Is US Gun-Culture More Important Than You Could've Imagined?

An interview with Pamela Haag.

Everyone knows that guns are an important political issue in the US—the media draws attention to gun-violence pretty much every day. I just checked CNN and found these two headlines:

Despite the awareness of gun-violence, though—and you can raise questions about how the media covers gun-violence, whether the media encourages mass-shooters, and whether the media fails to highlight how big a problem handguns are—few people understand how important US gun-culture really is and how much we can really learn from the history of US gun-culture.

US gun-culture is about much more than you might think—it goes right to the heart of power/indoctrination.

Pamela Haag is a leading author whose 2016 book The Gunning of America received enormous praise. Noam Chomsky’s comments about the book brought the book to my attention.

I was honored/thrilled to be able to interview Dr. Haag. See below my interview with her. I made some minor edits, and added hyperlinks to her answers.

1) What are the most exciting projects that you’re currently working on?

I’m circling back around to a new book project called I Could Care Less: An Inquiry into 21st-Century Heartlessness.

This book is only getting started. I don’t have answers yet, only a preoccupying question.

And that question is really simple: Are we a nation of assholes today? If so, when and why did this happen? In our everyday/personal interactions (setting aside systemic inequalities/cruelties), are we meaner to each other—and more hateful toward each other—than at earlier times? Are we less empathetic in some respects, even as we seem simultaneously to be hyper-attuned to sensitivities/feelings?

My hunch, or fear, is that we’ve become a nation of sentimentalists. We “perform” emotions but no longer feel them as deeply. We’re less empathetic and more sentimental, in other words—more about the rituals/mannerisms of caring and less about true empathy.

The title of my project captures this ambiguity, since “I Could Care Less” is a confusing phrase that is used to mean “I don’t care at all” but that literally means “I care a great deal”. This kind of core confusion about emotions—do we care not at all, or way too much?—is the paradox of the heart that I want to investigate.

2) What are the most exciting projects that you know of that others are working on? 

Some nonfiction authors are beginning to write the recent history of the 2000s. In particular, they’re beginning to critique technology and social media, as nonfiction authors push back against the triumphalist optimism of Silicon Valley and really begin to explore its dark/destructive side. 

A dear friend, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Debby Applegate, has a biography coming out in the fall—Madam—on Polly Adler, a famous madam in the 1920s.

The one thing that I do not want to read are: Covid memoirs. I bet there are a few brewing right now—“Love in the Time of Covid”, or some such—but they won’t be my book-club choice. It’s interesting that up until recently the 1918 influenza was very rarely written about and was very rarely discussed—having now lived through a pandemic, I can understand why authors/readers preferred to forget that it ever happened.

3) What are the main ideas in your 2021 book Revise

My latest book is a straightforward, useful, easy-to-browse guide that emerged out of my developmental-editing business. My clientele is largely scholar-writers, and Revise: The Scholar-Writer’s Essential Guide to Tweaking, Editing, and Perfecting Your Manuscript is a collection of pointers for writing idea-driven works that are both beautiful and brilliant—that are both stylistically clear and intellectually complex.

The book includes before-and-after examples—from my editing projects over the years—so that the reader can understand the style principle clearly. It uses terms (for example: Zombie Words, Tofu Syndrome, Boxing Out) that should make the guidelines more memorable.

If you have a student, graduate student, professor, or nonfiction author in your family then buy this book as a gift for them.

4) Your 2011 book Marriage Confidential and your 2016 book The Gunning of America both got absolutely rave off-the-charts reviews from the critics. Just look at the reviews for the 2011 book and for the 2016 book—it’s remarkable to see that. What is your secret to hitting it out of the park with the book-critics? 

Thank you. I was delighted that The Gunning of America got two starred-reviews in Publishers Weekly, got great reviews from the sources that matter to me the most, and landed on the “Best Books of the Year” in four publications.

I guess that my first advice for a nonfiction author is to write about things that people care about and about issues that matter. Insofar as critics have regarded my books favorably, it’s largely because my books try to address important themes—the institution of marriage; the American gun culture—in new and interesting ways.

My other advice for nonfiction is to do the research as deeply as you can. Authors often think that critical reception is contingent on style or on writing-finesse. But it seems to derive more from having deep reservoirs of expertise/research to support the book. Stylish/accessible writing matters, but it can’t compensate for archival, conceptual, or structural deficits.

And finally it seems to me that the books that deserve (and sometimes receive) the most attention in nonfiction, and especially narrative nonfiction, have a humanist sensibility. They are written by authors who are curious about the human condition and whose first impulse is to try to understand rather than to judge. These authors see things from many angles, believe in empathy, and believe that—even as we’re all invariably flawed—we all deserve regard, attention, and dignity.

