As Republicans in the U.S. Congress slow walk minimalistic gun legislation in the hope of appeasing the gun lobby while pretending to do something in hope of retaining their seats, it behooves us to understand how we got here.
As a gun owner, hunter, and competitive shooter who grew up in gun culture, I have long been interested in the history of guns, both military and civilian. The article from the New Yorker that I have pasted below does a great job of placing my experience and attitudes toward American guns and gun culture in that history.
Samuel Walker and fifteen other Texas Rangers rode into the countryside to hunt for Comanches in June of 1844. The Lords of the South Plains, as the Comanches were known, had ruled the American Southwest for a century; by displacing other Native American nations, raiding colonial outposts, enslaving people, and extracting tribute, they enacted what the historian Pekka Hämäläinen, in his book “The Comanche Empire,” called a story of role reversal, “in which Indians expand, dictate, and prosper, and European colonists resist, retreat, and struggle to survive.” About a week into Walker’s expedition, dozens of Comanche horsemen appeared behind the Rangers, armed and shouting taunts in Spanish. More were almost certainly hidden nearby.
That day, the Rangers carried rifles—their usual weapons. But each man also wore a pair of Colt Paterson revolvers, new and mostly untested. The guns used rotating cylinders; by drawing back a hammer, a shooter turned the cylinder, putting one of five chambers in position to fire. Intellectually, the Rangers understood the value of these weapons: there’d be no need to reload until all five rounds had been expended. Still, the guns were small and inaccurate, and so the Texans reached for their rifles first. The Comanches rode back and forth, goading them into taking shots. As the Rangers used up their ammunition, more Comanches emerged—sixty or seventy all told.
Eventually, the Rangers ran out of bullets, and the Comanches closed in. As the riders rushed across the prairie, the Rangers drew their pistols. The men fired a volley—and then, without pause, another and another. Comanches tumbled from their saddles. The Rangers “had a shot for every finger on the hand,” a surviving Comanche recalled. The Native Americans fled, and the Rangers followed; by the end of the day, sixteen Rangers had killed twenty Comanches and wounded thirty more, dealing most of the damage with their Colts. “These daring Indians had always supposed themselves superior to us, man to man, on horse,” Walker later wrote. “The result of this engagement was such as to intimidate them and enable us to treat with them.” This seemed to promise the decline of the Comanche empire and the security of Texas as a burgeoning slave state.
After the battle, Walker wrote to Samuel Colt, the inventor of the revolver, to inquire about buying more guns. But he discovered that Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company had gone out of business. Colt had been making money by supplying his “repeating rifles” to soldiers during the so-called second Seminole War, but “by exterminating the Indians, and bringing the war rapidly to an end, the market for the arms was destroyed,” he later wrote. (“The thing was so good it ruined itself,” his lawyer complained.) As the historian Pamela Haag writes, in “The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture,” there was no mass market for firearms in nineteenth-century America. In fact, since before the country was founded, its appetite for guns had been so low as to be considered a security liability. A report from 1756 on the military preparedness of the colonies found that no more than half of militia members were armed, often with broken, ungainly, outdated, badly designed, or poorly maintained weapons; in 1776, the governor of Rhode Island told George Washington that the colonists had almost entirely “disposed of their arms,” because they believed themselves to be in “a perfect state of security.” When the Revolutionary War began, the scarcity of gunsmiths and guns forced the colonies to purchase tens of thousands of muskets from France.
Colt’s fast-firing revolvers were a significant innovation in gun design. But the generals who awarded firearms contracts weren’t impressed—they tended to focus on the accuracy of guns while undervaluing their speed. General James Wolfe Ripley, the Union Army’s chief of ordnance during the Civil War, saw repeating weapons as a “great evil” that wasted ammunition, and preferred rifles that a shooter could carefully and accurately aim. Walker and Colt lived in what now looks to us like a prehistoric ballistic world. Guns were slow and inaccurate. Innovation was possible but stymied by dogma. And the market for guns was too small to sustain large gun manufacturers.
