The political economy of “gun culture”

March 1, 2018

Sean Larson looks at the history of the U.S. gun industry, which has worked closely with the military for over a century to ensure that our society is flooded with weapons.

THERE ARE over 300 million privately held guns in the United States, a number far higher than any other country. The mere presence of guns does not produce violence--that must be attributed to the crimes of poverty, socially crippling alienation and seething hatreds that thrive in this most capitalist of societies.

But we can understand that and still fully agree with what student Emma Gonzalez said after Nikolas Cruz murdered 17 people at her high school: "He wouldn't have harmed that many students with a knife."

A country saturated with guns makes it more likely that reactionary tendencies in our society will lead to fatalities. Whether wielded by heavily armed police, mass shooters or right-wingers, the sheer volume of guns in the U.S. serves to militarize underlying social conflicts.

Why are there so many guns? Many commentators have pointed to what is often known as gun culture. When people here buy guns, the reasoning goes, they're really buying a certain image of American-ness: a whitewashed legacy of the American frontier, with gruff, self-reliant men who fought for freedom, and so on.

Assault rifles displayed for sale in Salt Lake City, Utah
Assault rifles displayed for sale in Salt Lake City, Utah (Michael McConville | Wikimedia Commons)

But these discussions often miss an obvious point: guns are commodities, and people who purchase guns are gun consumers. Gun culture, and the associated political mythos, is largely rooted in a consumer culture.

In other words, guns don't sell guns; capitalists do. The invention of the modern gun culture behind today's proliferation of weapons is a relatively recent phenomenon, cultivated in the service of profit.

AFTER THE Civil War ended in 1865, major gun manufacturers were faced with a dilemma: how to create a civilian gun market when the major demand from the military had fallen off sharply.

Pamela Haag, author of The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture, describes how the founder of Winchester "needed to untether his rifle from the formal war and the military market, and think about the private army of one, in a kind of military-civilian market infiltration not evident in other contexts."

In the post-Civil War era, the genocidal Westward expansion into Indian country provided a ready circumstance into which guns could be marketed.

The historian Richard Hofstadter's essay on American gun culture describes how Indians in their Native land were "all too often regarded by American frontiersmen as another breed of wild animal." Indeed, in the 1870s, Winchester advertised its Model 66 as useful for "Indian, Bear or Buffalo hunting."

These early links between gun sales and imperial expansion, however, were nothing compared to the cultural campaigns launched a few decades later. As Haag puts it, "The modern gun might have been invented mechanically in the nineteenth century, but it was invented politically in the twentieth."

Paradoxically, war continued to create a dilemma for gun manufacturers who were reliant on a stable market. The history of how they solved this dilemma explains some of the ways in which U.S. imperialism interacts with, and reinforces, the domestic gun market.

In the early 20th century, Taylorist scientific management was introduced in the major gun factories, and small manufacturers shifted toward mass production and enormous capital outlays. Even as the need for guns receded, guns were continually produced because it was more cost-efficient to run the gigantic factories at a loss than halt production entirely and thereby cut losses for already-invested capital.

Exports and military sales had declined by the eve of the First World WarI--the bulk of gun production being sold to the domestic civilian market. So it was actually with reluctance that the gun industry entered into military contracts for the war. They had been orienting on a reliable domestic commercial market for decades, while sudden expansion and conversion--and the enormous debt assumed to achieve it--was inherently risky.

During the war, contracts for the U.S. and allied militaries drastically expanded gun production facilities. But planners were already anticipating the postwar problem of, as Haag puts it, "too many guns and too much capacity for too little demand."

Looking ahead to an era of mass production and diminishing practical need for guns, sales and marketing teams set out to construct and reinforce an ideal gun consumer.

THE YEARS after the end of the First World War gave rise to the strongest wave of radicalism in U.S. history. This was the heyday of the Industrial Workers of the World and the birth of the Communist Party, general strikes and even experiments in workers control, as well as race riots in many cities.

Haag describes how gun manufacturers took the opportunity to monetize racism and fears of radicalism by advertising "riot guns" to business owners looking to protect their shops from "disturbances, either racial or political," and promoting their firearms as the only surefire way to protect the "industrial life of the nation."

