America, the Dumping Ground


Review of Gun Country: Gun Capitalism, Culture, and Control in Cold War America, by Andrew McKevitt

Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2023


In 1633, Virginia’s colonial government issued a law prohibiting colonists from selling or trading “any gunns, powder, shott, or any armes or ammunition unto any Indian or Indians within this territorie.” Any colonist who did so “shall forfeite to publique uses all the goods and chattels that he or they then have to theire own use, and shall also suffer imprisonment”—strict penalties when compared with those for other seemingly equivalent offenses. Similar laws followed in 1647 and 1657. 

In 1659, though, Virginia changed course. That year they declared that “it is manifest that the nieghbouringe plantaions both of English and fforainers do plentifully furnish the Indians with gunns, powder & shott.” By selling guns to Native Americans, those other colonies improved their position in the trade in beaver pelts, “to our great losse and their profit,” and no matter what Virginia did, the neighboring tribes had all the weapons and ammunition they wanted. Acknowledging the limits of their authorities, the 1659 law declared that “It is enacted, that every man may freely trade for gunns, powder and shott: it derogateing nothing from our safey and adding much to our advantage."

Colonial Virginia failed to regulate the flow of firearms, even in the name of Virginians’ safety, when that regulation interfered with British colonists’ ability to buy and sell as they pleased. It was a failure that prefigured the phenomenon at the center of Andrew McKevitt’s Gun Country: Gun Capitalism, Culture, and Control in Cold War America: the United States’ inability to control the flow of weapons, even in the name of its citizens’ safety, when doing so conflicted with those citizens’ own desires to make a buck. More often than not, the buck making won. Such was the strength of what Andrew McKevitt calls “gun capitalism.” 

The combination of weapons and commerce takes center stage in Gun Country, a book which brings a genuinely new perspective to the history of guns in the US—and a convincing one. “Gun culture,” McKevitt writes, is “a robust consumer culture” (64). This consumer culture exploded along with American consumerism in general during the postwar era. Part of this story, then, coincides with the broader history of American consumerism. The 1950s and 1960s saw televisions, automobiles, and washing machines take their place in millions of homes, many in the newly-built suburbs. Guns, though, had their own dynamic: European governments had literal warehouses full of them, “the bounty of Europe’s half-century bacchanal of nation-state violence” (25). 

For reasons clear to almost every nation on earth, European governments did not want those weapons to circulate among citizens, so they sat there, collecting dust until a handful of American businessmen saw an opportunity. The US became a “dumping ground” for the world’s weapons. In World War II’s aftermath, at a time when Americans had more money to spend, guns were cheap. The result? There were 45 million guns in the United States in 1945; 25 years later that number had doubled. By the time Lee Harvey Oswald shot President Kennedy—using an Italian war-surplus rifle—the US had passed the point where the supply of guns could be brought into line with citizens’ safety. After another 25 years, the number of guns had again doubled, making the United States the first nation with more guns than people. Gun capitalism had reshaped the nation, and there was no turning back.

People tried, of course. Along with giving a history of the sale and purchase of guns, McKevitt traces concerned Americans’ belated reactions. These stories include the efforts of elected officials like Senator Thomas Dodd, and of citizens like Mark Borinsky and Laura Fermi, who tried to lead political movements toward disarmament and a safer society. He also traces the actions of the men—and it’s always men—who stood in their way. Businessmen like Sam Cummings (“no one did more to create the first postwar gun ‘problem’ than Sam Cummings” (21)) and activists like Harlon Carter either blocked or defanged all the earlier efforts to stem the tide of guns and gun sales. 

McKevitt’s telling of the story of gun control, gun rights, and gun culture in postwar America, by highlighting supply and consumerism, is a major reinterpretation of a story that other scholars have been telling in recent decades—and, again, a convincing one. The reinterpretation starts with the choice of time frame: this is not a history that traces US gun culture back to the colonial militias, the Second Amendment, or the frontier. Gun culture, like other consumer cultures, began in the aftermath of World War II.  

Even for the postwar period, the key moments of the traditional accounts appear here only briefly. The Black Panthers’ armed march into the heart of California’s state government has loomed large in Americans’ understanding of the history of gun control (bolstered by its key place in Adam Winkler’s 2011 Gunfight), but as McKevitt points out, “when the Panthers marched into the Assembly Chamber, the stunned legislators had already been working, for years in some cases, to confront the growing arsenal of war weapons in private hands” (78). 

