When the subject is guns, politics trumps history.
AUG 01, 2016 | By JOHN R. LOTT JR.
Pamela Haag calls gun makers “merchants of death.” And America’s love affair with guns, she says, didn’t really start until the late 1800s, when the “merchants of death” convinced Americans that they wanted guns. She describes how gun makers were innovators in advertising, using promotional materials to lure Americans into buying firearms, even deploying skilled marksmen and trick-shot artists to show off the guns.
Haag’s story centers around the Winchester family, famous for its rifles, and she focuses on two members of the family: Oliver Winchester, who started the company, and Sarah Winchester, his daughter-in-law, who was supposedly haunted by her family’s “blood fortune” and experienced an “enormous, haunting debt of guilt.”
The Gunning of America, however, is an advocacy book, not a history book, and Haag carefully selects her facts and gives readers a biased presentation of history. She tells us, for example, that Winchester gun sales soared from 9,800 in 1875 to 292,400 in 1914. But 1914 makes for a convenient end-year: The First World War had begun in July, and Winchester increased production to provide guns for the British and Canadian armies. (In 1875, the company was only selling two types of rifles.) Total gun sales did increase over that period; but a lot of that came from cheaper guns, many produced in Europe—a fact that doesn’t fit Haag’s story of easily duped buyers.
Indeed, little evidence is provided that Sarah Winchester actually disliked guns. Yet if she really hated guns so much, there’s a lot she could have done to prevent their sale. Oliver Winchester died in 1880, Sarah’s husband William died in 1881, and by then, Sarah owned 50 percent of the stock in the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Until her death in 1922, over 40 years when gun sales were exploding, Sarah could have done anything she wanted with Winchester Repeating Arms. So if she really hated guns, why didn’t she sell her stock or move the company away from gun manufacturing? Haag fails to note that Sarah Winchester ended up controlling half the company stock; all she tells us is that Sarah owned 7.8 percent of Winchester stock while her father-in-law was still alive.
Sarah Winchester did struggle with depression, and Haag attributes this to guilt largely caused by being in the business of making and selling guns. But it is equally possible that Sarah was depressed because she suffered numerous stillbirths and her only child to survive birth would live for just one month. One fact not mentioned by Haag is that, until Sarah’s death at age 82, she kept various items that she had bought for her expected children.
Haag also tries to revive two claims made by the disgraced historian Michael A. Bellesiles. In Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture (2000), Bellesiles asserted that probate records showed gun ownership was rare in pre-Civil War America, arguing that “the gun industrialist . . . was crucial to the development of the commercial market.” But Professor Bellesiles had falsified his probate data and, as a result, Alfred A. Knopf stopped publishing the book and an investigation commissioned by his university concluded he had committed fraud.
Haag also selectively references probate records from the pre-revolutionary era to argue that guns were not commonly owned in early America. According to the numbers she reports, there was an estimated low in Massachusetts of 37 percent of wills mentioning guns to a high of 62 percent in the South. But she ignores other studies that show higher rates, as well as the fact that these records provide only a partial account of gun ownership. She also mentions current gun-ownership rates, claiming that they have been falling in recent decades, according to the General Social Survey and Pew Research Center. But surveys by Gallup, ABC News/Washington Post, and CNN have found no decline. Haag offers no explanation for picking only the two surveys that support her thesis, nor does she mention concerns that these surveys systematically miss gun owners.
Let us assume, however, that Haag is correct that gun ownership has recently fallen. Is this because gun makers have lost their marketing prowess? No answer is provided, and her treatment of current gun-control debates is filled with errors. She claims that the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act “prohibits civil liability actions against gun manufacturers, distributors, or dealers for damages caused by their products.” But that is false: Gun makers can be sued if they fail to do background checks or sell to someone who doesn’t pass the check or if any reasonable conclusion can be drawn that the buyer intended to commit a crime.
The best history books grapple with opposing evidence and alternative explanations, arguing why one interpretation makes more sense than another. But in The Gunning of America, Pamela Haag simply ignores inconvenient facts.
John R. Lott Jr. is president of the Crime Prevention Research Center and the author, most recently, of The War on Guns.