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."

The last decades of the nineteenth century were also marked by a series of social, economic, and political upheavals, which produced new inducements to social and personal violence. The abolition of slavery and the attempt to reconstruct the South as a multiracial society produced some of the worst violence—Ku Klux Klan terrorism, race riots, and bloody strikes, culminating in the establishment of the Jim Crow regime in the South. Elsewhere in the country rapid industrialization and urbanization, coupled with unprecedented levels of immigration from new ethnic and racial sources, led to increasingly violent labor struggles and rising urban crime. Here racism combined with class antagonism to produce a widespread fear of social violence. Strikers came armed to the picket line (sometimes with weapons maintained for their militia service); companies met them with hired armed guards and "detectives"; and gun manufacturers "played on the fear" to market their wares to the public.

But it is only in the last chapter and the epilogue of his book, which deal with the Civil War period, that Bellesiles fulfills the promise of his title and engages with the immediate origins of the modern gun culture. The preceding chapters debunk the idea that anything like that culture existed before the Civil War. Although this has the salutary effect of deflating the NRA's glorification of Colonial and Revolutionary Americans as "a people numerous and armed," it slights the specifically cultural developments that shaped our codes of civil and personal violence. American culture provided successive generations with a set of motives for violence, which persisted through eras when the gun was not the weapon of choice. Hence the actual distribution of weapons at any given time may be less important than the values that came to be associated with owning and using weapons.

BELLESILE'S treatment of the militia is a case in point. Free white Americans may have been casual about serving, but they were jealous of their right to serve—and concerned to exclude those classes they deemed inferior or dangerous. The right to serve thus became a hallmark of equal citizenship. Colonial militias excluded from service those residents not classed as freemen—poor whites, slaves, indentured servants, women, and (sometimes) non-Protestants. From 1776 through the Age of Jackson the expansion of citizenship rights extended the franchise and the right and obligation of militia service to the white male portion of the excluded categories. But free blacks were still denied the right to serve in the militia, even in Massachusetts and other anti-slavery states. Thus the enlistment of blacks during the Civil War signaled their transformation into citizens.

The militia issue highlights a critical difference in the way American and European cultures permit violence. American culture has tended, from the eighteenth century on, to assign an extraordinary value to individual rights, desires, and property. So we came to treat weapons, and the right to use them, as we treat all forms of private property—granting the widest possible latitude of action to the owner. Our self-defense statutes are more permissive than those of any other industrialized nation. Under English law if a person menaced with deadly force is able to flee, he is obliged to do so. American laws since the Jacksonian period have typically declared that a man may defend himself with deadly force when he has a credible belief that he is menaced with deadly force. Under this rule a Louisiana man was acquitted in 1993 after having shot an unarmed Japanese exchange student who came to his door looking for a Halloween party.

Historically rooted customs and traditions further broaden the already wide acceptance of private violence that is provided by statute law. Courts have customarily treated certain kinds of personal and social grievance as legitimate reasons for homicide, even when the victim posed no threat of bodily harm. In the Jim Crow era whites who murdered blacks for such offenses as refusing to step aside in the street and looking at a white woman were typically let off by white juries. "The courts granted virtual immunity to whites accused of crimes against black men," the Berkeley historian Leon Litwak writes in his authoritative book Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (1998). Sometimes the threat of extralegal lynchings was sufficient to make white courts acquiesce in "legal lynchings."

The physical abuse and even murder of women—which in the case of adulterous wives might be sanctioned under "unwritten law"—has historically been treated with similar tolerance in times and places in which a woman's "emancipated" acts were construed as an assault on her husband's male identity and social status. Changes in the law and the social roles of women and minorities since the New Deal have altered—but not eliminated—jury nullification of and judicial leniency toward racial or sexual violence. It remains part of our cultural tradition to regard certain kinds of grievance as legitimate grounds for violence.

SO whether or not the Americans of 1740-1840 kept or used firearms in large numbers, they established the codes that identified the right to own and use weapons as a hallmark of citizenship, and provided rules for identifying when, and against whom, it was morally permissible to use deadly force—thus laying the foundation that was in place in the 1870s, when, as Bellesiles rightly says, the American culture of violence was radically transformed and modernized.

