Interrogation

The Roots of America’s Gun Culture

How 18th-century British arms sales, the slave trade, and the Revolutionary War contributed to the mess we have today.

At left: a British soldier with an old-fashion gun. At right: a modern handgun.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Wikipedia Creative Commons and Thinkstock.

The ubiquity of guns in America is unique in modern Western society, with consequences that are felt every day via gun violence, mass shootings, and increasingly militarized law enforcement agencies. But in a new book, Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution, Priya Satia takes a historical look at the role of guns in Britain’s economic development, tracing how gunrunning became important to the British economy and how guns, in turn, ended up all around the world and played a crucial role in the perpetuation of slavery. Although this story is hundreds of years old, it has surprising and depressing relevance to modern-day America.

I recently spoke by phone with Satia, a professor of history at Stanford. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed the connection between the arms trade and slavery, why the timing of American independence worsened America’s gun addiction, and how the British—despite running the gun trade for ages—managed to avoid America’s gun addiction.

 Isaac Chotiner: How much is the story of guns intimately connected to the story of slavery?

Priya Satia: They’re very deeply connected in multiple ways, because guns were a very big trade item on the West African coast. They were used in the slave trade, and exchanged for slaves. In that way, they’re part of the slave trade. Then they’re also used to enforce slavery on plantations. They’re an instrument of discipline, and oppression, and violence in the whole slave plantation system that the British helped create, that trans-Atlantic system. But even after the slave trade is abolished in 1807, guns remain a big part of the trade with West Africa. They’re just exchanged for other types of goods instead. The end of the slave trade doesn’t actually spell the end of the gun trade in West Africa, but what initially drives the gun trade in West Africa is the European interest in procuring slaves.

And what is the connection between the period you are writing about and the prevalence of guns today?

The connection is the way the British expanded in the 18th century, and their involvement in various different types of colonial conflict all over the world. Guns are a big part of all of that. Guns are a part of their trade relations with so many parts of the world. Because of the multiple ways they’re used—as items of trade, as weapons of war, as items with symbolic value, even as a currency in a way, too—it becomes really difficult to regulate them as simply weapons of war. Look at today and the way we have regulations for pretty much every kind of weapon you can think of except firearms.

But didn’t the British themselves regulate the manner in which they were selling guns everywhere?

Interestingly, they didn’t regulate it, even then. Sometimes people would ask questions and say, “Wait a minute, should we really be selling guns to our enemies in India, the very people we’re trying to conquer? Isn’t that a bad idea? Because they’re going to be armed with the same guns as us, and they will use them against us?” Whenever someone offers that kind of logic, it’s always answered with the idea, “If we don’t sell our guns to them, the French will sell similar guns to them, and then they end up being armed with European guns, and we don’t make any money off it. So, we might as well make money from it, and plus, then they’ll owe us something. We might even not have to conquer them militarily because we can buy their loyalty by becoming their arms suppliers.”

There are very few arguments that anyone can ever put up against not selling guns to anyone out there in the world, so they sell them to everyone, anyone who’s willing—in North America, in West Africa, in South Asia. Occasionally, there will be a few years where they’ll say, “We’re not going to sell to this particular Indian ruler, because we’re in a moment of bad relations,” but after five or six years pass, they’re at it again because that prince has found guns from the French, or they’re buying them through the black market, or whatever it is. They feel like it’s futile not to, and that they may as well try to gain something diplomatically by agreeing to supply guns.

Is this not the exact logic that governs how America sells arms today? One of the reasons the U.S. would always give or sell weapons, particularly in the Cold War, was that certain regimes supposedly needed to be defended, and we’d say, “If we didn’t arm them, then someone else would arm them.”

Yeah, it is similar logic. But even the U.S., and even the U.K., some of the biggest arms suppliers in the world, have still agreed to follow certain international rules governing arms sales for every other kind of weapons system, but for firearms, there are really not many regulations that the U.S. subjects itself to. It’s exceptional in that regard, and I think one of the reasons is that just historically they haven’t been [regulated]. Other weapons systems are more complicated. They’re newer. There were regulations pretty early on, as they were made, but firearms are such an old technology that have been spreading, and proliferating, and used in various commercial transactions and diplomatic transactions for so long that they’ve just never been regulated.

