It seems that every week there’s another spate of shootings in America that makes headlines. How did things get so bad? Why can’t we stop the violence? We talk to two gun specialists about the history of guns in the U.S., how many criminals get their hands on guns and hear a few suggestions on how to strengthen gun laws to promote safety and still guarantee American gun owners’ constitutional rights.
- Pamela Haag author of the book, The Gunning of America: Business and the making of American gun culture
- Stephanie Soechtig, director and producer of the Sundance break-out documentary Under the Gun, executive produced and narrated by Katie Couric
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Gun History and Control in America
Gary Price: It seems that lately you can’t turn on the TV or radio without hearing about a shooting in the United States. Guns are weapons of protection and their ownership by Americans is guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the Constitution. But they’re also weapons of impulse that, in the wrong hands, can injure and kill people in an instant, before cooler heads prevail and some thought is given to finding another, less lethal, way of settling a dispute. How did we get to be so “gun-centric” in this country? And why do we have so many deaths due to gun violence? Pamela Haag says that guns have always been a part of American culture. Haag is the author of the book, The Gunning of America: Business and the making of American gun culture. She says that at the beginning of our country, guns had a more utilitarian purpose.
Pamela Haag: Even in the early colonial days, of course, guns were around. They weren’t ubiquitous, but they certainly weren’t rare in the North; it might have been as many as, you know, half the households owning a gun. In the South, ownership was higher, but you also have to think about attitudes about guns and for a lot of the 1700s and 1800s guns were seen more as tools. But in the modern age, they began to take on deeper, emotional associations and political value for gun owners as well.
Price: There were far fewer guns back in the 17- and 18-hundreds than there are today. Haag says that the staggering number of firearms owned by Americans, is not just because of population growth in the past 300 years.
Haag: The United States is, today, the most heavily armed civilian population, so estimates vary. On the low-end an estimate would be 270 million civilian-owned firearms; on the high end, I’ve seen estimates of 310 million, so going with a middle-estimate, a middle-range, around 300 million civilian-owned firearms. That’s the number of guns, not the number of gun-owners. The trend in gun ownership in the 21st century has been toward fewer individuals buying more guns, though in the 1950s, it was probably around half the households owned a gun. Today, fewer households, maybe thirty-four, thirty-five percent have a gun, but gun-owners tend to own more guns.
Price: In 1798, Eli Whitney devised a way to manufacture guns with interchangeable parts, which made it easier and more efficient to create and repair firearms. But gun sales really began to increase when two iconic gun makers got into the business.
Haag: The two figures who really figured out how to identify and cultivate and build off of commercial trade were Oliver Winchester, beginning in the 1850s, when he first invested in guns, and Samuel Colt, who opened his first factory in 1836 and went bankrupt, but he returned to the gun business in the 1840s. And these two figures, of course, were producing the firearms that we most associate with the American individual owner: the Winchester Repeater Rifle and the revolver. These are both multi-firing arms.
Price: Despite the technical innovations and mass production capabilities of Winchester and Colt guns, Haag says they weren’t an easy sell in the American Market.
Haag: This was a tough business, and Colt and Winchester both struggled to figure out how to find enough customers to justify the mass production of guns. There were always some gun customers, but were there enough to match the volume of production? And I was very intrigued that both Colt and Winchester, as well as Remington and Smith and Wesson, all survived in key years before and after the Civil War by selling abroad, by selling internationally, and very vigorously so. Without those markets, the American gun industry would’ve struggled to survive.
Price: They did survive through World War I and the Roaring 20’s when gangsters drove the streets of the country’s largest cities spraying their enemies with machine gun fire. Haag says it was at the beginning of the 20th century that guns went from tools to hunt for food and destroy vermin, to being luxury objects that are bought for more emotional or political reasons such as toughness and power.
Haag: I think the trajectory of the gun in American culture has been… so I’m looking at it more as a discretionary object, a luxury object, something that one mine want to have. The long arch here, the change from the 1800s or the 1900s into the 21st century, is really that the gun has become more of an object that one has for emotional attachment, for symbolic attachment, for reasons of want rather than need, and I guess you could liken it to someone who makes particular consumer choices based on political decisions sometimes, like they want to buy organic food or they want to buy a certain car because they care about climate change. I mean, the gun is definitely, today, much more than a tool, so some of the appeal of those weapons is simply the desire to have them on their own terms.
Price: Haag says that the vast majority of gun owners in this country are responsible, law-abiding citizens who purchase their firearms from reputable gun dealers, fill out all the required government paperwork and keep their guns for self-defense or for hunting, target shooting or other legal activities. As we are all sadly aware, though, there is the criminal element in this country who are able to buy guns and use them to murder, rob, intimidate and terrorize. Stephanie Soechtig is the director of the Sundance break-out documentary “Under the Gun.” The film, which is executive produced and narrated by Katie Couric, discusses gun violence and the hot-button issue of stricter gun control laws. In the film, Soechtig looks at gun violence through the eyes of gun advocates and also those who have been personally affected by mass shootings like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and the urban violence that plagues cities like Chicago. She says that although most Americans want more safeguards on the sale and use of guns, those who don’t have been very vocal, catching the ears of politicians and using powerful lobbying efforts to keep stricter legislation from being enacted.