Such overt efforts to militarize existing class conflicts were part and parcel of a broader plan that Winchester called "the biggest and most carefully planned national advertising campaign ever undertaken by any firm of gun makers in the world."

The other major wing of this campaign involved the direct organizing of gun clubs, or the resurrection of older clubs that had deteriorated. First and foremost, the campaign highlighted militarism. An advertising campaign launched by Colt blurred the lines between war and peacetime, and placed responsibility for lawfulness not on government agencies, but the individual and his Colt Automatic.

Companies like Remington created young boys' rifle clubs and "Junior Rifle Corps" to court an emerging customer base. Rifles were pushed on sometimes reluctant parents through advertising that promised to "make a man of any boy" and develop the "sturdy manliness that every real boy wants to have."

Haag's business history says more about American masculinity than many cultural close readings:

Today, there is a popular sense that the deep association of guns and masculinity is almost inborn to the nation's collective unconscious. Seen from the archives of the gun business, it is something energetically invoked and defined on ad copy for weekly magazines, and then amplified and duplicated thousands of times over with other forms of mass advertisement.

CULTURE, HOWEVER, isn't created by ad campaigns and gun clubs alone.

The economic co-dependence of the military and private manufacturers allowed the gun mythology to flourish. "The vitality of public, common defense tacitly relied on the vitality of the private, commercial gun market," Haag writes, "--and this tense interdependency is a largely forgotten part of the story of how America's civilian gun culture emerged."

In the first part of the 20th century, the U.S. military depended on a weapons supply from private arms makers, and needed to ensure that their civilian markets remained unregulated by thwarting legislative proposals for gun restrictions. The War Department opposed any restrictions on gun sales on the grounds that the "continuance in existence of our arms and ammunitions manufactures" were "vital to national defense."

Gun industrialists, for their part, argued in a press release from the 1930s cited by Haag, that "American manufacturers of guns and munitions cannot remain in business by waiting for wars. There must be continuous sale of their products, as in any other industry."

As a Colt representative testified before Congress around the same time, "We were very valuable to the government during the war. We cannot maintain a plant to assist the government in cause of war, unless we can stay in business."

This was a lesson, Haag points out, that "every gun industrialist had learned in every decade: gun markets are fragile, gun demand not always reliable, and profit margins thin, such that a tax and a registration inconvenience" would "kill their small arms business--and, in turn, their ability to make arms for public defense in times of war."

The military-commercial interdependence continued into the Cold War, as the U.S. carved out spheres of influence and increasingly became the world's chief weapons repository. Although it is beyond the scope of her book, Haag questions whether this made civilian gun regulation in the U.S. more difficult:

One could hypothesize that it is not just that we have more gun industry because we have fewer gun regulations, but that we have fewer gun regulations because we have more gun industry.

And, one could add, we have more gun industry because of the extent of U.S. imperialist oversight throughout the 20th century.

As the Second World War was coming to a close in the mid-1940s, a surplus of militarily obsolescent but still functional guns poured into the U.S.--the only viable market for them in the world.

The urban rebellions of the 1960s, the Black Panthers' armed march on the California State Capitol and the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy led Congress to pass the Gun Control Act of 1968. The NRA testified in support of many of the restrictions in the proposed law, although it opposed the provision creating a national registry of all guns.

In the next decade, however, the increasingly right wing political climate and a series of internal incidents shifted the NRA from a sporting group to an uncompromising political force of the right. An ATF raid on a longtime NRA member prompted the organization to shift its platform and appropriate Second Amendment language to protect individual rights against the encroachments of the federal government.

The NRA's turn from a sporting club to a conservative political organization culminated in 1977 with an internal coup by a hardline group within the organization. This was part and parcel of a larger conservative backlash happening at the time, which included the employers' offensive and the racist War on Drugs.

From then on, the NRA became a cultural warrior championing the reactionary themes of American individualism, masculinity and racism. Aside from its novel interpretation of the Second Amendment, most of the organization's right-wing themes drew from previous efforts by weapons manufacturers in their efforts to create and sustain a civilian market.

