Last night in Maine another installment in the litany of shootings across America occurred. As of writing eighteen people were killed, which is about the annual homicide rate for the entire state. In one day, a lone gunman has doubled the homicide rate. Every year, about 20,000 Americans are killed by guns and an additional 25,000 die by suicide. Talk of thoughts and prayers will be bandied about, but not much else will happen. How did we get here? The New Yorker has reprinted online an article by Phil Klay that attempts to answer the question, How Did Guns Get So Powerful?
In 1630, John Billington, America’s first convicted murderer, killed John Newcomen, in the woods of Massachusetts. The men had argued, Newcomen fled, and Billington shot him with his musket. Back then an axe was about as deadly as a gun, but in the intervening years that calculus has changed. Klay draws upon an 1844 incident to illustrate this evolution in firearms. Then Texas Ranger Sam Walker led a group of Rangers as they hunted Comanche. The Comanche were feared as the Lords of the Southern Plains. Soon the hunters became the hunted as Walker’s band was surrounded. In addition to a single shot rifle, each ranger was also armed with two five-shot Colt revolvers. The Colts were new then, untested, and not particularly accurate, but with each revolver every Ranger had “a shot for every finger on the hand.” After firing their rifles, the Comanche charged, only to be mowed down by a fuselage of pistol fire.
This Texas incident highlights the evolution of guns towards greater firepower. Later when Walker inquired about acquiring more guns, he learned that Colt had gone out of business. A victim of his own success and the boom-and-bust cycle of selling weapons to the military. Colt turned to selling laughing gas to spectators as a novelty. America has not always been an arsenal. At the beginning of the American Revolution there were not enough guns in the Colonies to outfit the Continental Army and muskets had to be imported. Colt restarted his gun business. This time marketing directly to the public. He used fear as a motivator. Fear of others. It was later said that Lincoln made all men free, but Mister Colt made them all equal.
The Civil War saw the rifle, replace the musket, tripling a gun’s lethal range. World War I gave us the machine gun. Operators of the machine gun were less concerned with aiming their weapon then ensuring a continuous rate of fire. Gone were the days of the marksmen. Vietnam introduced the AR-15 in the form of the M-16. It fired a smaller bullet at faster velocity creating a more lethal weapon with the added benefit of lighter ammunition, which allowed soldiers to carry more ammo. The military M-16 can fire fully automatic, while the civilian AR-15 can only fire single shot, but the addition of bump stocks circumvents this limitation allowing rates of fire approaching that of automatic fire.
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.
The marketing campaign that Colt began has been further pursued by the NRA. Today, 20 million firearms are sold in America every year. Many of us have an image in our heads that we believe comes from history, but actually it comes from marketing. “Compared with Billington’s gun…a modern firearm is like a monster truck alongside a horse and cart.” The myths about guns that we now believe are killing us and there appears to be no end in sight.