FEATURE

Half-Cocked

The Way of the Gun: A Bloody Journey into the World of Firearms BY Iain Overton. Harper . . $26.

ONE OF THE MOST SURPRISING DEVELOPMENTS in the 2016 presidential election—so far, at least—is the revival of gun control as an issue among Democrats. By the end of his first term, Barack Obama had earned failing grades from a major gun-control group, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Indeed, as far as guns were concerned, the main accomplishment of Obama’s first term was a loosening of existing gun laws, permitting Americans to carry firearms in national parks and on Amtrak trains. All this changed after the horrific massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The most immediate consequence of Sandy Hook was a spike in gun sales, as many gun owners rushed to stock up on firearms they mistakenly believed might soon become illegal—by now a well-established pattern among die-hard gun enthusiasts in the Obama years. In Washington, meanwhile, a relatively weak effort to plug loopholes in the existing system of background checks garnered a simple majority in the Senate but didn’t ultimately yield enough votes to stave off the prospect of a filibuster from pro-gun senators. The politics at the state level were mixed for gun-control advocates: Many states weakened their gun laws, and jurisdictions that already had strong gun laws in place toughened them further—which is to say that, once again, the problem of unchecked gun violence didn’t get addressed among the communities that tend to suffer most from it.

Such trends may seem wearily familiar on the American scene—so commonplace that they barely merit comment. But to outsiders, the basic facts of our gun plague, and the political dynamics that feed it, appear almost incomprehensible. America boasts more guns than any other nation, and its rate of gun fatalities far exceeds those of the industrialized democracies of Europe and of other common-law nations such as Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. President Obama, who once shied away from gun control, has embraced the crusade for tougher gun laws, while it has also become central to Hillary Clinton’s strategy to defeat her Democratic rival Bernie Sanders, who has a mixed voting record on gun-control legislation.

The resurgent gun debate pivots on a key question that has long preoccupied scholars of our gun culture: Why is the United States conspicuously alone on the global stage in its resistance to even minimal gun control? Students of America’s so-called gun exceptionalism argue that gun violence is deeply ingrained in the American character, virtually programmed into our cultural DNA. Most of the exceptionalists quite logically trace our overheated romance with the firearm to the centrality of the Second Amendment to the US Constitution.

There’s little dispute among legal academics, historians, and other scholars that the Second Amendment is a constitutional rarity. While the First Amendment’s core ideas have been emulated by virtually every nation with a written constitution, the rejection of Second Amendment values abroad has been equally pervasive. But is this twenty-seven-word text really the foundation for the sprawling gun culture that’s overtaken so much of our civic life—and if so, was it ever thus?

Iain Overton’s The Way of the Gun and Pamela Haag’s The Gunning of America both examine American gun exceptionalism, albeit from dramatically different points of departure. Haag rejects the concept in its entirety, arguing that the cult of Second Amendment determinism works to conceal the actual history—and self-interested promotion—of our modern gun culture. Overton, by contrast, largely embraces the notion and argues that it’s critical in grasping both the problem of gun violence in America and the efforts to export America’s Second Amendment ideology to other parts of the world. Overton, a former British TV journalist who now directs a London-based nonprofit, Action on Armed Violence, has a huge stake in the latter trend: The NRA and its allies in Congress have actively blocked the efforts of the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations like Overton’s to restrict access to small arms across the globe.

In The Way of the Gun, Overton delivers what might be called a policy travelogue—a wide-ranging survey of how gun violence has produced mayhem, political instability, and profits throughout the world. Among the stops are a morgue in Honduras—the country with the highest homicide rate in the world—and a shooting range in Iceland, which has one of the world’s lowest homicide rates, despite its relatively high rate of firearms ownership (by European standards). He also interviews a diverse array of people swept up in the global gun trade, from arms dealers in Odessa to gun-rights activists in Washington, DC. He even travels to a Starbucks in Newtown, Connecticut, to visit the site of a pro-open-carry protest held a short drive from the school where twenty-six students, teachers, and administrators had been slain less than a year before.