Before starting his weapons company, Colt had travelled America as “Dr. Coult of New York, London, and Calcutta,” administering nitrous oxide to spectators, promising that the gas would help them laugh, dance, sing, and perform startling feats of “muscular exertion.” He decided to use his flair for advertising to restart his company on a new basis, removed from the boom and bust of wartime gun sales. He began selling abroad, attempting to smuggle guns into Russia in bales of cotton, supplying guns to soldiers of fortune in Cuba, and equipping the British in South Africa and “men of brains” in Mexico. At the same time, he worked at building up the U.S. civilian market. (“The Government may go to the Devil and I will go my own way,” Colt said.) He pioneered the use of celebrity endorsements, commissioning the well-known painter George Catlin to create absurd portraits in which Colt appeared shooting buffalo and jaguar with Colt revolvers. A native of Hartford, he persuaded the governor of Connecticut to make him a lieutenant colonel in that state’s militia; using that honorific, he introduced himself at foreign courts, presenting European royalty with lavishly engraved Colts. When a Hartford clergyman’s home was burglarized, Colt sent over a revolver along with a message declaring the gun “my latest work on ‘Moral Reform.’ ”
Colt used the phrase “new and improved” to entice buyers, and published advertorials about his guns in magazines. To stoke sales, he suggested dangers around every corner; he wrote to the Mormon leader Brigham Young, advising him to buy Colt revolvers as a defense against “raids of savages” and “white marauders.” Later, he named several streets in Coltsville, his factory town, after prominent Native Americans—Sequassen, Wawarme, Masseek, Curcombe, and Weehassat—the names conjuring the images of Indian-fighting that had burnished his weapons’ reputation.
“What Colt invented was a system of myths, symbols, stagecraft, and distribution,” the historian William Hosley writes, in “Colt: The Making of an American Legend.” His guns were sold not just as tools but as a way to access “the celebrity, glamour and dreams of its namesake.” As Haag shows, other gun manufacturers soon picked up on the strategy. The Winchester Repeating Arms Company, which was also trying to grow its civilian market by adopting a policy of “scattering” its guns—rejecting higher-volume orders in favor of smaller buyers who might disperse its weaponry more broadly—began advertising its products as ideal for “single individuals, traveling through a wild country.” Gun manufacturers, Haag writes, began to employ “predicament” advertising, in which lone travellers were portrayed facing bears or outlaws. The only way out was through violence.
Last year, versions of these nineteenth-century messages persuaded Americans to buy nearly twenty million guns. In 2020, gun violence took the lives of twenty thousand Americans; add in suicides, and more than forty-five thousand lives were ended by firearms. Yet, if the messages were familiar, the guns themselves were transformed. In 1620, John Billington, the man who would become America’s first convicted murderer, arrived on the Mayflower; in 1630, he killed John Newcomen, a fellow-member of the Plymouth Colony, after they got into an argument in the woods. According to one story, as Billington took aim, Newcomen fled toward the shelter of nearby trees—an evasive maneuver that had every chance of success, given firearms technology at that time. Back then, reloading a gun was an arduous process, requiring the shooter to drop the weapon from the shoulder, point its muzzle upward, pour in gunpowder, shove in a bullet alongside a small piece of cloth, push both down the barrel with a ramrod until the bullet was seated against the powder charge, and then prime the firing mechanism. If the weapon had a cutting-edge flintlock ignition system, the shooter would additionally need to half-cock the hammer of his weapon, open a little pan sitting on top of the rifle, pour in gunpowder, close the pan, and set the hammer to full cock before taking aim. (Billington aimed true, and his rudimentary bullet crushed through Newcomen’s shoulder, killing him soon after.)
Compared with Billington’s gun—or Walker’s—a modern firearm is like a monster truck alongside a horse and cart. The anthropologist Thomas McDade has observed that, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the axe was “no less lethal a weapon” than the gun, but today otherwise ordinary Americans can unleash devastating firepower—as happened on May 14th, when a white supremacist killed ten people in a supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood of Buffalo, New York, and again on May 24th, when an eighteen-year-old gunman killed twenty-one people in an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, nineteen of them children.