5) What are the main ideas in your 2011 book? 

Through commentary, research, a bit of memoir, and a fair amount of eavesdropping, Marriage Confidential delves into what I call the “semi-happy” marriage—one that is neither entirely flourishing/foundering for the couple involved, by their own definitions.

It asks basic questions about the state of marital fulfillment today. Why do couples end up in this “semi-happy” state? Is it because they subordinate the marriage—and marital happiness—almost entirely to parental/childrearing tasks? Sometimes, yes.

Is it because both partners in a two-income marriage are working so hard, but they each feel that they do more of the undesirable work—whether it’s breadwinning or household chores—than their partner? That happens too.

Is it because conventional/romantic expectations about sex/monogamy aren’t holding up well in an age when partners are less dependent on each other, live longer, have had more experiences, and arguably have easier access to extramarital life? Or that marriages slide totally into the co-parenting/“best friend” zone—and become sexless, spark-less, and erotically desiccated, especially as partners work so hard on careers/childrearing? Perhaps, yes.

When I spent time thinking about “semi-happy” marriages I came to believe that we might be on the brink of a post-romantic age, when marriages improvise. And when marriages move beyond some of the familiar romantic expectations of marriage—monogamy, or more traditional views of money/breadwinning, or ideas about childrearing.

6) What surprised you most during your research for the 2011 book? 

That marriage in the US is teeming with covert queerness/improvisation.

That as rigid/didactic as our views/opinions about marriage are—from all political perspectives—they are just as slyly adaptable in real life.

7) Is there anything that you’d do differently today if you were to write the 2011 book again?

I’ll be entirely honest: I’m not sure that I would write a book on marriage at all if I could change things. It took courage on the part of myself and my (kind, brave, and supportive) husband to write a book about the fate of a “semi-happy” marriage while it was still, indeed, a marriage.

And while I am very proud of the book as a book—its critical reception, the emails I received from spouses who related to the struggles I described, and the important questions it mulled about the future of marriage (lots of the ideas I discussed are now becoming almost mainstream, especially among younger people)—I think that I’d avoid any mention of my own marriage and would have made the book entirely a work of cultural commentary. That would have made for a drier book, true, and a less meaningful one for readers who appreciated the book’s candor.

I approach writing as a space distinct from real life, where exploration of ideas is genuinely permitted and where we should try to tell the full truth about our lives. A friend of mine described Marriage Confidential as an act of “radical honesty” about intimate lives today, and I agree. But many readers are reflexively judgmental about marriages. For example, a woman once wrote a hateful review of the book on Amazon, and it affected my husband. She mostly hated me but she also criticized him, as a minor character in the book! It’s easier for me to take criticism as an author, but I was filled with guilt/remorse whenever he got implicated in someone’s toxicity.

There were days when I thought to myself: “I wish I’d just written a book about cats instead.”

8) What are the main ideas in your 2016 book? 

The core idea of the book is elegant: guns in America weren’t just about the Second Amendment—they were a business. They weren’t just an exceptional part of our political life—they were an unexceptional part of our commercial life. Centrally, guns were and are a business, and the gun industry in the US acted very much like other industries.

By delving into the historical archives of major gun manufacturers from the early 1800s to the 1920s, the book shows how commercial forces—advertisement, marketing, economic exigencies/considerations—crucially shaped what we see today as a gun mystique.

One of the main findings in the book is the extent to which that mystique was developed/refined/marketed by the gun industry itself (“astroturfed”, as it were). And this happened not during the years of the “Wild West”—or of the frontier of the 1800s—but very much in the post-frontier, urbanizing, modernizing world of the early 1900s. And beyond, well into the Cold War decades.

The gun industry didn’t singlehandedly create this mystique. But my book restores the gun industry as a crucial and almost entirely overlooked aspect of the gun culture. In the 1800s the gun was something needed but not (necessarily) loved—in the 1900s, the gun was something not (necessarily) needed, but loved.

9) What surprised you during your research for the 2016 book? 

So many things.

When we approach guns first as a business, new facets emerge—for example, the “American” gun culture was very much a non-American, international phenomenon. The largest gun manufacturers through most of the 1800s based their business on non-US military contracts and on non-US sales. So much so that when I read through the local newspaper for the tiny town of Ilion, New York, where Remington was based, I’d find small items about lavish banquets held for visiting arms inspectors from Egypt or for visiting sultans. In their formative years the gun industry was arming the world much more than it was arming America. Throw a dart at a map and you’d be hard pressed to hit a place that wasn’t armed by WinchesterColt’s, Remington, or Smith & Wesson.

