By Patrick Sullivan
IF THE GUN FANS have a Doomsday Clock, it must have been set at one minute to midnight in the months following the bloody massacre at Columbine High School. Gun-control laws started spraying out of state legislatures faster than armor-piercing bullets from a modified AR-15. Even the National Rifle Association's main man, eagle-faced actor and NRA president Charlton Heston, was starting to resemble that hurt hawk from the Robinson Jeffers poem: "The intrepid readiness, the terrible eyes/ The wild God of the world is sometimes merciful to those/ That ask mercy, not often to the arrogant."
Some people were starting to think--with either fear or hope--that guns were on their way out of American life. They really should have known better.
The most obvious sign that the way of the gun is far from dead is the victory of George W. Bush, who won a fiercely contested election in which the NRA spent millions on his behalf. But there are other omens: after a significant decline, the NRA's membership is growing again. And there is something else, something harder to quantify: the horror of Columbine seems to be fading. The gun is back.
What makes gun culture so resilient? Historian Michael A. Bellesiles may have some answers. In Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture (Knopf; $30), Bellesiles goes looking for the roots of our country's unusually passionate relationship with firearms. What he finds is so startling as to be revolutionary. Popular fancy locates the birth of our national obsession with guns in the rugged nature of early American life. Our movies and popular fiction present life in 18th- and early-19th-century America as a constant struggle of the firearm-toting frontiersmen against British soldiers, aggressive Indians, and dangerous wild animals.
But in Arming America, Bellesiles argues that guns were actually fairly rare in early America. Drawing on a mountain of probate, military, and business records, as well as travel accounts and personal letters, he makes the case that gun ownership was once the exception: "America's gun culture is an invented tradition," he writes. "The notion that a well-armed public buttressed the American dream would have appeared harebrained to most Americans before the Civil War."
There's an amusingly iconoclastic aspect to this. Our notion of the effectiveness of America's citizen soldiers during the Revolutionary War rests on such engagements as the Battle of Bunker Hill. More often, though, poorly trained and armed militiamen (perhaps quite sensibly) turned and ran at the first sight of the enemy. Most Americans showed up for military service unarmed, and what firearms they were given usually came from Europe because domestic production of firearms remained almost nonexistent.
Many volunteers were completely unfamiliar with guns, and they were often terrible shots, even accounting for the notorious inaccuracy of their muzzle-loaded weapons: "One group of Americans hiding near the road fired a volley at Major Pitcairn from ten yards," Bellesiles writes of an attempt to ambush a British officers. "All missed. They did, however, frighten Pitcairn's horse, which ran off, leaving the rider unhurt, though shaken, on the ground."
The general ignorance of--and even hostility toward--guns continued throughout the early life of the young republic. It took the social transformations wrought by the Civil War to change those attitudes: "The Civil War transformed the gun from a tool into a perceived necessity," Bellesiles writes. "The war had introduced the majority of American males to the use of firearms; peace brought those weapons into their homes."
Bellesiles lays the responsibility for the creation of our powerful gun culture on two other forces: a military-minded government eager to arm its people; and gun manufacturers like Samuel Colt eager to make money.
The real significance of Arming America, though, lies less in any assignment of blame than in its offer of the possibility of an alternative. Contrary to popular belief, America has not always bristled with guns; they are not an inextricable part of our national character. That fact removes a suffocating inevitability from the debate over gun control.
We may choose to regulate guns more strictly, or we may not. But history hasn't made the decision for us.
From the December 21-27, 2000 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.