Overton’s journalistic training gives him a discerning eye for detail. Even readers well versed in the basics of the gun debate are likely to pick up statistics and facts that are new to them. Who knew, for instance, that in 1947, noted sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer trained as a sniper in the precursor to the Israeli army, or that the flag of Mozambique contains an AK-47? Take that, Betsy Ross!

The Way of the Gun begins with the victims of gun violence and ends with the economic actors who design, build, and market firearms. This strategy maximizes the narrative’s visceral impact but dilutes the book’s analytical case by starting at the end, instead of at the beginning, of the chain of events that leads to the body counts Overton so vividly describes. Cause and effect matter, and the book’s structure not only is counterintuitive but also makes it much harder to follow the money trail and the conscious construction of an ideology to justify the booming weapons business.

Overton’s impressionistic chronicle comes into sharp focus at the end of the book, where he looks at the different players in the arms industry. As the world’s leading arms maker and exporter—its gun industry rakes in more than $16 billion in revenues annually—the United States is central to the story. American-made guns also account for a high proportion of the gun violence occurring outside our borders; an estimated quarter-million American guns are smuggled into Mexico each year. However, Overton gives an oversimplified and truncated account of the roles of history and law in shaping our distinctive gun culture. Taking his cue from other Second Amendment determinists, he contends that the “constitutional right to bear arms” has had “an impact far deeper than was probably ever intended” and has “led to a country saturated with guns.” Recent scholarship raises serious doubts about this claim. As historian Randolph Roth has demonstrated, rates of interpersonal violence in America have differed over the course of the nation’s history, while also showing pronounced regional variations. New England in the era of the writing of the Second Amendment had a homicide rate comparable to that of much of contemporary Western Europe. Even today, Massachusetts’s gun-homicide rate is half the national average and closer to that of Belgium, whereas the rate in America overall is closer to that of the West Bank and Gaza.

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Moreover, despite the ritual veneration of the allegedly trigger-happy Founding Fathers among NRA executives and Tea Party devotees, the association of the Second Amendment with the ideological defense of individual gun rights is actually a fairly recent development. Even American Rifleman, the NRA’s in-house magazine, barely mentioned the amendment until the violence of the 1960s produced a renewed interest in gun control at the federal level and did not embrace its current radical Second Amendment ideology until the late 1970s.

While Overton seeks to cement the Second Amendment, and American exceptionalism more broadly, as the decisive force animating today’s sophisticated, powerful, and easily exportable gun culture, Pamela Haag’s careful history aims to debunk the whole myth of gun exceptionalism in America. In The Gunning of America, Haag, a feminist writer and historian, frames her story around the rise of one of America’s premier firearms manufacturers, the Winchester Repeating Arms Company of New Haven, Connecticut. Rather than tracing modern gun culture back to the earliest strains of the country’s collective DNA, Haag sees it as very much an invented tradition, to borrow the phrasing of the distinguished British historian Eric Hobsbawm: a modern by-product of the marketing mandates of industrial capitalism, joined with an emergent conservative-individualist ideology dedicated to a libertarian and masculinist cult of firearms.

Haag takes great pains to stress that our modern mythology of gun ownership owes far more to the advertising wizards at Winchester and other industrial-age gunmakers than to the soaring civic-republican rhetoric of the Founders. Indeed, she reminds us that early American attitudes toward guns were far more prosaic than heroic. Guns were tools, not objects of worship. They were produced by local artisans, and crafted and maintained by gunsmiths; they were highly individualized artifacts, but they didn’t share in any mystical aura of individualism. Indeed, it’s worth recalling that the word individualism, in its political sense, didn’t even enter American discourse until the English translation of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America appeared in the mid-nineteenth century.

