The best books that have something new or surprising to say about American guns and gun culture

Pamela Haag Author Of The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture
By Pamela Haag

Who am I?

I got interested in American guns and gun culture through the backdoor. I’d never owned a gun, participated in gun control politics, or thought too much about guns at all. Guns might not have interested me—but ghosts did. I was beguiled by the haunting legend of the Winchester rifle heiress Sarah Winchester, who believed in the late 1800s that she was being tormented by the ghosts of all those killed by Winchester rifles. As I scoured the archives for rare glimpses of Sarah, however, it dawned on me that I was surrounded by boxes and boxes of largely unexplored sources about a much larger story, and secretive mystery: that of the gun industry itself.


I wrote...

The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture

By Pamela Haag,

Book cover of The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture

What is my book about?

The gun business was a business, and it acted like one. This book tells the history of the gun titans, especially the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, to show how commercial forces—marketing, advertisement, and the relentless quest for new markets and meanings for gunsshaped the American gun mystique and culture. It describes how the industry “sold” the American gun culture in the early 1900s, especially, infusing the gun with emotional, cultural, and other symbolic values even as its functional uses declined as the US urbanized and the frontier closed. Over time the American gun changed from something needed but not necessarily loved to something loved but not necessarily needed.

The books I picked & why

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Gunfight: My Battle Against the Industry That Radicalized America

By Ryan Busse,

Book cover of Gunfight: My Battle Against the Industry That Radicalized America

Why this book?

Busse offers the new perspective of an insider—an erstwhile gun executive. I’ve always held that the gun industry has gotten far too little attention historically, and that commercial forces substantially helped to create and then maintain the American gun mystique and culture long after the “frontier” closed. Busse’s work shows just how explicitly the gun industry today, since 9/11 and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, relies on “manufactured fear” to push products. The book teems with examples of fear marketing, including endorsements from social media celebrities that created a new breed of “couch commandos,” steeped in the “glorification of violence, the utter rejection of political correctness, and the freewheeling masculinity and objectification of women.” And in Busse’s view it’s not just that gun marketing has changed, but that the gun industry has transformed American culture itself, radicalizing it and shifting it toward authoritarianism.

We’ve seen and felt this malevolence of hate grow in the last two decades. But Busse’s book invites a surprising perspective on that malevolence. Maybe we’ve been overthinking it. To some extent it exists not because of tectonic changes like economic globalization or the decline of the working class or even changing gender roles but also—or perhaps simply—because the industry and its “puppetmaster,” as Busse calls the NRA, has relentlessly fed fear, misogyny, and malevolence to move units.


Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment

By Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz,

Book cover of Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment

Why this book?

Rather than reprising hackneyed debates between the usual political actors—for example, gun control liberals versus gun rights libertarians—this book argues that American ‘gun culture’ was never really about hunting, freedom fighters, the militia, or constitutional liberty in the first place. From the country’s inception, Dunbar-Ortiz describes, guns were about racial subjugation, the genocide of Native Americans, the enforcement of enslavement, and the privileges and wealth that flowed from this subordination to the dominating class.

For Dunbar-Ortiz, the use of guns for subjugation and the expropriation of labor, land, and wealth from non-white populations wasn’t lamentably incidental to the American gun culture but at its very heart. I especially appreciate how the author shifts the terrain of the gun discussion: This book left me wondering if we spend too much time thinking about what guns have meant in the abstract and too little about what guns have done in the specific—the often troubling legacy of which, the author suggests, lingers in gun violence today.


Columbine

By Dave Cullen,

Book cover of Columbine

Why this book?

Columbine is a masterful piece of reportage from a journalist who covered from the start what is now perceived almost as a tragic prototype of mass school shootings in the US. Through meticulous, painstaking research—and with a compassionate and keenly observant voice that I especially admired—Cullen unspools the consequential misperceptions about the Columbine shooters that have distorted popular understandings of the “school shooter” ever since through repetition and media simplification.

What’s new and surprising here, and that remains relevant years after the book’s first publication, is that Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylon Klebold weren’t victims of bullying, socially alienated by marauding gangs of “cool” kids and jocks, or radicalized by Goth culture. They had friends, jobs, and, perhaps most frightening of all, seemed largely to be average high school students, not appreciably different from our own children, who in fact did more bullying than they were bullied. “So we’re saddled with a false script” about “spectacle murders,” Cullen writes in a 2010 epilogue. “Does it matter?” Yes, Cullen’s brilliant work suggests. 


Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America

By Adam Winkler,

Book cover of Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America

Why this book?

I admire this book for its measured erudition on a topic (guns) that the author feels is the most formative cultural chasm in the US. Winkler, a renowned legal scholar, uses the 2008 Supreme Court Heller decision that enshrined the second amendment as an individual right to bear arms as the touchstone for a riveting and more wide-ranging investigation of the history of gun rights as well as gun control laws. Winkler finds historical precedents for the concept of an individual right (if not a mandate, in some cases) to bear arms.

However, what I found most surprising is Winkler’s account of the equally sturdy and deeply-rooted history of gun control and regulation. This revises the popular wisdom that gun control, essentially, has no history—that the US was a land of unfettered gun-toting and gun-owning that was only later thwarted by modern, liberal gun restrictions. On the contrary, by the time a more ideologically-driven group of libertarians began to challenge gun control legislation in the late-twentieth century, the US had accumulated many sediments of gun control legislation. Winkler shows that restrictions on guns have always coexisted historically with the notion of gun rights, and can’t be sheared away from the discussion of historical meaning, intention, and precedent.


Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline

By Jennifer Carlson,

Book cover of Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline

Why this book?

Jennifer Carlson, Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline, does the rare thing of actually asking gun owners (she interviewed sixty of them) why they have guns, and what guns mean to them. As a sociologist, Carlson immersed herself in the “gun carry culture”—Americans who carry guns with them in everyday life, which is a new wrinkle in American gun culture. I was surprised by many of her findings and insights, and in some cases I was struck by their elegance; for example, Americans carry guns because they feel the US is “in decline” because of social chaos, and “guns are perceived as solving the problem” of that chaos.

What’s new and surprising here, and that I especially appreciated, is that Carlson in her own words “does something different” in this book, rejecting both the “gun politics” narrative that the “gun culture is an affirmation of ‘conservative’ social values,” and the gun rights narrative that guns are about “heroic narratives of self-defense.” She suggests that guns are about neither in the gun carry culture. They’re about gun owners—both white and non-white—who see guns as a “sensible, morally upstanding solution to the problem of crime.” This book pairs in an interesting and provocative way with Busse’s insider account of gun marketing based on fear, misogyny, and militarism.


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