The Right to Buy Arms
Gun Consumption in 20th-Century America
In the United States, it’s hard to escape gun culture. According to Pew Research Center, in 2021, 48,830 people died of gun-related injuries—14.6 gun deaths per 100,000 people and a 23 percent increase from 2019.
Deaths from mass shootings are harder to quantify, as there is no agreed-on definition for the circumstances or number of victims for these events. Yet for many Americans attending or working in school settings, the possibility of a shooting like at Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, Robb Elementary School in Texas, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, and in so many other communities looms large.
In late August, a shooter killed associate professor Zijie Yan at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill. The campus was locked down for hours while law enforcement searched for and arrested the shooter. And just 16 days later, the campus community experienced another lockdown when an armed person brandished a weapon in the student union; this time, they were apprehended before firing any shots.
While it’s difficult to count the number of gun deaths in the United States, it is equally difficult to count the guns owned by Americans. The same week that Zijie Yan was murdered at UNC, I reached out to UNC Press and Andrew C. McKevitt about the new book Gun Country: Gun Capitalism, Culture, and Control in Cold War America (2023). McKevitt approaches 20th-century gun culture through a consumer lens. “We have lots of verbs for thinking about gun owners historically,” he said, “‘defend,’ ‘protect,’ ‘secure,’ or even ‘oppress,’ and so forth—but what about ‘consume’?” And for McKevitt, America’s unique relationship with firearms cannot be untangled from its place as a consumer product.
Consumerism is a unifying theme in all of McKevitt’s historical research. His first book was on US consumption of Japanese culture in the 1980s, and he told Perspectives, “For me it’s hard to escape the personal appeal of consumer history.” A native of New Jersey, McKevitt recognized his own experience in Lizabeth Cohen’s description of her New Jersey childhood as a “landscape of mass consumption.” As a graduate student, he connected with Cohen’s interrogation of the consumer landscape and became interested in “how Honda, Nintendo, sushi, and anime became part of the everyday American mass consumer experience.” More broadly, he said, “consumer history is so important because it is the flip side of the coin of the history of capitalism: we can’t understand that history from the perspective of production alone.”
“Why is American gun culture so singular compared to the rest of the world?”
A surprising connection to Japan led him to begin studying guns. When he moved to Louisiana in 2012 to join the history faculty at Louisiana Tech University, he was curious to learn “how ‘the Japanese global’ manifested in local ways.” Through simple web searches along the lines of “Japan and Louisiana,” he first encountered the story of Yoshihiro Hattori. In 1992, Hattori was a 16-year-old Japanese exchange student living in Baton Rouge. Hattori knocked on the wrong door looking for a Halloween party, and Rodney Peairs shot Hattori to death. Hattori’s death and Peairs’s acquittal on manslaughter charges led to outrage in Japan, and Hattori’s host family, the Haymakers, started a gun control campaign in his memory. Both faculty at Louisiana State University, the Haymakers left their records to the university, which offered McKevitt “a rare archival opportunity to examine a grassroots gun control movement, one that, fascinatingly, also had a transnational component” through their connections with Hattori’s parents and other activists around the world. “I started with that question that many Japanese asked—why is American gun culture so singular compared to the rest of the world?—thinking I might write an article using the Yoshi case to try to answer it,” McKevitt said. “It turned into an unexpected archival hunt that sent me all the way back to the Second World War.”
After World War II, enterprising entrepreneurs bought up surplus guns from Europe and Asia, often paying pennies on the dollar for hundreds of weapons, shipping them to the United States, and then selling them to the public via mail order for hunting. McKevitt writes that guns became “another mass-market commodity in a consumer culture in which Americans increasingly felt that nothing should be out of their reach.” In the postwar years, “the guns were everywhere, affordable, and accessible in America the dumping ground.”
As millions of cheap foreign-made guns flooded the market, it was domestic gun manufacturers who actually prodded Congress to regulate guns—especially after Lee Harvey Oswald used two imported guns to kill President John F. Kennedy in 1963. During the late 1960s, white Americans’ fears of a coming race war fueled calls for gun control. Congress passed the Gun Control Act in 1968, launching a decades-long fight over gun control versus gun rights that continues to this day.