It also surprised me to see how difficult it was for the gun industry to establish the domestic/civilian market for guns that we might guess came effortlessly, given the assumption of American gun love. Eventually that market did become the preferred one for Winchester, for example, but Americans had surprisingly dowdy tastes in guns in the 1800s, choosing less expensive and less glamorous options than the iconic names associated today with American gun culture.

And it was a surprise to delve deeply into the marketing ingenuity of the gun industry in the early 1900s. You can see glimmers of the 21st-century gun mystique in its infancy in the early 20th century.

My inspiration for beginning this project, however, was the legend of Sarah Winchester, the gun heiress who came to believe that she was being haunted by the spirits of all of those killed by Winchester rifles. Alas, I wasn’t ever able to find any proof of this story, which I treat as a counter-legend to all of the legends of the American gun. It’s a story of gun conscience, threaded through a story of gun ambition.

10) What are some of the best books to read to gain a better understanding of American gun-violence/gun-culture?

There are many excellent histories on the Second Amendment and on its interpretation.

The Gunning of America deliberately turned away from the Constitutional issues and toward the gun business as a business, so I’ll make some recommendations that are a bit more about gun violence and about the gun industry.

First, I’d recommend filmmaker and journalist Sue Hilderbrand’s innovative, carefully-observed, and award-winning documentary American Totem.

Adam Winkler’s Gunfight is still one of the best works to read on this topic.

Journalist Thomas Kapsidelis has written a sensitive and thoughtful work After Virginia Tech on a mass shooting and on what happens after the “thoughts and prayers” have been shared and after the vigils have been performed.

The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy have produced fascinating research on gun violence as a public health issue. I’d recommend especially Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis, edited by Daniel W. Webster and Jon S. Vernick.

Bullets into Bells: Poets & Citizens Respond to Gun Violence is a very interesting book on gun violence. It includes contributions from poets/citizens on gun violence. It’s edited by Brian Clements, Alexandra Teague, and Dean Rader.

I like all of these works because it’s hard to say—or even to think—something new about guns today. And yet these works achieve that feat.

I’ve been editing a book that raises interesting questions, in a different context, about the extent to which we can resolve problems “rationally” if we haven’t resolved the underlying, turbulent, often irrational elements that cause them to become major issues in the first place. Although I don’t have a book to recommend that achieves this goal with gun violence, I know that it’s a needed book. However, Richard Slotkin’s classic/brilliant work Gunfighter Nation does speak to the underlying tropes throughout American history that have enshrined the gun fighter as a central figure.

11) Was the push to “gun” America the first major advertising-campaign in history? 

The gun industry throughout its history was skilled at advertising, but I don’t think that any historian could say that the industry devised the “first major” advertising campaign. I wouldn’t say that. As measured how? And, of course, there was no singular campaign. Gun manufacturers never worked in lockstep because they were competing with each other and also competing to find ways to attract new consumers.

What is true is that the American gun industry was always on the cutting edge of marketing/advertising techniques. Most consequentially, in the early 20th century they shifted their sales philosophy, as did most other businesses, from meeting existing demand for a product to finding ways to create demand—and to stimulate demand.

I suppose that the invention of urgent “demand” for mouthwash is the most infamous example of this tectonic shift in advertising philosophy in the early 1900s. But guns would certainly be the most lethal example.

12) How much gun-advertising occurred prior to the 20th century?

From the early 1800s on, the gun industry was a marketing innovator. Samuel Colt was among the first, for example, to use customer testimonials—and some contend that he popularized if not outright coined the phrase “new and improved”.

The industry was among the first to use color lithograph illustrations in the late 1800s, beginning to move from a purely textual/informative approach to a more dramatic/visual one. And even in the 1800s they thought in a sophisticated/cutting-edge fashion about market segmentation and about targeted marketing, recognizing that they had to cater messages differently for military sales than for the (comparatively small) domestic/civilian consumer market.

But much of the sales work in the early 1800s and in the mid-1800s was boutique, and highly intensive. For example, the Winchester company/family, Remington, and the Colt’s company mostly courted large military contracts abroad—that enterprise didn’t centrally involve advertising, per se, but instead involved a globe-trotting sales force, personal appeals/demonstrations, and so on.

13) How sophisticated was this advertising-campaign? Advertising was maybe not as scientific back then.

It’s important historically not to talk about “this advertising campaign” as though the gun industry of the early 1900s conspired to produce one mystique about guns in America. That’s not the case, and is a common over-simplification.

