The Fall Into Guns

Few Americans, this cliche-upending book shows, owned guns before the Civil War. What happened?

THERE are not many points of agreement between the National Rifle Association and the advocates of gun control, but they do share a view of American history. The NRA asserts that gun possession is a widespread American tradition as well as a constitutionally protected right. Advocates of gun control agree that the habits of action and thought that underlie contemporary gun violence have deep historical roots, but they see this legacy as a cultural liability we must work hard to overcome—if we can.

Michael Bellesiles's Arming America will compel both sides in the gun debate—and historians of American culture in general—to reconsider that history. Bellesiles has made a detailed study of the records of gun ownership and militia service in the thirteen colonies and the United States, from the beginnings of European settlement through Reconstruction. Blending quantitative analysis with a careful reading of public documents, he paints a new picture of the role of privately owned firearms in American history: until the Civil War relatively few Americans owned guns, and levels of interpersonal violence involving firearms were low, even in frontier districts. He concludes that "America's gun culture is an invented tradition. It was not present at the nation's creation.... Rather, it developed in a single generation [following] the Civil War."

There is a good deal of substantive history in Arming America. But as Bellesiles says, he is more interested in "the story of what was not," "the absence of that which was thought to be eternally and universally present—an American gun culture." Although the United States had a nominal citizen militia through most of the nineteenth century, Bellesiles's analysis reveals that most militiamen ignored the requirement that they keep and maintain their own military weapons (typically muskets or rifles). Only during the earliest days of settlement, when the frontier was less than a day's ride from the Atlantic shore, were Colonial militias generally supplied with arms. In Colonial units mobilized for the French and Indian War only 25 percent of the troops came properly armed. In 1803, 45 percent of enrolled militia members were properly armed, but by 1830 the figure had dropped to 31 percent, and it would continue to decline up to the eve of the Civil War. To estimate overall gun ownership Bellesiles uses a sample of probate inventories, which generally list all bequeathed property, including weapons. He observes that from 1765 to 1790, on average, only 14.7 percent of such inventories listed firearms, and although the percentage rose steadily (as guns got cheaper), as late as 1859 it had risen no higher than 32.5 percent. Frontier districts, where one would expect higher numbers, merely mirrored the national average. The highest levels—at times 25 percent above the national average—were found in the South.

If Bellesiles's figures are correct, then the "tradition" of bearing arms is a lot less traditional than the NRA would have us believe. Although probate inventories provide suggestive data, they probably understate actual levels of gun ownership. Not all estates are probated; not all probate inventories are complete. And one would expect the records to be least reliable in frontier districts, where guns might be necessary equipment in most households. But Bellesiles's analysis of the militia is persuasive, and supports his assertion that after the War of 1812 there was a sharp decline in the ownership of weapons for self-defense. Bellesiles offers several reasons for this trend. His analysis of gun manufacturing and marketing shows that until the 1840s firearms were produced in limited numbers by skilled craftsmen, and were therefore expensive to buy and maintain. As the threat of Indian attacks or invasion by European powers diminished, Americans simply had less need for expensive weapons for self-defense. And the economic value of hunting diminished with the growth of settlements.

BUT gun ownership began to rise after 1840, and Arming America traces the processes that would by century's end produce a distinctive national gun culture. The techniques of mass production and serial fire perfected by Samuel Colt made guns cheaper to own and easier to use. The handgun—which had been a luxury item in the days of the single-shot flint pistol—was now a viable weapon for the ordinary citizen interested in self-defense and killing small game. But lower prices alone did not cause gun ownership to spread. The California Gold Rush and the opening of the Far West to settlement increased population and activity in the contested borderlands between the United States and Mexico and around Native American tribes. The expansion of slavery into unsettled districts and the growth of large plantations (coupled with abolitionist agitation) led to more arming of planters' households and patrols. (Colt is said to have conceived the repeating pistol to enable a single white man to defend himself against an unruly gang of slaves.) One of Bellesiles's most important conclusions is that "racism determined the presence and nature of American violence more than any other factor."

Throughout the 1850s the numbers of both armaments and private military companies grew in anticipation of war. The Civil War itself led to the mass production and distribution of firearms on an unprecedented scale, and taught a generation of young men to kill. "By the mid-1870s," Bellesiles writes, "guns were everywhere in American life." Once cheap guns became available for a mass market, "reaching for the gun" in response to a crisis became easier for all citizens. But the postwar period also produced new motives for gun ownership and violence. Among the most telling parts of this book is Bellesiles's account of how this initial increase in gun circulation led to further gun purchases. In the pre-war period firearms were relatively rare even in those areas where the threat of violence was great. But where many or most men carry guns, a gun will be seen as necessary for self-defense—and for self-respect. What Bellesiles says of the 1870s is equally valid today: "The fear becomes the danger, as Americans acted on the imagined terrors around them and armed themselves for private protection."

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