Stars, stripes and bulletholes: America and the brutal business of its guns

With the election of Donald Trump the power of the US gun industry is being further consolidated.

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For those millions of Americans who believe the best way to make a fine day even finer is to go out and kill something, what better preparation than a visit to the store named Cabela’s? There are eighty-odd of these monster emporiums dotted around the United States, all peddling in enormous volume the necessaries for hunting and fishing and what we are led to think is the manly outdoor life.

Each is designed as a tourist destination – a Disneyland of death, a place of spectacle for the kiddies, or pleasing shock and awe for those with money and a lust for blood. At each store, an immense fibreglass Matterhorn dominates the sales floor, Styrofoam snow at the summit and lush plastic savannahs at the base, with stuffed elks and bison and pronghorn antelopes placed at the relative altitudes where they would have lived and been shot by skilled hunters. Behind the immense glass walls of the ­Cabela’s aquariums swim fish from sharks to salmon to sticklebacks, all waiting for the Cabela’s hook and the Cabela’s fly and the life-ending thud of a Cabela’s killing club.

Yet these are as nothing compared to the gun department at a Cabela’s and to the teak-and-leather-armchair comfort of the stores’ gun libraries. Here, you may purchase sufficient firepower to bring down a large stag or moose or grizzly bear, or else to wipe out a village, or a school, or the audience at a cinema, or the congregation in a church. A quick swipe of a credit card; then a swift pull of the trigger: everything in the gun world is so dismayingly quick.

The only snag is the pesky little matter of regulation. Recently I was at the Cabela’s in Rapid City, South Dakota, and felt suitably in awe of the rack upon rack of high-powered, action-man automatic rifles standing erect behind the counters. Eager young sales clerks swarmed towards me, toothsome smiles at the ready.

Experimentally, I asked: “How much for that one?” I pointed at a black Bushmaster AR-15, .223 calibre, the gun that was deployed to such murderous disadvantage in San Bernardino in December last year. The nice young man looked at the label: $700 and change with tax, he said. “Just what do I need to buy one?” I asked. “Credit card and driver’s licence – and about 15 minutes of your time while we run a quick check.”

He took my Amex card and smiled. A clerk took down the rifle. The first man took my licence, still smiling. Then he turned it over. His smile vanished.

“Goddam it!” he cried. “Massachusetts!” Now he was sore, irritated at losing the sale. “No way you’ll get approval with that. It’ll take at least two weeks, if at all. Darn. I thought you were from here.” His friend, cussedly putting the Bushmaster back on to its rack, spat out the word once again: “Massachusetts. Guess you must be some kind of communist?”

This year, and up to the day I am writing this, in mid-November, 12,871 men, women and children have died in the United States from gunshot wounds. Another 30,000 have been injured. Helping to create this battlescape of carnage was a handful of the 300 million guns – from tiny, single-shot Derringers to huge automatic weapons – that are privately owned, or bought legally from retailers such as Cabela’s, or else acquired illicitly in the shadowy undermarkets, and which help make America, this otherwise generous, good-hearted, ­forward-thinking, energetic, entrepreneurial, positive-minded and much-envied nation, the undisputed gun and gun-death headquarters of the world.

Gary Younge’s eloquently terrible book of reportage Another Day in the Death of America, by turns measured and wise and coldly furious, tells the stories of ten youngsters who died at the muzzle end of guns in America over the course of one randomly chosen day three years ago, Saturday 23 November 2013. The youngest victim was nine years old, the oldest 19. All were boys. Seven were black, two Hispanic, one white. Some were assassinated. Some died accidentally – one was showing a rifle to his friend while playing a video game, and didn’t know that his father (who did a year in prison for his carelessness) had left three shells in the chamber.

Another, a 16-year-old boy in Houston called Edwin Rajo, died when, as he and his best friend, a teenage girl called Camilla, were fooling around with a pistol, she put it to his chest and pulled the trigger. Playfully, he had told her: “Make out like you’re gonna shoot me.”

They assumed that because the clip was out the gun was empty . . . “I didn’t really know how to clear out the chamber,” says Camilla. “I didn’t really know it would go in there. Because it was my first gun.” She pressed it against his chest and pulled the trigger. Pop. Then silence. Edwin’s eyes widened in shock and pain; Camilla’s eyes widened in disbelief as she felt the gun recoil. “Oh shit, you shot me,” he said.

“Oh, sorry,” said Camilla. They stared at each other in a suspended moment, each realising they could not turn the clock back and that Edwin had little time left. “I picked him up to carry him downstairs. But when I looked at him his eyes were rolling back already,” says Camilla. “Basically he was already dying.”