We wonder how we got here. How did guns grow so powerful—both technically and culturally? Like automobiles, firearms have grown increasingly advanced while becoming more than machines; they are both devices and symbols, possessing a cultural magnetism that makes them, for many people, the cornerstone of a way of life. They’re tools that kill efficiently while also promising power, respect, and equality—liberation from tyranny, from crime, from weakness. They’re a heritage from an imagined past, and a fantasy about protecting our future. It’s taken nearly two hundred years for guns to become the problem they are today. The story of how they acquired their power explains why, now, they are so hard to stop.
On July 3, 1863, line after line of Confederate soldiers, dressed in gray, marched forward as soldiers had done in decades past, charging toward a weak point in the Union line at Gettysburg. But weaponry had changed. Men fell “like wheat before the garner,” as one veteran would later describe it. Two years earlier, when the Civil War had begun, both armies primarily carried muzzle-loading smoothbore muskets. They’d rapidly switched, however, to .58-calibre rifles that fired a groundbreaking conical bullet called the minié ball. The bullet was easier to load and more aerodynamic than previous designs. It allowed soldiers to fire farther and more accurately upon rushing enemy troops, making massed charges deadly and Napoleonic infantry tactics obsolete.
In white Southerners’ popular memory, Pickett’s Charge, as the attack became known, would be seen as a gallant act of doomed bravery—the high-water mark of the Confederacy, marking the northernmost point that the rebels reached. But, in fact, it was a technologically aided slaughter, in which accurate, long-flying bullets insured a casualty rate of more than fifty per cent for the charging men. During the course of the war, the minié ball would kill tens of thousands; relatively few Civil War soldiers died of bayonet wounds, in part because they rarely got close enough to their enemies to receive them. As a result, tactics changed. Soldiers stopped firing at one another from close ranks; instead, they began arranging themselves into dispersed lines and firing from behind covered positions, such as walls, trees, rocks, fences, or elaborate fortifications. Slowly, this defensive style turned into an offensive one. One group of attacking soldiers could provide “covering fire” by shooting at an enemy position, forcing its soldiers to keep their heads down while another attacking unit moved forward safely.
Soldiers providing covering fire didn’t depend on accuracy. They often shot blindly, not even bothering to put the gunsights to their eyes. In theory, the units maneuvering into position would use precision fire to kill. But in practice this was rarely the case. Eventually, studies conducted during the Second World War would confirm that most battlefield bullet wounds occur randomly, and at close range. War movies often depict heroic point-target aiming and killing, and yet soldiers are often terrified; as their hearts surge with adrenaline, blood flows away from their extremities, impairing their fine-motor control as they spray gunfire toward their foes.
During the First World War, the use of machine guns epitomized this approach. The area fire created by such weapons removed the human element in aiming altogether. A machine gunner, whom the military historian John Keegan has characterized less as a soldier than a “machine-minder,” traversed his target area by applying a “two-inch tap” to the breeches of his weapon, sending it two inches to the right or left on a set of tracks; he tapped repeatedly until the gun reached a stop at one end, then tapped in the opposite direction. In this way, the area in front of the gun could be blanketed with bullets without the gunner having eyes on any particular target. Since each round had a slightly different trajectory, the target zone would be saturated with fire, creating a deadly area known as “the beaten zone.” As one Japanese officer put it, during the Russo-Japanese War, the machine gun could “be made to sprinkle its shot as roads are watered with a hose.” Kenneth Koch, the poet and Second World War veteran, would later recall how, “As machines make ice, / we made dead enemy soldiers”; writing in the Times, Brian Van Reet, a combat veteran of the Iraq War, has described how he and the men he served with often “fired nearly blindly, under the influence of a strange and numbing feeling of terror, rage and exhilaration. . . . Few of us really knew whom, if anyone, we had hit.”