In McKevitt’s retelling, armed Black radicalism shared the buildup with “right-wing vigilantism” amid the glut of cheap guns (77). Similarly, the NRA’s 1977 “revolt at Cincinnati,” also a standard turning point in histories of gun culture, was  “not so much a revolution as a restoration of an old regime” (180). The courts’ reinterpretation of the Second Amendment plays only a minor role in Gun Country, and rightly so since as McKevitt notes, “the Second Amendment did not produce the unparalleled US gun market; on the contrary, the largely unregulated and singular gun market generated a new influential interpretation of the Second Amendment that persists today.” (246)

But it was not only the actions of the NRA and the rest of the gun rights movement that prevented the US from stemming the flow of guns and, therefore, the rise in gun violence. When the federal government acted, it was usually ineffective. “If the ultimate goal of the [1968] Gun Control Act was to reduce violence,” McKevitt writes, “it didn’t work. Nor did it lessen the number of guns on American streets” (124). The 1991 Brady Bill “merely addressed some of the loopholes in the Gun Control Act” (218). The Federal Assault Weapons Ban passed a few years later “had little effect, in part because it didn’t last long enough to have one” (219). 

All of these laws were based either in the view that some guns were more dangerous than others or, more commonly, that some people were more dangerous than others (68-72). But none of this mattered much, as long as the total number of guns kept rising. “In the rare instances when it has acted,” McKevitt notes, “Congress has struggled to contain and reduce gun violence because it has legislated around the problem of plenty. Gun capitalism thrives and will continue to thrive because these laws have avoided confronting it” (261). 

McKevitt’s arguments, and the impressive documentation that he has gathered, will help reshape the way that historians and, hopefully, politicians and activists understand guns and gun violence in the US. There is, however, a curious absence in the book. The death toll, 30,000 Americans per year, drones in the background, unstoppable—but rarely the focus. We learn quite a lot, and quite touchingly, of the 1992 murder of Yoshihiro Hattori and the acquittal of his killer, Rodney Peairs. But when McKevitt points out that “For many Japanese, these events demonstrated America’s regression into a backward and uncivilized society” (222), McKevitt skips the obvious: the Japanese were correct. And it is off-putting to read that “grassroots warriors for gun rights were everyday men with working- or middle-class jobs” (190), or to see John Lott’s More Guns, Less Crime described as “provocative” (252) and not the more accurate “discredited,” while the death toll drones in the background.

There are passages where McKevitt does show the damage: the letters that gun control advocates received full of fantasies of racialized sexual violence (169) or the minister at Hattori’s funeral telling the mourners, “guns, guns, guns, not enough guns. When will private citizens have enough guns?” (227). And, sandwiched in the middle of the book, McKevitt points to the basic dilemma: “Mountains of data demonstrate that fewer guns mean fewer gun deaths,” but “the United states is simply too far gone for that solution” (102).

One other curious absence in the book: for all of the importance of gun capitalism for McKevitt’s argument, he never defines it, even if its outlines emerge clearly enough. It was a phenomenon that emerged in the 1950s from a combination of the actions of a relatively small number of businessmen who sold World War II surplus weapons to American citizens at a time when consumer culture was reshaping the nation. Again, this approach lets guns take their place alongside televisions and automobiles and washing machines as the products that newly well-off Americans procured for themselves. But Americans bought those products for themselves because they had jobs, including jobs producing those very products. 

So perhaps “gun capitalism” is the best term for this combination of consumerism and international trade. But it’s not perfect. The word “capitalism” brings with it a history that McKevitt seems hesitant to engage with. Capitalism is more than just consumerism, it is an economic system that produces. It produces wealth, produces products (“commodities”), produces customers. It reshapes societies, and does so especially when it produces producers. Capitalism’s biggest transformations come not when new consumer products arrive, but when new jobs arrive. And yet Gun Country is a story with many consumers but few producers. The most important gun makers in this story were states—not capitalists—who, during World War II, built guns as quickly as they could, before abandoning those guns when the war was over. The workers in those gun factories play no role in McKevitt’s story. The domestic gun manufacturers play a minor part in McKevitt’s story, and a mostly reactive one. In the end, this is mostly a story about consumerism, with a background of financial maneuverings.  

Tellingly, the index to Gun Country has no entry for capitalism. (It ought to appear between “California” and “Carmichael, Stokely.”) While there are other issues with that, in this case the indexer was correct—McKevitt leaves us to trust our own notions of what is, or is not, capitalism. This is a book about guns, and about how what McKevitt calls gun capitalism can retell the history of gun culture in the postwar US. McKevitt does not use this history of guns to retell the history of capitalism. This is a missed opportunity. 

Economists and economic historians have been arguing about capitalism for as long as capitalism has existed, probably longer. For its advocates, starting with Adam Smith then moving through Hayek and Friedman, free market economies are a force for good, allowing people to not only improve their material conditions but to lead freer lives. State intervention will hurt markets, and the process of even well-intentioned regulation will do more harm than good. 