The youngsters had been planning to go and see a litter of puppies in an adjoining block of abandoned flats. The pleasing banality of their Saturday intent had morphed into the wretched banality of a new statistic, personified by the ghastly ordinariness of Camilla’s reaction: “Oh, sorry.” Another killing so easily accomplished, another ten seconds on the nightly news, another shooting so quickly done, another life of promise so quickly undone.

Younge relates his chosen Saturday stories with the steady, near-clinical detachment that has helped make his 12 years of writing for the Guardian some of the best reportage from America in decades. That he has since returned with his young family to his native Britain robs this most troubled society of one of its most acutely needed observers, and he will be missed. His book, however, is a memorable valedictory.

Pamela Haag and Laura Trevelyan complement and complete Younge’s story, by examining the other, very different end: that of the businesses which manufacture the weapons, those beautiful, precise and now eminently affordable pieces of machinery that make the bloodletting so casually easy and so horrendously abundant. Both books concentrate on the establishment of what is lazily referred to as America’s “gun culture”, and specifically on the role played in the creation of that culture by the once-iconic, now near-defunct Winchester Repeating Arms Company of New Haven, Connecticut.

Trevelyan, a BBC journalist, is related to the firm’s founder, a former shirtmaker named Oliver Winchester (her pedigree is impeccable, as she is also kin to the historian G M Trevelyan), and her perspective in constructing this readable account of the family firm is necessarily somewhat personal and circumscribed. Haag, on the other hand, takes a more rigorous and academic approach, attempting to divine, by close scrutiny of Winchester company records as well as papers from the other big gunmakers Colt, Remington and Smith & Wesson, just how America has become so gun-hungry.

Is it because of an inherent aspect of the people: are Americans somehow different from the rest of the Earth’s inhabitants, and so given naturally to violence and impulsive combativeness? A century ago the historian Frederick Jackson Turner supposed this to be true, coining the so-called frontier thesis, which argued that the ever-westward movement of the early settlers, who pushed their way into uncolonised territory and dealt brutally with those who stood in their way, instilled in the national psyche a set of defining attitudes – violence and crudeness foremost among them – which obtain until today. Turner’s thesis has long since been discredited by more sober historians; but the bewildered many who wonder still why Americans have this lethal love affair with weaponry find in the “frontier thesis” an easy explanation.

Haag offers another rationale: it’s all a matter, to put it simply, of business. The big gun manufacturers, she writes, attached no special significance to the murderous nature of their products. They merely wanted – just as sewing-machine-makers and carmakers wanted – to sell as many of them as they could. And so, for decades, the likes of Winchester made guns efficiently and cheaply, they advertised them on every available billboard and in every available newspaper and magazine, and they relentlessly marketed their goods to specific sectors of the populace – safari-goers this day, pubescent boy-hunters the next day, frightened homebodies another; arms collectors this week, target-shooters the next – in pursuit of success, profit and commercial dominance. The arms-maker, we learn, “does not see himself as a villain . . . According to his lights he is simply a businessman who sells his wares in accordance with prevailing business practices. The uses to which his products are put and the results of his traffic are apparently of no concern . . .”

Yet there is a difference, one that allows gunmakers to occupy a unique place in American commerce. Ford, Chevrolet and Chrysler – likewise manufacturers of potentially lethal machines, after all – may have the same commercial ambition as do Winchester and Colt, but they are quite content to accept regulation, with the safety standards of their products required and enforced, the users of their products needing to be licensed, and their failures prosecuted. In stark contrast, little such regulation applies to gunmakers; and the ever-defiant, astonishingly powerful National Rifle Association, financed by the firearms industry, makes sure this remains so. The merest hint of regulatory interference brings down a fire of wrath that the stoutest congressman is reluctant to confront.

Now, with the election of Donald Trump – whose campaign was supported wholeheartedly by the NRA – this vast power of the US gun industry is being further consolidated. Given the fractious nature of the country, the fractious temper of the times, and what is certain to be the increasingly untrammelled availability of ever more powerful weaponry, expect yet more killings, yet more sadness and yet more pain.

And expect to hear ever more of the forgettable banalities that Gary Younge so perfectly captures: “Oh shit, you shot me” and its consequent rejoinder, “Oh, sorry.” 

Simon Winchester’s books include “The Men Who United the States” (William Collins)

“Another Day in the Death of America: 24 Hours. 8 States. 10 Young Lives Lost to Gun Violence” by Gary Younge is published by Guardian Faber (306pp, £16.99)
“The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture” by Pamela Haag is published by Basic Books (496pp, £20)
“The Winchester: Legend of the West” by Laura Trevelyan is published by I B Tauris (242pp, £20)

Gary Younge will appear at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on 26 November

This article appears in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile

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