Likewise, Haag usefully reminds us that modern gun-rights ideology stems from the nineteenth century’s “market revolution”—i.e., the moment when cheap and reliable mass-produced firearms first became available to a national buying public. There’s a fine irony here, as Haag notes: The cult of individualism and its association with firearms was a product of mass-production techniques and the need to sell arms in a society that was moving further away from the rural, independent-household-based economy that gave us the Second Amendment in the first place.

This dynamic took on a new potency with the closing of the frontier at the end of the nineteenth century. Thomas Jefferson may have advised his fifteen-year-old nephew that the best form of exercise for a member of Virginia’s gentry was walking, and that one could also benefit from bringing a gun for target shooting and hunting, but the master of Monticello did not actually utter many of the spurious quotes about guns and the Second Amendment so often attributed to him by gun-rights advocates and endlessly recycled on the Internet. In fact, Jefferson had nothing to do with the drafting of the Second Amendment.

Haag’s account also challenges the notion that the manufacture of guns in this country has always had to keep pace with robust demand. She convincingly demonstrates that early-twentieth-century gunmakers set out to create a series of myths around guns and sell them to the public by reimagining them as an indispensable adjunct to American liberty. Earlier advertisements for guns in the nineteenth century treated them more like plows and other agricultural implements; when Americans were first settling the West and a “frontier” existed, guns were bland and utilitarian household accessories. But as America became increasingly urban and industrial, selling guns with images and slogans tied to a mythic frontier history made good business sense—it tapped into a set of archetypes that effectively assuaged anxieties about conformity and inadequacy via primal, violent fantasies of self-assertion and self-defense.

Haag also unearths another inventive breakthrough engineered by the early twentieth century’s mass-merchandisers of the gun: the discovery of a new type of consumer. Internal marketing materials at Winchester and other big gun concerns reveal that gun companies were fascinated by, and eager to exploit, the consumer demographic they dubbed the “gun crank.” In this eureka moment, the modern gun nut was born. In contrast to traditional gun users, cranks were obsessed by guns and their mechanics. These early “gun geeks” were eager to purchase the latest technology. As Haag notes, gun marketing went from “imagining a customer who needed guns but didn’t especially want them to a customer who wanted guns but didn’t especially need them.”

Given this history, Haag argues, the Second Amendment has little more than symbolic import for America’s gun problem. And here, on the opposite side of the debate from Overton, Haag may have overstated her case, as she seeks to diminish the amendment’s legacy as a major influence on a modern gun culture created by determined capitalists. She is certainly correct to stress that the recently canonized Second Amendment is more a reflection of cultural and economic processes than the Founder-authored holy writ that the modern gun cult claims it to be. But to demonstrate that a powerful strain of political rhetoric is of recent vintage is not to argue it away—or to make the mythology of the gun any less compelling for its adherents.

Trying to make sense of those twenty-seven words is no easy matter. Part of the problem arises from our lamentable if understandable tendency to confuse the historical meaning of the amendment with its contemporary cultural resonances and its current meaning as a matter of law. Whatever the Second Amendment may have meant to Americans of the Founders’ generation, it is now swathed in layer upon layer of historical myth. Indeed, one of the many problems with supporters of more-robust gun regulation is their inability to cater to our own age’s social mythology by framing their agenda in the powerful language of rights that dominates modern American culture. Opponents of gun regulation can fit their catchphrases on a bumper sticker. By contrast, supporters of gun regulation are quick to haul out regression coefficients and public-policy prescriptions, which make for bad sound bites and worse slogans.

We can also trace a good deal of the confusion here to the language of the Second Amendment itself: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Modern Americans find its syntax and wording odd, employing as it does an ablative construction. For those versed in the classical culture of the Founders’ era, however, the Latinate language would have seemed less strange. Perhaps the best rendering of the contemporary meaning of the words would be “Because a well-regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.”

