According to gun makers and the gun lobby, packing heat for self-defense has always been as American as apple pie. In their version of history, “responsible” gun owners from the beginning of the American experience have relied on a revolver in the nightstand and a pistol in the jacket pocket to make their families safe.
Neither the historical record nor contemporary real-world facts support this myth. It is an invention, a cynical artifact of gun industry advertising and gun lobby propaganda designed to sell handguns. It has cost millions of lives and inflicted tens of millions of needless injuries.
From Colonial America to Frontier Gun Control
Early America was vastly different from the handgun-happy images one sees on television, in movies, and in the pages of gun magazines. Serious historians have documented that early Americans had little interest in guns. Until the mid-1800s, owning a gun was surprisingly uncommon. Those who owned firearms almost always owned long guns.
Historian Michael Bellesiles, for example, examined more than a thousand probate records from northern New England and Pennsylvania filed from 1765 to 1790. He found that only 14 percent of household inventories included firearms – and more than half of these were inoperable.22 Colonial settlers got meat mostly from domesticated animals like cows and pigs. When they wanted wild game, they bought it from native Americans or professional hunters, most of whom trapped their prey.23 Prior to 1850, at most only a tenth of the nation’s population individually owned guns of any kind.24
Colt Introduces Handgun Hype. In 1835 the situation began to change for the worse. That year Samuel Colt patented the first of his famous revolvers. Historian Bellesiles notes that Colt’s revolver was basically useless for either hunting or militia service, intended only for personal use in violent situations:
Unable to discover a large demand for such weaponry, Colt tried to create one through the cleverest advertising yet seen in America. He engraved his guns with heroic scenes….He filled eastern newspapers with advertisements identifying his revolver with the romance of the West, commissioning Currier & Ives to craft beautiful portraits of Colt hunting buffalo with a revolver.25
These fictional scenes marked the first of several waves of equally clever gun-industry marketing efforts intended to sell handguns as useful tools for self-defense.
Frontier Violence and the Rise of Gun Control. Colt’s successful introduction of the mass-marketed handgun signaled a shift in the means by which Americans killed one another. Guns replaced beating, drowning, poisoning, and strangling as the favored way to kill another human being.26 Besides increased lethality, modern handguns put physical and psychological distance between killer and victim.
After the Civil War, handguns enjoyed increased popularity in the western United States, resulting in an acceleration of gun violence. Historian David Courtwright observes, “In the most expansive and violent years of the range cattle industry, the late 1860s and 1870s, many cowboys were combat veterans and almost all carried firearms,”27 usually military-issue 44 and 45 caliber revolvers. Their arrival in town set off end-of-trail binges of drunkenness and firepower.
If this Western violence is familiar, the story of how it was brought under control is surprisingly unfamiliar. The local governments of cattle towns identified the problem and moved to solve it. They banned handguns. Handgun carrying was outlawed in most cattle towns by the early 1870s, with cowboys expected to “check” their guns upon arrival. Weapons were exchanged for metal tokens at the city gates or were left at a local livery stable.28 Ranchers and cattlemen derided the “pernicious and useless habit” of handgun carrying and advised their men to “give up your pistol….”29
Since the end of the Second World War the gun industry has spawned two more noteworthy epidemics of handgun self-defense fever.
The 1960sï¿½Rights, Riots, and Revolvers. The first wave of violence came in the mid-1960s, when the country experienced an extraordinary series of assassinationsg and racial tensions rose as the civil rights movement challenged discrimination throughout the South. Notwithstanding the peaceful intentions and tactics of most civil rights activists, a few resorted to militance and some opponents responded violently. Large scale race-related riots, sparked by a variety of causes, broke out in many cities, including the nation’s capital.
These events were accompanied by mass anti-war demonstrations, flamboyant civil disobedience, and rising violent crime rates. By 1968, polls found that 81 percent of the American people believed that law and order had broken down. In response, politicians promised to “get tough on crime.”30 The cumulative impact of these events raised in some a fear that the country was on the edge of revolution.