The unromantic reality of increasingly industrialized war wasn’t likely to capture the public imagination, and so, in ads, dime-store novels, and movies, gun companies proposed a self-serving alternative history. Though Southern Plains tribes like the Comanches had been decimated less by firearms than by disease, Winchester described its Model 73 repeating rifle—a specially promoted gun that had been used by Billy the Kid and Buffalo Bill—as “the gun that won the West”; this legend helped the company to sell almost thirty times as many guns in 1914 as it had in 1875. Blending the military and civilian domains, Winchester advertised its weapons as “For Military and Sporting Purposes”; Colt marketed its Single Action Army model as “the Peacemaker,” a weapon “for all who travel among dangerous communities.” The Thompson machine gun, developed as a trench-clearing tool during the First World War, was advertised through images showing cowboys defending their ranches against marauders; ads proclaimed the machine gun “the ideal weapon for the protection of large estates, ranches, plantations, etc.” A deadly but inaccurate weapon of industrialized war was recast as a precision instrument for taming the supposedly savage frontier.
On a deeper level, the ads were political, recasting the American ideals of freedom and equality in martial terms. In gun marketing, self-reliance, respect, and freedom of movement were tied to the capacity to kill: “Abe Lincoln may have freed all men, but Sam Colt made them equal,” one advertisement read. The mythology of the hyper-violent West became so embedded in American consciousness that Teddy Roosevelt could construct a notion of American identity around it. In “The Winning of the West,” he painted a portrait of hard life on the frontier marked by continual violence; the effect of this continual hardship was to “weld together into one people the representatives of these numerous and widely different races.” According to this view of history, American identity was in large part a product of violence.
During the Second World War, Solomon Zuckerman, a scientist advising the Allies, made a surprising discovery. While examining an X-ray of a wounded soldier evacuated from Dunkirk, Zuckerman noticed that there was something odd about the way in which he’d been hurt: a grievous injury had resulted from a small metal fragment, barely larger than a pinhead, lodged in the man’s kidney. Other soldiers Zuckerman examined had similar injuries. At the time, experts usually considered fragments from exploding shells and grenades dangerous only if they weighed more than a twenty-fifth of an ounce—and yet one soldier had been severely hurt by a far lighter shard, one weighing less than ten milligrams. Another’s forearm had been shattered by a minute metal splinter. According to the science of ballistics, such injuries made no sense.
Zuckerman, who was born in South Africa, had trained as an anatomist and a zoologist. During the war, he’d learned to see horrific violence scientifically. He had studied the accuracy of bombing raids and the lethal effects of bomb blasts; his goal was to learn how much force living bodies could take, and where they were most vulnerable. His work had helped the Royal Air Force maximize the casualties caused by its bombs. At the same time, his steel “Zuckerman helmet,” worn by civilians and civil-defense organizations, protected British heads from falling debris during enemy raids.
Now, working alongside Paul Libessart, a French engineer who had fled to England after the fall of France, Zuckerman turned to the science of wound ballistics—the study of the manner in which projectiles damage human bodies. In the mid-nineteenth century, the deadliness of a firearm had often been judged by how deeply its bullets penetrated into wood; in the eighteen-eighties, the metric had shifted to whether a bullet could kill a cavalry horse. It was obvious that some bullets and weapons had more “stopping power” than others, but it wasn’t clear exactly how that power worked. Zuckerman wanted to solve the mystery.
Soldiers tended to assume that stopping a rush required heavier, more powerful bullets. In the first half of the twentieth century, American researchers conducted experiments of dubious value designed to prove this point. They hung cadavers in the air and shot them while onlookers estimated how far the corpses swung; they shot cows and observed the effects. Eventually, the U.S. Army concluded that kinetic energy—a combination of bullet weight and speed—was the crucial factor in bullet lethality.
The Dunkirk injuries convinced Zuckerman that something was missing from this story. He began to think that the over-all kinetic energy of a bullet might be less important than how much of that energy was transferred to a body during impact. He and his team tried firing a steel ball into a phone book, then repeating the shot with the book placed behind a block of gelatin, which could serve as a proxy for a human body. By measuring how much the gelatin slowed the bullet, they could guess at how much energy it transferred. They found that some varieties of bullets slowed down more than others, transferring more energy. Later, the team shot small metal balls through the bodies of unfortunate rabbits. By means of a technique called shadowgraphy—the analysis of shadows cast by bodies in rapid motion—they captured the moment of energy transfer. In the split second after impact, Zuckerman wrote, the limbs “ballooned due to the formation of an internal cavity.”