The truth is either worse or better than that, depending on your perspective. The truth is that each manufacturer faced an urbanized, increasingly sedentary/white-collar, post-frontier world. And each manufacturer found ways—like any other business—to continue to market their product and to keep their product meaningful. How do you sell guns to a population that increasingly lives in cities? Or that is no longer moving westward or “settling” (vanquishing) the frontier? Or whose habitus is more the office and not the farm/ranch? How do you sell guns, in other words, to people who may not think that they need/want one?

So the story of the American gun mystique is either much more banal than or much more frightening than what we might think, because in some ways it emerged out of ordinary commercial forces/trends at the turn of the century. The gun mystique that we tend to think was always there—“Americans have always loved guns”—really flourished in the early 1900s, and in the mid-1900s, and into the Cold War years.

Gun advertisement changed qualitatively in the early 1900s from focusing on how the gun worked (the style of advertising in the 1800s) to focusing on how the gun made you feel.

Consider the contrast between my favorite Winchester advertisement from the mid-1800s, which was basically a page of extremely detailed instructions on how the “Volcanic Repeating Fire-Arm” worked, and one of my favorite advertisements from 1921, which ran in the Literary Digest and read: “You know [your son] wants a gun. But you don’t know how much he wants it. He can’t tell you. It’s beyond words.”

One of the most fascinating documents in the Winchester historical archive was a collection of internal bulletins to their sales force—tips about how to sell more guns in the early 1900s and on how to create demand. For example, one of these bulletins described the best way to hand a gun to the customer—it described the “right way to stimulate desire”. They invited the dealer to imagine the customer feeling the gun’s “comfortable cuddle to his shoulder, its smooth brown stock to his cheek”. Reading this, you get the sense that the modern relationship between customer and gun was, in a word, intimate. It was a love story.

Companies such as the WRAC also moved toward national advertising campaigns/ templates, by which they could amplify the same message in multiple spaces. For Winchester, perhaps the most arresting national campaign from the early 1900s appealed to young boys, especially, and had among other slogans: “What Every Real Boy Wants for Christmas.”

14) How did gun-advertising ultimately play out as it developed up to the present day?

In the 21st century, we see the fruition of those earlier trends.

Advertising didn’t single-handedly manufacture the gun mystique. But it contributed heavily to that mystique and is all but ignored in the historical narrative, so The Gunning of America tries to fill that gap in our understanding.

Over the last century Americans have come to think about guns totemistically. Some have come to value guns for their qualitative/emotional—and now even political—valences/qualities. We’ve come to tie guns to masculinity in complicated ways. In the 1800s, men used guns most often (not exclusively), but guns weren’t sold as a form of masculine certification—“every real boy wants a gun”—and guns weren’t valued by consumers as tokens of political belief/ideology.

I came from a politically mixed family. My late brother lived in Maryland, but was a libertarian conservative. He bought two guns because he wanted to make a statement against Maryland’s gun control laws through a political act of consumption—much as a progressive might buy hemp clothing or might drive a Prius. He never used the guns, nor did he need them, but they were a political statement that was worth the price to him.

What was once a tool is now valued because of its political/social/emotional attributes, because of the ways that it defines group/individual identity, or because of the ways that it makes a statement. But you could trace the genealogy of that shift—from the gun as something needed to the gun as something loved—back to early 20th-century advertising/marketing.

15) To what extent does advertising today work on skeptical/rebellious/challenging people? Everyone I know would say that advertising-tricks don’t work on them because they’re too skeptical/rebellious/challenging. And yet, businesses don’t advertise for the fun of it, so the advertising must be successful. I wonder how that works. I wonder what the psychology of it is. It almost seems like there might be a form of doublethink going on, although I’m not sure if that’s a real psychological phenomenon or how pervasive that really is. Decades ago, Noam Chomsky made this fascinating comment: “Ask people what their attitude is towards toothpaste-ads. Answer: they distrust them. But they still do what the toothpaste-ads say.…They [=the PR-industry] know perfectly well that if you put a beer-ad on television, nobody’s going to believe it. But if you repeat it over and over and if that’s all you hear and those are the images in your mind and so on and so forth, ultimately it sinks in. It establishes a kind of a framework of thinking and looking at things. So people can disbelieve every single sentence they hear and the end result is they believe the whole picture.”

I think that Chomsky’s absolutely correct about that.

Advertising happens because advertising works. We may not think that it does, but commercial forces are a major driver of tastes, aesthetics, preferences, values, and ideals. And this has been true throughout modern American history.

The best marketing disguises itself as such and disguises its origins as such—instead, it succeeds in feeling as if it’s a universal/timeless truth, in feeling as if it’s something that has always been there and has always been true. A narrative about guns that found its strongest articulation (although certainly not its only one) in early 20th-century marketing from the gun industry itself now feels like one of those timeless truths about American history: “We’ve always loved guns.”