The Founders were steeped in the lessons of Roman republicanism, and the Second Amendment owes a huge debt to the English heirs of this tradition. While most educated Americans today have some vague sense of the relevance of John Locke to American constitutional thought, few would be able to identify Algernon Sidney. But for the Founders, Sidney was a republican martyr and a defender of the idea of an armed citizenry—and his Discourses Concerning Government was a seminal work in justifying the American Revolution.

The framers of the Second Amendment were likewise immersed in the legal and political history of England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688. The English Declaration of Rights, promulgated that same year, affirmed that “the subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law.” Parliament thus reasserted the religious and class hierarchies of seventeenth-century English society even as it affirmed its own plenary power over the regulation of arms. The American Second Amendment employs more expansive language than its English predecessor, but it also links the exercise of this right to a “well regulated Militia.”

Still, it would be anachronistic to treat the amendment as mere verbiage, or simply a sop thrown to anti-federalists to calm their paranoid fears. It’s important to recall that many Americans of the Founders’ generation, including many ardent anti-federalists, had developed a tremendous faith in the power of constitutional texts to educate and empower citizens. Both the framers and their anti-federalist opponents agreed that the ultimate check on government tyranny was an active and informed citizenry, particularly one armed and organized into a well-regulated militia with officers chosen by the states, not the central government.

Today, however, the legal meaning of the Second Amendment poses a very different set of challenges. We no longer muster on the town green as the minutemen once did. In District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), a narrow 5–4 Supreme Court majority reversed seventy years of precedent and established, for the first time in the court’s history, an individual’s right to possess a weapon for self-defense outside the context of service in a well-regulated militia. The majority opinion was composed by Justice Antonin Scalia, and is arguably one of the most significant pieces of jurisprudence in his career. In allegedly employing his trademark “originalist” methodology, Scalia actually ignored the first part of the Second Amendment, in violation of a host of legal rules of construction familiar to lawyers of the Founders’ era. The substance of the Heller ruling has been repeatedly debunked by scholars from across the ideological spectrum and largely discredited outside the circle of originalist true believers. (Genuinely conservative jurists and scholars such as Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III and Harvard Law professor and former Republican solicitor general Charles Fried have been among the harshest critics.)

Scalia’s argument in Heller—that we must read the amendment’s text backward, second clause first—borders on intellectual incoherence. The preamble affirming the necessity of a “well regulated militia” temporarily disappears, like the Cheshire cat, and only reappears once we have arrived at the right ideological conclusion. Few cases in American legal history have employed such a twisted, almost surreal approach to constitutional interpretation.

Nevertheless, such methodological and historical critiques sidestep a crucial fact: Most Americans agree with Scalia that the Second Amendment enshrines an individual’s right to have a gun for self-defense. Indeed, liberal politicians and supporters of gun control, including Charles Schumer and President Obama, have upheld the same individualist precepts of the Heller ruling even as they have sought to advance the case for more stringent gun-control legislation.

This presents a dilemma for progressives. Given that most Americans believe that the Second Amendment does protect an individual’s right to bear arms, and that most liberals favor some variant of the theory of a “living” Constitution, what should liberals think about Heller? This issue was once a matter of academic speculation, but Scalia’s sudden death means that it is now very much up for grabs in the trench warfare of the 2016 presidential campaign.

And this means, in turn, that the argument Overton and Haag are conducting in their respective books is one that the rest of the American public is now joining, whether they know it or not. The controversy over the Second Amendment’s meaning is no longer a subject of mere theoretical concern. As Americans debate these issues with renewed fervor during the nomination fight for a new high-court justice, they will need to be able to distinguish between historical facts and mythology, and also to view the public-policy issues in a calm and deliberative manner. They could do a lot worse than to start by picking up both these provocative books and diving right in.


Saul Cornell holds the Paul and Diane Guenther Chair in American History at Fordham University and is the author of A Well-Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control in America (Oxford University Press, 2006).