Wounds caused by firearms had long been identified with a “permanent cavity” created when the bullet itself physically crushed the body’s tissues. But Zuckerman’s images captured a different kind of injury: a “temporary cavity,” formed when the slowing bullet transferred energy to the surrounding soft tissue. Just as a diver creates ripples as she enters the water, so a bullet transfers momentum to whatever blood, spleen, brain, or muscle happens to surround its entry point. These ripples produce blunt trauma, pulping tissue and breaking bones. This was how tiny slivers of metal could shatter a man’s arm.
Zuckerman’s discoveries came too late to change the way soldiers were armed during the Second World War. But subsequent military studies, including a groundbreaking report written by the U.S. military’s Operations Research Office during the Korean War, measured a gun’s lethality by looking at the maximum size of the temporary cavity. The report concluded that “smaller bullets can be used to produce battlefield physiological effects at least equivalent to those of the present standard .30 cal.” Although the Army remained committed to powerful, accurate, larger-calibre weapons, a small insurgency within it began advocating a novel idea known as S.C.H.V.: small-calibre, high-velocity. Adherents to S.C.H.V. proposed that lighter rifles loaded with smaller bullets could allow soldiers to carry more rounds and fire with less recoil, while still causing horrible wounds.
These arguments dovetailed with work being done by an engineer named Eugene Stoner, who was tinkering in his garage in Hollywood, California, during the nineteen-fifties. Shy, reserved, and opinionated, Stoner was a Marine Corps veteran who’d fought in the Pacific theatre; he lacked a formal engineering education, but had worked his way up through the machine shop at the Fairchild Engine & Airplane Corporation. By the middle of the decade, Stoner had begun to apply his experience with aircraft ordnance to firearms. Using advanced alloys and lightweight parts that were common in aeronautics, he started developing a firing mechanism for a new kind of lightweight rifle. Success was slow in coming; the barrel of Stoner’s first prototype burst in Army tests. The weight of U.S. military opinion was in favor of a heavier, more powerful weapon, the M14. His fortunes began to change when one of S.C.H.V.’s boosters, General Willard G. Wyman, asked Stoner to modify his rifle so that it could shoot a redesigned .223-calibre round weighing roughly a tenth of an ounce.
The resulting rifle, the AR-15, could fire its .223 round at more than thirty-two hundred feet per second—nearly three times the speed of sound. Stoner later explained the advantages of its smaller bullets to Congress. All bullets are “stabilized to fly through the air,” he said, but “when they hit something, they immediately go unstable.” Tiny bullets, having a smaller mass, grow unstable faster, and tumble through the body, causing disproportionate damage. As a smaller bullet tumbles, it transfers its energy to your organs and creates shock waves strong enough to sever muscle; if such a bullet strikes your head, the pressure it creates can shatter your skull or squeeze brain tissue through your sinuses. It might also fragment inside the body, scattering small pieces of itself and increasing the damage.
As the Vietnam War began to ramp up, it was clear that U.S. soldiers faced a small-arms imbalance. American troops were armed with big, heavy, and extremely accurate M14 rifles; the North Vietnamese had AK-47s—sturdy, reliable weapons that children could, and often did, use. AK-47s were terribly inaccurate; expert shooters could struggle to put ten consecutive rounds on target from three hundred metres. Still, the U.S. military concluded that the M14 was an imperfect combat weapon. It had too much recoil to be fired effectively on automatic. Its heavy rounds imposed logistical limits on how much ammo could be carried. The journalist C. J. Chivers wrote in his book “The Gun” that, in fielding the M14, American soldiers fell victim to the “romance” of “old-fashioned rifles and the sharpshooting riflemen who carried them.” What they needed was an easy-to-handle assault rifle that could give them so-called fire superiority in close, frightening encounters.