With a focus on the grassroots organizing on both sides, Gun Country uncovers how conceiving of guns as a consumer product shaped early gun control activism and looks beyond the National Rifle Association at how right-wing groups mixed “Cold War anxieties with white racial fears of the 1960s” to adopt “an uncompromising approach that laid the foundations for the emergence of a national conservative gun rights ideology.” Returning to Hattori’s story, McKevitt closes the book with a look at the resulting international activism, which occurred too late to get Americans to reject our gun culture.
Through the consumer culture around guns, McKevitt digs into midcentury ideas about race, gender, and class. Historians of the United States will not be surprised to see in this book the Black Panthers’ armed march on the California state capitol building in May 1967. Yet McKevitt found that this event “took place in the context of a yearslong legislative effort to do something about the seemingly limitless proliferation of ‘weapons of war’” in the state. The Panthers were certainly a target of the 1967 Mulford Act that prohibited carrying loaded firearms in public, but the legislature was simultaneously considering bills that looked to limit the stockpiling of weapons by white extremists. McKevitt told us, “It reminded me of that old adage from grad school that you can’t make sense of a particular document if you don’t know what documents came before and after it.” With the broader context of white extremism, there was “a more nuanced approach to gun control during this era than one that was simply about controlling Black populations. Instead it was a kind of last gasp of Cold War liberalism, an effort to toe a line between extremisms on both the left and right, a failed effort to preserve that ‘vital center’ of the early postwar years.”
Advocates on both sides of the gun debate made appeals to ideals of masculinity. “Robert Self has a great line in his All in the Family about masculinity being the currency of 1960s politics, and you see that nowhere more than in the gun debate,” McKevitt said. While we might expect to see the gun rights supporters portraying guns as a manly accessory, gun control advocates argued that the masculine ideal included a man who could control himself, as “living in a modern society means growing out of childish, emotional attachments to the tools of violence.”
These early gun control groups in Chicago that McKevitt profiles were made up almost entirely of women. Laura Fermi, widow of physicist Enrico Fermi, began her activist career in the antinuclear movement. To Fermi, McKevitt said, “if men could control nuclear power, the most destructive force ever created, why could they not control the smallest of small arms?” Women like Fermi also embraced their role as homemakers and caretakers in portraying gun violence as a threat to the safety of the home and called for banning handgun bullets as a “dangerous substance,” akin to chemicals being regulated nationally. McKevitt sees these groups as precursors to many of the gun control groups active today, such as the Million Mom March and Moms Demand Action.
The infrastructure that controls guns also entrenches them in our society.
It is impossible not to wonder what McKevitt thinks will happen in the future of gun activism. Does he think meaningful change around guns is possible? What might that look like? McKevitt said, “It’s a mistake to see gun capitalism and gun control regimes as opposing forces, at least as they’ve manifested in the United States. Lawmakers, even those who support gun control, have seen it as their responsibility to protect the ‘law-abiding citizen,’ a political construct that has primarily been understood as a consumer whose access to the gun market shouldn’t be inconvenienced or harassed in legislative efforts to keep guns out of the hands of the ‘wrong’ people. So every legislative effort implicitly or explicitly acknowledged the legitimacy of the consumer gun market.” The infrastructure that controls guns also entrenches them in our society. According to McKevitt, “The guns and the bureaucracy protecting them are not going anywhere, so moderate approaches to ‘gun safety’ are an important place to start.”
I also wondered what McKevitt, as someone who teaches undergraduates, wanted students to take away from this book. Most traditional undergraduates were born in the years immediately after the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado, and they grew up under the threat of mass shootings and experienced active-shooter drills for much of their childhoods. Teaching in the rural Deep South, he said, “I’ve learned so much from this generation.” His students tend to be more comfortable with firearms and assume easy access to cheap guns is “a natural state of affairs.” He hopes this book will change that assumption. “What gun capitalism has done so well, abetted by various gun rights groups, is to convince people who support gun rights that our current national relationship to firearms is as it always was and as it should be,” McKevitt said. “You see it in popular understandings of the Second Amendment, which is likewise marketed to consumers, and in the assumption that if you’re a ‘law-abiding citizen,’ there should be few or no obstacles to your accessing the consumer gun market.” He concluded, “I’d like young people to see what we so often ask our students to take away the study of history: the present is a product of the past, of choice and contingency, and what was made in the past could always be unmade, or remade, in the present and future.”
Laura Ansley is senior managing editor at the AHA.
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