All of these elements form part of the mythology of firearms in America, a mythology historian Pamela Haag aims to shoot down in “The Gunning of America,” a fascinating exploration of the major businesses and families that have manufactured firearms — and manufactured the seductiveness of firearms — in this country over the past 150 years. “One answer to the nebulous but compelling question of why Americans love guns is simply that the gun industry invited us to,” Haag writes. “As an unexceptional, agnostic imperative of doing business . . . its marketing and advertisement burnished the gun as an object of emotional value and affinity.”
The Winchester Repeating Arms Company is the focus of the story, in particular Oliver Winchester, the 19th-century patriarch and capitalist who transformed firearms from idiosyncratic items forged by master gunsmiths to mass-produced weapons assembled in a huge Connecticut facility; and his daughter-in-law Sarah Winchester, who inherited a chunk of the family fortune only to devote it to a sort of architectural atonement, building an ever-larger and baffling California estate, possibly to house — or keep at bay — the spirits of those who died by the family gun. “Oliver’s mad ambition and Sarah’s mad conscience belong to the same story and culture,” Haag writes.
That story and culture, which Haag unravels via corporate archives, business records and a wealth of secondary sources, are also wrapped up in America’s wars and in the unending quest to find new markets for firearms. In the process, the industry transformed the gun from “an ordinary, unexceptional object of commerce” to the most sensitive of political and social symbols.
Oliver Winchester was no rifle aficionado, at least not initially, dabbling as a master builder, daguerreotypist and shirt manufacturer before morphing into a legendary gunmaker. When he launched the company in the 1850s, “American violence was not synonymous with the gun,” Haag explains. “Poisoning, especially with arsenic, along with throat-slitting, stabbing, and beating with fists, or with objects such as pump handles or hammers, were some of the common non-gun methods of violence.” And though he coveted big government contracts — especially during the Civil War — Winchester realized early that “scattering our guns as much as possible” through smaller orders would be the best long-term strategy. He understood, as Haag puts it, that “the gun capitalist who relied on military markets was lashing himself to the boom and bust of war — bouts of frantic production . . . followed by potentially deadly peacetime doldrums.”
During the war, Winchester supplied paramilitaries and civilians in border states such as Kentucky with his new repeating rifle — then called the “Henry” after its soon-to-be-forgotten creator, Benjamin Henry — and though he was a Union supporter, “commerce, not patriotism, was his prime directive,” Haag asserts. After the conflict, riflemakers that had grown dependent on government orders went bankrupt. The surviving players looked abroad, and soon Winchester was selling weapons to warring parties across the globe. Haag’s tales of salesman Thomas Addis supplying guns to Mexican revolutionaries and Turkish sultans are alone worth the price of the book. (Let’s just say that if you succeed in unclogging sand from a weapon by urinating on it during a demonstration for clients, you’ve earned your commission.)
Despite the power of foreign demand, Winchester always sought to create a thriving domestic market. A single monolithic “gun culture” in America does not exist and never has, Haag asserts; Winchester wanted to sell to as many different types of people as possible. “Some civilians still saw the gun as a tool for agriculture and needed one for the farm; others could be persuaded to buy a revolver or a rifle for protection at home, or tied rituals of marksmanship to national pride and warrior culture, or bought rifles for hunting, recreational or otherwise,” Haag writes.
The most memorable portions of “The Gunning of America” feature advertisements aimed at making firearms appealing to all audiences. “In the Gallery or in the Woods: Use Smith & Wesson revolvers” proclaims one turn-of-the-century magazine ad; it shows a man in a business suit shooting at a target, and then in hunting gear, shooting a moose, his gun a respite from the emasculation of the office economy. Gun manufacturers deployed “missionaries” nationwide, skilled marksmen and trick-shot artists who drummed up excitement about firearms. Marketers sought female buyers, too, with predictably condescending pitches. (“Any woman can learn how to use a Smith & Wesson in a few hours,” explained a magazine ad, “and . . . she will no longer feel a sense of helplessness when male members of the family are absent.”) And young boys were a key demographic, too. (“You know [your son] wants a gun,” another ad read. “But you don’t know how much he wants it. He can’t tell you. It’s beyond words.”)
These campaigns fashioned guns as instruments of empowerment, a salve to the stresses of the 20th century. “As society became less individualistic, the gun promised individualism; as Americans became less democratically equal in terms of wealth, the Winchester equalized them; as the world and the economy became more complex and interconnected, the mystique conjured the lone gunman,” the author explains. This vision found support in movies such as “Winchester ’73” and “Colt .45,” which lionized firearms much as the dime novels of the 1800s did. (Haag spends plenty of time debunking the lore of the American cowboy, less a self-reliant, justice-dealing hero than an overworked, underpaid hireling, homeless and dispossessed.)
Sarah Winchester is the counterpoint to this tale. After her father-in-law and husband died in rapid succession, the newly wealthy Sarah moved to California, eternally mourning her dead love and her stillborn children. Once there, she spent three decades building an estate in Santa Clara, pouring millions of dollars into renovating and expanding what became a 200-room maze of a home, with doors that lead into walls and stairs that lead nowhere at all. Haag offers anecdotal evidence of Sarah’s devotion to spiritualism and suggests that with this construction, she battled the ghost-victims haunting the Winchesters.
“Sarah feared that the rifle blood fortune had cursed and deformed her family and her home,” Haag writes. “Wittingly or not, at whatever level of rational volition or self-consciousness, she brilliantly illustrated that deformation in her labors, converting a vast rifle fortune into a monstrous distorted mansion designed to be both haunting and haunted.” The home on which she lavished so much is now a historical landmark and tourist attraction, the Winchester Mystery House, a physical manifestation of her pain and the incarnation of a “riddle that Sarah invented, by way of eulogy, and perhaps absolution.”
Haag says she began this project determined not to become “entrapped” in gun-control politics. “I came to this material as an historian,” she writes. But she concludes with calls to put the bottom-line gunmaker, rather than the emotionally invested gun owner, at the forefront of the battle over gun violence. She calls for “smart gun” technology, by which a weapon can be used only by its rightful owner. She wants to remove the barriers to research and data collection on gun violence. She calls for additional consumer regulations and protections involving firearms. (“A toy gun is subjected to more consumer safeguards as a product than a real gun,” Haag writes.) Most important, she urges the repeal of the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which shields manufacturers, distributors and dealers from civil liability for damages caused by their products.
Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders sparred over this last point in March, with Clinton supporting an effort by Sandy Hook families to sue gunmakers and Sanders cautioning that would mean the end of the gun industry in America. (New York’s Daily News has trashed the senator from Vermont for the position, calling out “Bernie’s Sandy Hook shame” on its front page.)
The candidates could do no better than to read “The Gunning of America” to understand the history behind this argument and, as Haag puts it, to “ponder the virtue, and the terror, of feeling more conscientiously or spiritually complicit than is required by contract, economy, law, or society.”
For Clinton, in particular, it would provide powerful ammunition.
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