Stephanie Soechtig: 90% of Americans support stricter background checks, including 74% of NRA members, but what I think is a lot of people on the gun-safety side are not as active in letting their views be known as some gun owners are. And you know, to be clear, the NRA only represents 5% of gun owners, and within that 5% there’s a really small faction of extremists, and they are single issue voters. There is nothing but guns that they will vote on and they call and they show up and they write their elected officials relentlessly and they let it be known that they will not have their vote if they don’t vote a certain way on this, and you’re not seeing the same outpouring from the gun-safety community, myself included. I grew up in the town next to New Town and after that horrible tragedy happened, I didn’t do anything. I mean, I was distraught, but I didn’t pick up the phone, I didn’t write a letter, I didn’t sign a petition. Somehow we were all immobilized or we felt it didn’t count. It doesn’t matter if I write my elected official, they’re not going to listen to me. And what I learned in making the film is that they’re absolutely listening.
Price: Soechtig says that 90-percent of the guns used in crimes can be traced back to just five percent of the gun dealers – “bad apple dealers” as they’re called.
Soechtig: Guns are not like drugs, they’re not manufactured illegally or illicitly; they’re all manufactured legally, so the way they end up on the black market is through something that’s called a “bad apple gun dealer” and it’s gun dealers that turn a blind-eye when people are purchasing ten, fifteen, three hundred of the same guns. They turn a blind eye to it. And we see this happening repeatedly but because the ATF is understaffed and under sourced they’re having a hard time keeping up with things.
Price: Why not just find these dealers and shut them down? She says that the agency entrusted with that job is woefully under-resourced.
Soechtig: In large part what we’ve seen is that the ATF, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms – this is the government agency that’s charged with monitoring gun dealers – they’ve been completely neutered, thanks, in large part to gun lobbyists, and they are limited to one inspection of a gun dealer per year. But given the fact that there are more gun dealers than there are Starbucks and McDonalds combined and the resources they have, they, in actuality, could only inspect every gun dealer in this country once every seventeen years. So, we know where the guns are coming from that end up in what ends up being a black market and yet they’ve been neutered and in their inability to shut them down. And these are things that could be easily solved if we wanted to solve them.
Price: Soechtig says we need to fully fund the ATF so it can do its job and prevent these bad apple gun dealers from operating in the black market. She says we also have to quit looking at gun deaths and gun laws as political issues and begin treating them as public health issues. She says we should proceed with safety measures the way we did with automobile deaths when seatbelt laws and car manufacturing standards were enacted.
Soechtig: Part of that means that we provide funding for the CDC to study this as a public health issue; the NRA blocks funding for the CDC to study this, we need to make sure that we can study this properly, and I think at a federal level we need to close the background check loophole. Eighteen states have closed the background check loophole, and in those states we see that they have fewer rates of domestic violence, homicides and suicides and fewer guns diverted to the black market, but because we have this patchwork system state-by-state, we have the problems that we have now. So, what I think we need to see is, at a federal level, that we close the background check loophole. Currently 40% of guns in this country are purchased without a background check. That has to stop. And we demonstrate that in the film; my producer was able to buy an AR15 and the Smith and Wesson gun, the same gun that was used in the Aurora theatre massacre. He was able to purchase that, without a background check, from a private seller. So, we demonstrate the background check loophole in this country.
Price: Soechtig says that one of the most powerful things you can do is let your members of Congress and your state legislators know where you stand on gun issues – and be persistent. Pamela Haag says that when it comes to gun regulations, she would like to see more responsibility put on the firearms industry.
Haag: The gun industry today enjoys a lot of special protection. Since 2005 it’s enjoyed protection from civil liability action; so have dealers. There’s some evidence that this could actually be really galvanizing. If cases could be developed in civil court that could exhort some pressure on the gun industry to think about safety in even more serious ways than they already do. I think that consumer activism has some promise. Some of the more interesting steps against gun violence, for example, were done voluntarily when retailers like Wal-Mart decided they weren’t going to stock certain weapons that had been used in a mass shooting. There’s certain gun retailers who have just said they’re going to sell only to members; they’re going to have a members only policy.
Price: We contacted the National Rifle Association several times for their comments on the firearms issue, but the NRA did not respond to our requests. You can read more about the gun industry in the United States and the people and cultural milestones that made it what it is today in Pamela Haag’s book, The Gunning of America. You can also visit her website at PamelaHaag.com. For a look at firearms issues through the eyes of gun rights activists and families impacted by gun violence, check out Stephanie Soechtig’s film, “Under the Gun,” available on iTunes and digital providers. You can find out where to see it by logging onto Under the Gun movie.com. For more information about all of our guests, log onto our site at Viewpoints online.net. You can find archives of past programs there an on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.