Colt’s firearms division took a gamble on the AR-15, buying the manufacturing rights for the rifle from Stoner in 1959 and embarking on a unique marketing campaign. The firm invited the Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay to a party at a gentleman’s farm, where he fired the gun into a series of watermelons, creating bright-red explosions with each successful shot. The rifle was also tested on human heads imported from India, which were encased in ballistic gelatin and shot at from various distances. By 1964, the AR-15 had been adapted into the M16—an automatic, magazine-fed, gas-operated assault rifle with smaller rounds, which could be carried in greater numbers and caused less recoil. The rifle was adopted quickly, without the usual process of debugging and refinement, and soldiers found that it often broke down in the field, jamming or failing to fire in combat. Soldiers died with jammed rifles in their hands while the design was revised. Meanwhile, Colt posted twelve million dollars in profits in 1967; Stoner became a wealthy celebrity.
As the twentieth century drew to a close, firearms manufacturers kept updating their stories. Crime rates spiked, and so the image of the frontier hero fending off nonwhite marauders was revised for the era of vigilante-vengeance films such as “Death Wish” and “The Exterminator.” The National Rifle Association ran ads asking “Why can’t a policeman be there when you need him?” and “Should you shoot a rapist before he cuts your throat?” In 1993, the shootout between members of the Branch Davidian cult and agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms sparked an anti-government wave. The N.R.A. added a new twist to the story, with ads that asked, “What’s the first step to a police state?” Guns had once been tools for the frontier spaces that the government couldn’t reach. Now, according to the gun lobby, they were a necessity for all spaces, at all times. When crime and authoritarianism run rampant, the Wild West is everywhere.
Crime fell in the late nineties. So did gun production, with just over five million units manufactured in 1994, and under three million in 2001. The 9/11 attacks provoked a modest recovery. But 2008 brought a seismic transformation—the so-called Barack Boom. The election of America’s first Black President coincided with what one gun-industry newsletter called an “incessant consumer demand for high-capacity pistols and military style rifles.” During the 2008 election, the N.R.A. warned that never in its history had it “faced a presidential candidate—and hundreds of candidates running for other offices—with such a deep-rooted hatred of firearm freedoms.” In 2013, despite crime rates that were lower than they’d been in decades, the head of the N.R.A., Wayne LaPierre, claimed that, under President Barack Obama, “Latin American drug gangs” had “invaded every city of significant size in the United States.” Gun marketing and political messaging merged more deeply, and in the last year of Obama’s second term gun manufacturers produced a record 11,497,441 guns for domestic consumption.
When John Billington came upon John Newcomen, his weapon did not promise him his manhood, or protection from his fellow-colonists, or escape from the coercive state under which he suffered. His gun did not claim to be the bedrock of his freedom or the means by which all men would be made to treat him as an equal. When Billington pulled his gun’s trigger, the bullet he sent forth was a simple metal sphere travelling at less than half the speed of the bullets fired by today’s mass shooters. It moved awkwardly through the air, and, in the body, it damaged only what was directly in its path. And it was a lone projectile. Billington’s gun, which took many minutes to reload, was incapable of creating a beaten zone. He had a tool suitable for murder—but not mass murder.
The guns that today’s Americans buy and sell by the millions are perfectly suited for that purpose. Civilian AR-15s differ from military versions because, in 1986, the Firearm Owners Protection Act banned the transfer or possession of machine guns; as a result, a mechanical block on civilian ARs requires the shooter to pull the trigger to release another bullet. But clever gun enthusiasts have figured out an easy way to bypass this mechanism: a device known as a bump stock uses the energy of the rifle’s recoil to assist in bumping the trigger against the shooter’s finger. The original military version of the AR-15 can fire eight hundred rounds per minute; an unmodified civilian AR-15 might fire forty-five to sixty. A version with a bump stock can fire somewhere between four hundred and eight hundred. In the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, a sixty-four-year-old man without advanced marksmanship skills or military training used a bump stock to achieve something like fully automated rifle fire, sending more than eleven hundred rounds into a crowd in the course of ten minutes, killing fifty-eight people and wounding more than five hundred. It would have taken Billington six hours to fire that many bullets.
