of the 20th century the overseas business was also in decline. The Winchester Repeating Arms Company (WRAC) and others responded by carving out new domestic markets for firearms among peaceful urban Americans. Glossy adverts and calendars, slick in-store presentation, and the rise of pulp fiction about heroic gunmen helped to foster a romanticised history of the West. Associations with American masculinity were played up, but women were also appealed to. An advert in The Outing magazine in 1914 stated: “Any woman can learn how to use a Smith & Wesson in a few hours . . . she will no longer feel a sense of helplessness when male members of the family are absent.” Direct mail shots were aimed at three million boys aged 10 to 16, and a network of shooting clubs for boys was created.

Today an estimated 300 million firearms in circulation kill more than 30,000 Americans a year.

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