Also, the American domestic political debate about gun control is a huge reason why firearms, in particular, aren’t regulated, and that the U.S. in particular doesn’t sign on to ratify an international arms trade treaty, the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty of 2013. It’s not ratified in the U.S., and that’s partly because now, even though there are belated attempts to regulate trade in small arms, there is this domestic problem, the NRA lobby and all that stuff, that makes it really hard for the U.S. to participate in that.

Why did the United States become the British colony where guns had such an outsize role, despite the British inundating other areas?

It’s a complicated story. The British are selling guns quite freely in the 18th century. At some point in the 19th century, in some of the colonies where it has consolidated its power, after it lost the American colonies, there is this increasing concern with, “Wait a minute, maybe we should slow down or police more where these guns are getting to, so that we aren’t inadvertently arming colonial rebels against us.” Then you start to get pretty tight arms control laws in some colonies, like in India, in South Africa, in New Zealand.

They’re very racially based in all of those places, and in many of those places, the laws remain in some form intact today. India today still has some of the tightest gun possession laws in the world, and that’s a legacy of colonial rule. Policing the passage of guns into India through what’s now Afghanistan, that became a big concern in the early 20th century. This is stuff that’s happening after they’ve lost the U.S. colonies, and seen the danger of what happens when you have armed colonial rebellion. That was the lesson of the Revolutionary War, right?

From the American point of view, the lesson of the Revolutionary War is that we better always be prepared to fight tyranny, and so we must never give up our arms. That’s what the interpretation of the Second Amendment is about, right?  It’s another post-colonial legacy.

The interesting thing about the U.S. itself is that even though people understood the Second Amendment was about making sure there would be no return of tyrannical rule, like British rule, even then, all the way up to pretty recently, the understanding was that the Second Amendment did really only apply to provision of military guns. It wasn’t about an individual’s private, personal right to own a gun.

Also, structurally, the way that there has been more and more regulation of gun possession everywhere else in the world has made the American civilian market just more and more important to gun manufacturers.

Given the centrality of gun selling to the British economy then, are you surprised there is not a strong gun culture there now?

What’s interesting is in this 18th-century period, when guns were being manufactured in enormous quantities and sold all over the world, one of the reasons that they’re sold all over the world is because British gun-makers don’t have a really big market in Britain itself. There is, in the Bill of Rights, an acknowledged right to bear arms. All Protestant subjects have the right to bear arms, but it’s subject to certain laws and regulations. It’s understood, for this entire period of the 18th century, that not everyone can have a gun in England. Upper-class people, wealthy, powerful people can have guns, and it’s part of the culture of hunting, and sporting, and things like that, but it’s not that everyone in Britain is buying guns. The reason they’re selling them abroad so much is because they can’t sell them at home as much.

Because there were so many wars, they were periodically providing a lot of guns, military arms, to British men who were serving as soldiers in these wars. At the end of the 18th century, when Britain is at war against France for two decades, that’s a period of mass armies on an entirely unprecedented scale, and so a lot of British men have a lot of contact with arms, and are really experienced in using them. But as soon as the wars are over, the country reverts back to collecting everyone’s guns, imposing again really strict regulations on who can have guns, and it goes back to tight controls on gun ownership.

There are people who have claimed, based on the English Bill of Rights, that gun ownership was very high in 18th-century Britain. One thing I want to show with this book is that in fact that is not true.

Was there anything you studied that made you think differently about the debate we are having over guns today?

Our whole modern way of life has, from the beginning, been driven by the need to provide mass numbers of weapons to mass armies. That’s driven the creation of the modern state and modern industrial economy, and that remains true. How do we eliminate the firearms in our daily lives while still maintaining that whole life, I guess, is the big-picture dilemma.

I just think when you look at the guns that people were using in the 18th century, and that laws like the Second Amendment were referring to, these are completely different arms from what we’re trying to regulate today. Technologies are so different. If you look at a law for a phone from 1950, how would you apply that to our smartphones today? Nominally they’re both phones, but these are really different technologies that can do very, very different things. I think there’s a real challenge trying to interpret the Second Amendment to apply to firearms today when what it’s talking about are very, very different objects with very, very different functions that had different meanings, worked differently, in the 18th century. They weren’t used in crimes of passion at all in the 18th century because it would take forever to use one when you’re really mad. You would just take up the ax next to you, or the hoe, or the shovel, or whatever was there, and use that, or just beat someone with your hands and feet. You wouldn’t use a gun.

Ax murder is a nice thought to end this on.

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