Thursday, December 20, 2012

Firearm violence- how we got here

Firearm violence – How We Got Here –and What Do We Do? A historical perspective

Our current pro and anti-gun situation didn’t just rise up and bite us. We set up this scenario when the Industrial Revolution, from the mid-18th Century to the 1850s, made possible the mass production and increased efficiency of firearms. The Civil War used those arms to preserve our Union by shedding a generation’s worth of blood. After the war, we were gunned up, had a chip on our shoulders and wanted a fresh start for our “Manifest Destiny.”

            Our present problems started with a weak post Civil War military, downsized to fight the sporadic Native American Wars and policing the Westward Expansion. Without military contracts, the firearms market was flat. Many civilians were former soldiers and familiar with military pattern weapons that became adapted to civilian needs: hunting, target shooting and self-defense. Cheap handguns glutted the eastern markets due to the low quality of politically-based police departments. Long guns reached out for the plains buffalo, marauding predators, and ethnic cleansing of Native Americans. Led by politicians, our military was poorly trained, poorly armed (troopers had to buy their own ammunition if they wanted to practice), and underfunded. The firearms manufacturers had to funnel their military-tested wares directly into civilian hands.

            Long guns as survival tools were in every wagon headed west. Pistols were virtually useless except in barroom brawls and to bolster the low self-esteem of flawed sociopaths. The six-gun toting myth of the gunfighter was born in the pens of the 19th Century “penny-dreadful” novel writers, many of whom never left the East. The large cattle outfits often didn’t permit their cowboys to own a revolver, because six-guns encouraged trouble and most cattle towns had tougher gun laws than we have today.

            But firearms technology belonged to the military contractors as rapid fire weapons designed to kill as many enemy as possible became a reality from civilian designers like John Browning. The main shift in military weapons came with the 1903 Springfield that went to France with our soldiers in 1917. They were the last military weapons that found a well-suited market in civilian hands. Trimmed of extra wood, the Springfield rifle became a standard on target ranges and in the hunting field.

            The M1 rifle that helped win World War II was the first semi-automatic standard infantry rifle. Built to rugged military specifications, it was too heavy for hunting and was only suited to military rifle competitions. Fire suppression – “spray and pray” tactics --reinforced by studies of World War II conflicts and low training standards needed to pump out maximum troop numbers,  became the military dictum. High capacity clips, high rate of fire, cheap to build, designed for field modification depending on combat mission – all these requirements were met by Eugene Stoner’s M-16 assault rifle and later models built on the same platform. They have also been applied to civilian versions from Colt, Bushmaster, Rock River Arms, LMT, Sig Sauer and others.

             From 1967 to today, military weapons – modified for law enforcement – have been designed for military missions and civilian use. Firearms manufacturers have forced advertising, video games, movies and heroic military imagery into a civilian demand. These manufacturers have turned fear of attack, fear of confiscation, fear of your neighbor and fear of government into selling tools.

Civilians who want these assault rifles (“modern sporting rifles” in manufacturer-speak) have bent over backwards to justify their purchases. Manufacturers justify sponsoring “Three-Gun Matches” (fast-paced rifle, pistol and shotgun) which are great competitions, but serve more as advertising while factory teams compete and gun brand loyalty is trumpeted. The assault rifle is a klutzy hunting companion to lug around all day tricked out with laser sights, bi-pods, flashlights, and interchangeable barrels. Anyone who needs a 30 round clip to bring down a whitetail deer should be spending more time on the range learning to shoot. For decades, we’ve survived with 3-shot maximum capacity magazines on shotguns and nobody complained. Anything more than a five-round magazine is a weapon. The archers and black powder muzzle-loader hunters have the right idea. Learn to hunt as well as to shoot.

Handguns have faced the same marketing of military technology. At one time, the revolver was queen of the side arms. Today, it is a quaint relic – except for the Taurus blasters that fire shotgun shells as well as large caliber pistol rounds. It is the small, flat, semi-automatic pistols by Glock, Baretta, Kimber and others that pack the heaviest loads in the lightest, hard-recoil weapons. Extended 15 round instant-changeable ammunition clips are big selling points as are laser beam and see-in-the-dark sights.

“Be prepared – whatever your mission,” has become the firearms manufacturers’ mantra. Leaving the house to go to work, or shopping, or to the barber, or to relax at a spa, or to find a job – or go to school – has become a gun buyer’s  “mission.” Until you’ve carried a gun for a living, you have no idea what a responsibility that extra weight on your hip or in your purse represents. A poorly aimed shot can kill an innocent bystander 5,000 feet away. There are an estimated 300 million guns in the United States. The most guns are owned by people for “self defense” with the least training. Low self-esteem kids are promised the power of their “heroes” though the magic of firepower. This is where we stand today. What to do?

Dial back the “mission-oriented combat fear mongering” in advertising. Civilian handguns can have a six-shot magazine. Rifles are limited to five-shot mags and shotguns stay at three-shot capacity. Manufacturers shift to target and hunting markets by spending ad budgets promoting local rifle, pistol and shotgun ranges for kids and adults. Make shooting a spectator sport once again with innovative designs, competitions and venues along the NASCAR model.  

American sport shooters are tired of being lumped in with the crazies on both sides of the firearms issue. You don’t take hammers away from carpenters who build a bad house. You train better carpenters. Kids and adults live in a tougher, media-centric world that can be a pressure cooker without understanding and mutual support. Lack of understanding breeds fear.  People build their own personal bunkers against all the bad stuff “out there.” Shooting sports are social recreations like golf, tennis, or running in the morning before breakfast. Homes, schools and workplaces are not supposed to be bunkers. Our society should be worth more than that.


Gerry Souter, Author of American Shooter – A personal history of gun culture in the United States, Potomac Books, Dulles, Virginia,,