The gun industry tilled this ground ruthlessly. David Ecker, president of Charter Arms, explained in a 1981 interview the fortuitous timing of the company’s entry into the handgun market in the 1960s:
You had a terrific civil rights problem, with riots all across the country. There was a terrific boom in firearms sales. So any firearm that was being manufactured or imported was being sold.31
The handgun industry saw the civil rights “problem”ï¿½laden with race-based fearsï¿½and disorders associated with racial conflict as a marketing boon. Domestic production of handguns soared during the 1960s to nearly twice that of the 1950s. With growing foreign imports added in, the number of handguns that poured into the American civilian market during the 1960s was almost three times that of the preceding decade.32
The 1980s to Todayï¿½Pistols, Pushers, and Profits. Since then, the gun industry has exploited similar fears of violent crime, with subtly inferred racial overtones, linked to periodic civil disorders and episodes of spectacular criminal gun play associated with the traffic in illegal drugs. This exploitation swelled to a near-frenzy in the mid-1980s and persists to this day. Gun manufacturers continue to design and market increasingly lethal “self-defense” handguns and ammunition, introducing the mass marketing of high-capacity semiautomatic pistols and “pocket rockets.”
The National Rifle Association helped stoke sales with a series of sensational fear-mongering ads aimed at taking “gun owners’ rights down to gut level.” The ads used garish photos, inflammatory copy, and hyped headlines to push for the use of firearms for self-defense. Typical captions included: “Should you shoot a rapist before he cuts your throat?” and “If you’re attacked on your porch, do you want your neighbors to be opposed to gun ownership or members of the NRA?”33
Gun manufacturers saw the “personal-defense” market as a lifeline out of flat handgun sales. For example, then-president of Smith & Wesson Ed Schultz said in 1992 that he expected to see growth in this personal protection market.34 By 1997, Shooting Industry boasted that “concealment handguns and other defensive firearms are the bright spots in gun retailing,” and advised retailers, “It’s time to jump in on the defensive handgun market if you haven’t already.”35
Ayoob summed up the extent to which this second wave of “personal-defense” marketing changed the American gun market in a Shooting Industry article:
I recently was leafing through an issue of Shooting Industry from 1971. Talk about a blast from the past! A quarter century later, things have changed dramatically. In SI back then, it appeared that shotguns and .22s were the mainstay of the firearms business. A firearms retailer today knows that…that type of sporting market is stagnant at best. The guns that are selling during this sales trough in the industry are defensive firearms, particularly handguns thanks to reformed “shall issue” concealed carry rules in several states….
Defensive firearms, sold with knowledgeable advice and the right accessories, offer the best chance of commercial survival for today’s retail firearms dealer.36
In another article entitled “‘Trend Crimes’ and the Gun Dealer,” Ayoob advised using fear to sell more guns on “impulse,” stating:
Customers come to you every day out of fear. Fear of what they read in the newspaper. Fear of what they watch on the 11 o’clock news. Fear of the terrible acts of violence they see on the street. Your job, in no uncertain terms, is to sell them confidence in the form of steel and lead.37
A recent rash of NRA-sponsored “concealed-carry” laws has opened up a new market for handguns. Although the NRA claims that it represents the gun consumer and not the gun industry, its former chief lobbyist, Tanya Metaksa, tells a different story. In a 1996 interview with The Wall Street Journal she claimed credit for generating new gun-industry sales by means of these laws:
The gun industry should send me a basket of fruitï¿½our efforts have created a new market.38
A gun industry magazine headline put the effect of these laws bluntly: “More Gun Permits Equal More Gun Sales.”39
But not all voices within the industry have been as enthusiastic about concealed carry as Ms. Metaksa. Guns & Ammo’s “personal security” writer opined in July 1992, that:
If someone carries weapons concealed, he must really be looking for or expecting trouble instead of avoiding it (whether they were carried legally or not).40 [emphasis in original]
The steady rise of handguns to first place in the American sales market reflects the effects of the self-defense boom. But, as detailed in the rest of this report, pro-gun writers like Ayoob ironically document what a poor choice the handgun really is for the consumer.
g) President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963; Malcolm X was shot to death in New York on February 21, 1965; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968; and, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles scarcely two months later, on June 4, 1968.