I find myself trying to explain American gun culture a lot when I am with historians from other countries. These days, with Twitter, Facebook, and this blog, I don’t have to travel at all to interact with colleagues from abroad. They are often appalled that we have lenient gun laws, and – as when I unsuccessfully attempted to demystify the 2000 presidential election to non-Americans – I have mostly given up trying to explain these peculiarities. They’ve all seen Bowling for Columbine and they think we’re nuts. After the December 14 killings of nearly thirty people, mostly elementary school children, in Newtown, Connecticut, the same exasperation resurfaced. My American pro-gun friends tell me to say that it’s about freedom, and that foreigners – usually the French, in such conversations – can’t understand. I should say that when I lived in France, my French friends could not understand why Americans abided by traffic laws, because in France they did not care about them due to the French commitment to liberté.
The truth of these matters is often more structural than ideological. Did the French really care about their liberté so much on the road, or was it simply that the gendarmerie was not set up to enforce the laws efficiently? A friend of mine in the French transportation ministry was then spearheading a study of how to initiate a system in France based on the California Highway Patrol.
I would like to think the issue is about freedom, but I’m not sure. A reasonable approach is to say that our freedom to own and operate technologies exists on a spectrum. We think it’s okay to let children play with sticks. Even though we aren’t happy when kids swat people with them, we don’t ban sticks. However, we don’t think it’s okay to provide kids with tactical nuclear weapons. So access to other technologies, for kids and adults alike, falls somewhere on that spectrum. Where we decide to limit freedom depends on our negotiations with one another in the political realm.
But what if the problem isn’t about our choices regarding freedom? What if there are very different choices being made elsewhere that make it extremely difficult to control the spread and use of firearms?
That’s where history comes in. Most historical factoids that enter the gun control discussion either draw from the Revolutionary War era or mention more recent statistics about deaths from firearms. But there’s a bigger gorilla in the room: our historical reliance on the arms industry.
The National Rifle Association, easily the best-known supporter of the right to bear arms, was silent on its twitter feed after the Newtown shooting, probably a wise move. The U.S. Army, by contrast, immediately put out word on Twitter that the shooter had never been in the Army. Well-meaning, I’m sure, but it also spoke volumes about the perceived fallout to come. Both organizations take a lot of flack after shootings sprees. By contrast, the White House doesn’t and the State Department doesn’t, nor do petroleum companies or American taxpayers. All probably should.
Let’s return to the French for a moment, specifically the French Mirage. Not the mirage of French greatness, but the Mirage aircraft, designed by Dassault Aviation and built for many different countries. It’s a useful entrée into thinking about technology and the ways that we are all implicated in what happened in Newtown. I like to think of the French mirage because its history and name are so rich with meanings and contradictions.
In the 1970s, when Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) started to wield its power by reducing oil production, Americans, Europeans, and Japanese suffered. And their response was to come to the negotiating table with the only thing they had: advanced technology. This was a basic strategy for the Group of 6 industrialized countries (G6), created specifically to come to grips with the oil crisis. Some of that was nuclear technology, a subject I’m writing about currently in my book project Nuclear Outposts. Mostly, however, the technology everybody wanted – and what most continue to want – was the same thing that gunned down those kids in Newtown: firearms of all kinds. The French had a great gig in the 1960s and 1970s with a big-ticket item, their Mirage fighter plane, which attracted buyers all over the Middle East and helped them to strike oil deals. One Iranian embassy report I’ve seen said that fighter planes and other weaponry were the great palaces and mosques of the modern age, providing rulers the illusion (mirage!) of power and – even better – the ability to wage war and continue to buy arms. On a smaller scale, firearms proliferated around the world. Who hasn’t heard of Israeli Uzis, Russian Ak-47s, and the omnipresent handgun, the Austrian Glock (used in Newtown)? This is about war profiteering, sure, but governments have a multitude of ways to facilitate contracts. Arms deals were the stock and trade and diplomacy during the oil crisis and the United States benefited greatly from a rich stable of arms suppliers. The United States coupled arms deals with oil deals throughout the 1970s to lower the price of oil and ensure its steady flow.
Brief historical aside: dealing in high technology, specifically arms, is reminiscent of England’s attempts to establish trade with China in the early nineteenth century. The Chinese had a great deal to offer, but what did the English have? Wool? There was nothing of serious consequence until they realized how wonderful opium from India and Afghanistan was. Millions of addicted Chinese, two opium wars, and lots of ceded territory (i.e. Hong Kong) later, the British Empire in Asia was stronger than ever at the close of the nineteenth century. And much of that power rested on a commodity that did more harm than good, but gave the English an extraordinary tool. Sounds a bit like the arms industry, doesn’t it?
Sadly, in the world of diplomacy, we play with the chips we have, not merely with the cards we’re dealt. Our chips are our techs. High technology, specifically in arms and munitions, has been the bread and butter of American leverage in negotiations for decades. Sometimes these deals are secret, sometimes not, and occasionally, as in the infamous Iran-Contra affair of the 1980s, even the secret deals come to light. In the 1970s and 1980s, Americans survived the oil crisis on the crest of a wave of arms deals to the Middle East. Does the United States still depend on the arms industry? You betcha.
It’s a hard pill to swallow, because it means that whatever our views are of the American addiction to violence, to guns, or to big bombs, we should acknowledge that it is an economic addiction too. Moreover, it’s a diplomatic addiction that we can’t – or at least won’t – give up. This means that Americans who pay taxes and buy gas (and many other imported commodities) encourage the companies that manufacture arms, including small arms, every day. And they will continue to provide money to lobbying groups that attempt to derail gun control legislation, to ensure markets within the United States.
Aside from my personal views – I support the ban on semiautomatic weapons, for example, but I’m content to let hunters do their thing with non-repeating rifles – the historian in me cringes when we ignore the longstanding structures that enable the proliferation of weapons of all kinds. It’s fine to talk about gun cultures, fine to talk about freedom, and even fine to imagine that video games (!) are the root of the problem. But until we think about why these weapons are manufactured at all, and who – including you and myself – encourages their proliferation, we may just be buying a mirage.