Because a bump stock causes the rifle to slide forward and backward as it fires, it diminishes accuracy. In the aftermath of the Las Vegas shooting, this spurred some, like the Georgia state senator Michael Williams, to argue that the use of a bump stock “actually prevented more casualties,” because of the resulting “inconsistency, inaccuracy, and lack of control.” But statements such as this betray a basic ignorance about the history of guns and the reality of how they are used in battle. The bump stock effectively turns the AR-15 into a machine gun capable of area fire. This is how the Las Vegas shooter was using his weapon. As the retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Arthur B. Alphin explained, to the Los Angeles Times, the gunman “was not aiming at any individual person. He was just throwing bullets in a huge ‘beaten zone’ ” filled with civilians bunched together in ways that soldiers had long ago learned to avoid. Williams’s view is typical of a contemporary gun culture that sees the real-world damage caused by guns only through the foggy lens of a fictitious history; it puts a false emphasis on the accuracy of the shooter. The gunman’s lethality—dozens dead, hundreds wounded—wasn’t the result of skill but of the sheer number of rounds that his weapons could fire. He was not the expert long-range rifleman of Western lore but the machine-minder of the First World War, initiating a mechanical process designed to inflict death on an industrial scale.
In 1962, the Surgeon General of the U.S. Army, Lieutenant General Leonard D. Heaton, released a landmark study of wound ballistics. “The message which this volume contains for the physician who will be treating the wounds of war is clear,” he wrote, in the report. “War wounds, in many respects, are different from those found in peacetime civilian practice.” Heaton couldn’t have foreseen a world in which more than twenty million AR-15s were in circulation within the United States. In Las Vegas, the gunman’s high rate of fire made him more lethal, but so did the design of his bullets, which flew from his hotel room at supersonic speeds and then, upon striking their victims, began to slow and yaw, imparting their energy to bones, tissue, and organs. That night, of the hundred and four shooting victims seen at the U.M.C. Trauma Center, more than thirty had critical injuries; more than a dozen needed operations from orthopedists and cardiovascular surgeons. Chest tubes had to be inserted to drain internal bleeding; bowels had to be carefully resected by doctors working with needle and thread.
After such killings, there’s always a frantic parsing of the killer’s motives. Was the murderer driven by hatred of women, by white supremacy, by “replacement theory,” by Black nationalism, by isis, by anti-Asian hatred, by dreams of a race war, by bullying, by America’s mental-health crisis, by a spiritual darkness at the heart of our society? Why the shooter chose to open fire is always, fundamentally, a mystery. But with mass shootings the why is ultimately less important than the how. The guns have no motive. They have only a purpose: to rend flesh as efficiently as possible.
And yet it’s not quite right to see a gun as merely an efficient machine. When Americans call for regulation of guns, it isn’t the physical object in all its terrifying utility that blocks them but the deep attachment that their fellow-citizens have to their weapons and what they think they represent. Many of us walk around with an image of our country in our heads that we believe comes from history, when in fact it comes from marketing and mythology. It’s that marketing and mythology which keep us saturated with weaponry, and which need to be rejected before we can make any enduring change.
In 1968, an N.R.A. spokesman told Congress that American gun culture was the result of a “very special relationship between a man and his gun—atavistic, with its roots deep in history.” But in truth those roots are shallow, and the fantasies underlying the “very special relationship” are often threadbare. As the horror in Uvalde unfolded, there were plenty of armed police officers, but there was little willingness to charge in against a barricaded shooter. The police have been called cowards for their hesitancy, but their reaction is unsurprising: despite the often militaristic rhetoric of police unions, the average cop is not going to be ready for a situation most United States marines have never faced. When we arm our citizens with such lethal weapons, we can’t always expect uncommon valor.
Increasing gun sales have failed to counter increasing levels of gun violence: the Gun Violence Archive counts more than eight thousand gun deaths in the first half of 2022 alone. Perhaps the steady stream of death will eventually cause us to begin to reassess that “very special relationship” and open up new understandings of our own history. Until then, many Americans will keep living out a hundred-and-fifty-year-old dream—that, no matter what it is that frightens or enrages us in our complex, chaotic, and often unsettling world, guns are the answer. ♦