The permanent celebration of guns in civilian culture has been a useful justification for permanent war-readiness industrially.

ROMANTIC TALES of unbound individualized masculinity and wild frontiers may stoke gun sales to this day, but they have nothing to do with the reality.

The actual culture surrounding gun use today is not the rugged frontier, but the indescribable despair and isolation of suicide, which accounts for six in 10 gun deaths today. That is the true meaning of the "gun culture" that the firearms market has spawned. The proliferation of guns translates impulse immediately into lethal destruction, whether directed against oneself, an intimate partner or a stranger.

Meanwhile, gun manufacturers continue to profit, flooding the country with firearms.

Since 2005, firearms production has exploded, more than tripling over the next eight years. One factor in the increased production is undoubtedly the passage of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act in 2005, which gives firearm manufacturers and sellers near immunity from lawsuits when their weapons are used in crimes.

High-volume consumer sales helped to offset the weaker military demand in the industry after 2012. Similarly, when funding for police increases, gun and ammunition purchases also go up, even while weapons produced for the military are transferred directly to the police.

As a recent study of the firearms industry published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine points out, the sharp increase in firearms production between 2005 and 2015 is primarily due to increase pistol and rifle production. Pistol production during that period increased fourfold and shifted toward higher caliber (more lethal) and more concealable pistols.

These trends in firearm production are driven by the practices of a handful of companies. In 2015, 59 percent of firearms were produced by just five manufacturers: Ruger, American Outdoor Brands (formerly Smith & Wesson), Remington, Sig Sauer and Maverick Arms. The industry is also in the process of consolidation. As of February this year, Remington had already filed for bankruptcy, with others expected to follow suit.

But this is far from the end of guns. Some firearms manufacturers who supply the civilian market, such as American Outdoor Brands, Olin Corp. (owner of Winchester), and Remington, also supply the military with various products, and are thus projected to grow in the coming years under Trump's military budget expansion.

Whenever a mass shooting has occurred in recent years and provoked demands for gun control, fears of a diminishing gun supply have driven spikes in revenue by firearms manufacturers. The 2013 peak in production followed the Sandy Hook massacre, while the FBI recorded an all-time high in attempted purchases in 2016, the year of the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando.

The firearms industry has thus thrived on the demand generated by empty discussion of gun control, so long as these discussions never resulted in action. It is unclear how sustainable this business model will be, but gun sales have again spiked in the wake of the Parkland massacre.

THROUGHOUT ITS history, the business plan of the gun industry has been to militarize misogyny and, more recently, neoliberal alienation. It is entirely appropriate for the emerging women's movement in this country to link up with youth against gun violence in challenging this male totem-commodity.

The militarization of the police in this country is justified largely by racism, and the weapons industry has been built on this racist foundation. Demilitarizing the police should be a key demand of any gun control movement.

The left has no stake in defending the sheer number of guns in circulation in the U.S. The only beneficiaries of this are the capitalist gun manufacturers, whose profit calculations necessarily ignore or rationalize the human costs of the commodity they market. The left does have a duty, however, to stand for and with the oppressed.

Gun control laws that target the consumer have traditionally been used to rationalize racist police attacks and incarcerations. It is not consumers, but profit-driven corporations who are responsible for gun culture. Gun control efforts should therefore not target the consumer, but instead direct their fire against the capitalists who continue to flood the U.S. with weapons.

Today, the NRA's revenue is linked intimately to the success of the gun business, through direct corporate donations, advertising and gun sale programs that donate a portion of each gun sold to the NRA. In turn, it's largely the NRA gun clubs and public activism that develop and maintain a market for firearms industry products.

The new youth movement for gun control has already had some successes hurting the NRA's bottom line through boycotts and consumer pressure. As a result, there is what the Wall Street Journal has described as "snowballing pressure to cut ties with the firearms industry."

Americans are drowning in an ocean of guns. To ensure gun control is not constrained to a cosmetic fix or a legislative change, it will be necessary to build a movement against the state-sanctioned militarism that necessitates the gargantuan weapons industry--and an economic system that pushes it to create a market for their deadly products, no matter the human cost.

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