In The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture, Haag offers an unconventional perspective on why gun ownership is so pervasive in the United States.
How did this book come to be?
I was lured into the topic by a ghost story. When I was a graduate student, I heard the story of Sarah Winchester, daughter-in-law of the rifle king Oliver Winchester. Legend holds that Sarah was a spiritualist who thought herself tormented by the ghosts of all the Winchester rifle casualties. I was captivated by Sarah and started researching her in 2007, but set the project aside. Then, after the Sandy Hook massacre, my mind returned to Sarah. But this time, I thought that maybe I was starting with the wrong Winchester. Her ghost story was a mystery, but perhaps the untold history of the gun industry was even more of a mystery. So I began to follow the money of the gun industry.
How would you summarize your book?
The Gunning of America fundamentally revises the history of guns and gun culture in America. By looking at the gun industry archives, it shows how the gun culture was made, and produced. And it weaves through the story of the gun industry a haunting tale of Sarah Winchester, the rifle heiress, who is a counter-legend to the gunslinger legends, a legend of gun conscience born out of Oliver Winchester’s gun ambition.
What are Americans’ biggest misconceptions about gun culture?
That we were simply born a gun culture; it was made, not born. That we have always “loved” guns and had a lot of them; gun mystique really grew in the postfrontier world of the 1900s. That the gun culture is all about the Second Amendment; it’s also about the gun industry that invented, patented, mass produced, marketed, distributed, and sold guns. And that Americans have an exceptional relationship to guns as a nation of cowboys; among other things, the gun industry first survived not by selling to American civilians but by selling internationally, so Americans are not the only ones with gun violence legacies of one kind or another.
Is demythologizing the gun that won the West likely to change any minds?
I don’t think my task is to change people’s minds so much as to tell the story as best I can. Having said that, however, I do think there’s a practical benefit to rethinking the Wild West myth that is so deeply engrained in our gun culture. Gun politics today stagger under the weight of our myths—and of false histories. The Gunning of America restores to the historical record the fact that the West was neither as gun-violent nor as gun-free as we tend to imagine.