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The Real Origins of America’s Gun Culture

“Gun Country” chronicles the transformation of guns from tangible weapons to ideological ammunition during the Cold War.

First came the guns — the Mausers from Germany, the Carcanos from Italy — and then came the moral pretexts. These days, the American right is forever touting firearms as matters of principle or heralding them as hallmarks of a certain sort of rugged identity. But guns, before fetishists succeeded in converting them into symbols, were simply commodities, as unglamorous as washing machines.

In his crisply written and incisive new book, “Gun Country: Gun Capitalism, Culture, and Control in Cold War America,” historian Andrew C. McKevitt chronicles the transformation of guns from tangible weapons to ideological ammunition. Sharp, fascinating, devastating, exhaustively researched and often wryly funny, this indispensable book — one of the best works of nonfiction this year — details how America came to be not just a gun country but the gun country, home to “nearly half of all civilian-owned firearms in the world” and “more than twice as many guns per person” as any other nation. It begins with a crucial yet neglected premise: Guns are not abstractions but products.

If we have “struggled to see guns in the context of consumer capitalism,” McKevitt writes, it is because “they are manly, and consumerism has often been coded as women’s activity.” The traditional picture dictates that “men produce, women consume.” Guns, the implements of a certain kind of bellicose masculinity, have come to seem less like frivolous indulgences and more like the props of protectors and providers. Their champions present them as “magical totems to protect oneself and one’s community from various forms of evil,” as McKevitt potently puts it, while their opponents too often regard them as symptoms of a spiritual sickness. But the more than 400 million guns in America are a material fact, and all too often a bloody one. “Gun Country” treats them accordingly.

Guns began arriving in America in unprecedented quantities after World War II, when “global demobilization” was underway. “Tens of millions of firearms around the world had little practical use and collected dust in government warehouses,” McKevitt writes. A handful of enterprising American entrepreneurs, foremost among them Samuel “Arms Dealer Sam” Cummings, contrived to import a deluge of secondhand weapons from overseas. The Eisenhower administration turned a blind eye to the influx, quietly concluding “that it was better for global gun stockpiles to flow into the United States than into the hands of communist insurgents around the world.” Europe’s used guns, “the production of a half century of continental bloodletting, flooded the U.S. market at rock-bottom prices.”

Supply generated demand; before long, Cummings and his peers had awakened an insatiable appetite. As McKevitt notes, “Gun buyers tend to be serial gun buyers,” if not outright collectors. (Later, they would also be enticed to go in for all the costly associated paraphernalia — “the camouflage gear, the accessories, even the off-road vehicles” — that came to define a gunman’s aesthetic.) By the time policymakers realized that a new legal framework might be in order, it was too late: The weapons were already so ubiquitous that “gun culture” was a fait accompli.