Bellesiles misses an opportunity to analyze more closely the social and political dynamics of the era that immediately shaped the modern gun culture. Guns are not simply tools or commodities; they are instruments of social power. And social, economic, and demographic changes over the period 1865-1925 led to a series of complex and often violent struggles for power. The industrialization of the economy threatened the status and well-being of workers and farmers; worker discontent seemed to businessmen and conservatives to threaten revolution; and the demographic transformation produced by new immigration and the migration north of southern blacks threatened social hierarchies. In response, cultural and political leaders at both national and local levels began to advocate a new approach to the administration of violence in American life. They called for more-coercive measures against the new forces of disorder, from restricting the ballot for immigrant and racial minorities to an increased use of the military against organized labor. Gun manufacturers marketed pistols to the public for self-protection in a time of fear. But to governments and corporations they offered a new weapon, the machine gun, which was designed to allow a small professional force to outgun a conventionally armed mob.

This era also saw the modernization of vigilantism, a form of social violence whose roots have been traced to the Colonial period. Vigilantism is the extralegal use of deadly force by an organization of private individuals to achieve some public or political goal. Vigilance, or "Regulator," movements figured periodically in the development of frontier settlements before 1850, and two urban movements—the abolitionist Vigilance Committee in 1850s Boston, and the anti-political-machine San Francisco vigilantes of 1856—had important political agendas. But after 1865 vigilance organizations sprang up in a wide variety of settings, usually with the sponsorship of local elites or businessmen and sometimes with the support of legal or government authorities. A modern wrinkle in traditional vigilantism was the development of professional vigilantes: "detectives" hired to disrupt or intimidate organizations of workers and small farmers, or to assassinate organizers. The largest vigilance movements were those mounted by the KKK and similar organizations during Reconstruction, during the Jim Crow era, and in the civil-rights era. But such movements were also mounted against Asian immigrants (1850-1880); in land disputes and range wars, such as the Mussel Slough conflict of 1880 and the Johnson County War of 1892; and against labor unions during periods of industrial strife (1874-1877, 1885-1895, 1903-1925).

It is important to analyze turn-of-the-century vigilantism, because the anti-government rhetoric and fetishization of firepower of the contemporary gun-rights movement come from vigilante values. The gun lobby invokes the classic fears behind vigilantism: of a threat to personal safety by the lower orders or an assault on vital interests by government officials. It seeks to establish the right of a private individual to wage social war, at will, against "government tyranny," the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, or any class of people deemed "dangerous" to public safety. In the words of the NRA spokesman Fred Romero, "The Second Amendment is not there to protect the interests of hunters, sports shooters, and casual plinkers.... The Second Amendment is there as a balance of power. It is literally a loaded gun in the hands of the people held to the heads of government." Gun-rights fundamentalists wish to protect from regulation not only the hunter's rifle or the shopkeeper's .38 but also military weapons that are capable of killing large numbers of people very rapidly.

Vigilante values are invoked in the abstract by the leadership of the NRA and similar organizations. But those values are acted on by a variety of groups that use military-style weapons to gain or maintain social or political power. Self-styled militias such as the Montana Freemen, the Militia of Montana, and the various "Common Law" sects typically operate as vigilance organizations, using their weapons to intimidate others in their communities, usually to gain some advantage or immunity: to evade taxes or debts; to win boundary disputes with neighbors or with the Bureau of Land Management; to evade or nullify government regulations and policies that offend them, such as school integration or laws against spousal and child abuse. The terrorism associated with white-supremacist organizations such as Aryan Nations, WAR, Christian Identity, World Church of the Creator, the Phineas Priesthood, and The Order is framed by its exponents as a form of political struggle, analogous to the revolutionary terrorism of the IRA and the Basque ETA. Some of these groups do have roots in political organizations—including the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazi Party. But typically they are private enterprises, founded by charismatic leaders or organized around a single armed and alienated family, which value guns as instruments of political strength and seek to acquire as much firepower as they can.

The number of guns in circulation is certainly an element in the modern gun culture, but the cultural ethic that sanctions private violence is the critical element. Switzerland and Israel, where army reservists maintain their own weapons, have comparable levels of distribution. Yet those weapons are rarely used for private revenge or crime. Nor can we put all the blame for gun violence on the excesses of the contemporary media. European and Japanese audiences consume violent American films as avidly as we do, and their own studios produce highly successful ultraviolent movies without comparable national homicide rates. What makes the difference is not just the availability of weapons but the ethic, rooted in our cultural history, that teaches the people how, when, and on whom violence may be used.

Arming America is a groundbreaking study of the material basis of the gun culture. I hope Bellesiles will continue his work, bringing the same stringent quantitative analysis and a deeper reading of cultural history to bear on guns and the civil violence of the twentieth century.