Capitalism’s critics, on the other hand, see in capitalism a system that creates wealth for the few and misery for the many. These criticisms go back at least to William Blake’s bleak descriptions of industrializing London but took full intellectual form in Karl Marx’s writings. The free market, in these writings, did not bring freedom, but rather a system of wage slavery. For Marx and his early followers, capitalism was also an unstable system that contained within itself the seeds of its own destruction. In the Communist Manifesto, he wrote that in the expanse of capitalism, “What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.”

Marx’s prediction was horribly inaccurate, of course. No advanced capitalist society has had a proletarian revolution. Marx believed, wrongly, that free-market industrial capitalism would create a proletariat so large that the workers would throw off the shackles of private property. Instead, workers turned out to be consumers as interested in private property as anyone else. Marxist political activists may have been horrified, seeing workers choosing to spend their own money on better chains, but that was the workers’ choice. 

And yet gun capitalism, as McKevitt describes it, has required more than a few literal grave diggers and, in the near future, could well require far more. How many citizens of capitalist societies can die young, without affecting the health of the society as a whole? Second, and related, we might ask the same question of gun capitalism that scholars have asked of free-market industrial capitalism: has it made us freer? Twenty years ago, most Americans would have been willing to view gun rights as part of a free society, even if the Second Amendment fit uncomfortably with the other nine. But the increased frequency of mass shootings (especially in schools) and the resulting “hardening” of public spaces, have led many people to see widespread gun ownership as a threat to Americans’ ability to live freely.

Post-Marxist theories of capitalism as a destructive force are not unique to guns. One of humanity’s central dilemmas is whether the planet’s climate can survive the industrial age, along with the related debates about whether solutions to climate change should take advantage of market forces or confront them head on. The freedom to pollute is the freedom to pollute others’ air and water. The freedom to heat the atmosphere is the freedom to, eventually, flood coastlines around the world and, with that, the freedom to live on those coastlines is lost. 

Guns, too, exist in this imbalance. The freedom to arm oneself is the freedom to intimidate; the freedom to sell guns to everyone is the freedom to destroy the safety of public spaces. A society with widespread television ownership may well be a society that chooses entertainment over social justice. But a society with widespread gun ownership is a society that destroys itself, as the United States has been proving over and over. Bringing gun capitalism into the history of postwar America brings with it the possibility to engage in these debates. Gun Country shows us that door but does not open it. 

Criticizing an author for having written one book and not a different one is among the most tedious forms of book reviews. So it is only fair to note that a book which investigated gun capitalism through all of its abstractions—one that tried to integrate gun deaths into Marx’s theory of the commodity form, say, or which used actuarial tables and quality of life surveys to quantify the impact of gun capitalism on society—would have been a rather turgid affair, appealing to far fewer readers. These questions will have to wait for another opportunity. They are, however, worth investigating by someone, at some point. 

McKevitt ends the book on an optimistic note: “If the gun country of the postwar era could be made, it can be unmade. Other worlds are possible” (263). But make no mistake: for all of its energetic writing and for all of the bigger-than-life characters who fill it, this is a profoundly sad book. Again: the sadness comes from the death toll, 30,000 Americans per year, droning in the background, unstoppable. The sadness comes from places like Uvalde, Parkland, Sutherland Springs, Columbine, or Las Vegas (each of which get only brief mentions). But all of those stories can be found in many other books on guns in America. In this book, the sadness comes from the ineptitude of politicians who failed to recognize the nature of the problem they were facing, from missed opportunities before the US was “too far gone,” from a nation which “only collectively tried to make sense of their gun culture for the first time in 1968” (88), and from gun rights advocates’ endless series of “successes” that flooded the nation with deadly weapons, allowing for the creation of an individualistic consumer culture that dresses up as some sort of patriotic constitutionalism and terrorizes all those who oppose it. “How do we reckon with these self-described ‘gun nuts’?” McKevitt asks—people who as early as the 1960s may have been outliers from the larger gun culture but, for those hoping to stop gun violence, “represented their visceral frontline experience with the most vocal of gun owners” (168). How, indeed. 

This is a book that as many people as possible should read—starting with scholars who study guns, scholars who study postwar America, and concerned citizens wondering how we wound up in this mess. It is also a book that deserves to be reprinted many times and, should that happen, the publisher should spring for a new index. The problem with skipping from California to Carmichael is not that there is no entry for capitalism, but rather that there is no entry there for Jennifer Carlson, a sociologist whom McKevitt discusses twice. (The book also includes substantive discussions of historian Saul Cornell’s work on the Second Amendment which is also not indexed). Nor are there entries for Uvalde, Parkland, Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs, or Columbine. The appropriate amount of space to devote to each of those topics is, of course, the author’s prerogative. The choice to leave them out of the index, not so much.




Posted on 27 June 2024

NOAH SHUSTERMAN is an historian of Early Modern Europe and the Atlantic World who teaches in the Department of History at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is the author most recently of Armed Citizens: The Road from Ancient Rome to the Second Amendment (University of Virginia Press).