Q&A | A.J. Somerset on How Gun Tech Changed American Culture

And vice versa.

A.J. Somerset loves guns, but he’s not a fan of gun culture. As the former soldier puts it in his new book, Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun, pistols come with a “bonus ideological Family Pack, a ready-made identity.” That’s not something Somerset, who took a 15-year hiatus from bearing arms after leaving the army, ever wanted.

In Arms, Somerset investigates the evolution of the gun as technology and as totem, exploring how a simple tool transformed into the symbol of a nation and a nation divided. He talked to Inverse about gun culture’s beginnings, how the popularity of Westerns led to radicalization, and the laws that lead to shooting deaths.


You describe how you lost the urge to go shooting once you’d left the Army. When did guns go from fun to not fun?

The main reason I gave up shooting is simply that I didn’t have money for guns. I’d done most of my shooting at taxpayer expense, or with friends who owned guns. My leaving the army coincided with Bill C-68, Canada’s major gun control law in the mid-1990s, which required that all guns would be registered and created new licensing requirements. You would have to take a safety course to get a licence, and there were new safe storage rules. So it looked as if there were a whole bunch of hassles and additional expenses on top of the price of a gun itself, and I just moved on. But when I did come back to shooting, with all those rules still in place, I found they weren’t really that much of a hassle after all.

Returning from your 15-year absence from the world of guns, you find that you no longer fit in. What happened to gun culture in that short span of time?

The big change, it seemed to me, was in the rationale for owning a gun. You could own a gun for hunting or target shooting or whatever, but it seemed there was a lot more emphasis on shooting people, on owning guns for protection. That rationale has always been with us, of course. In the 1930s, Thompson submachine guns were advertised to ranchers for protection, for example. But it seemed to be moving to the fore. The incident that gave rise to the book was a video posted online by the Canadian Shooting Sports Association, to drum up membership. It said, essentially, that we needed to change the law to allow us to keep guns handy to shoot criminals. And I thought, this is the Canadian Shooting Sports Association. Since when is shooting people a shooting sport?

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That gun culture has become synonymous with redneckery is probably unfair to gun lovers like yourself. What’s the crucial distinction that people are missing?

Not everyone who owns a gun subscribes to the gun culture, at least as I define it in the book. A culture is a set of shared values, and gun owners are actually fairly diverse. It’s a real mistake to assume they must all share the same values. Obviously, I don’t share the values of the subculture I go after in the book. The big distinction is that what I call the gun culture has essentially elevated the gun into a quasi-religious icon, and placed it alongside Mom, apple pie, and the family Bible. For these folks, the gun is central to their identity.

I know there are many others like me, who don’t share these views. We did a promo for this book, where my publisher printed a limited run of targets to mail out with review copies, and I shot these targets and signed them. While I was at the range doing that, another guy showed up to sight in his rifles. We got to talking and he asked about the targets – being a promotional thing, they were distinctive – and I was a bit apprehensive spilling the beans because I really wasn’t sure how he would react. You don’t want to get into politics or religion with random strangers for reasons of simple civility. But the first thing he said was, “I think our system works pretty good and I don’t like these guys who want to roll it back. Then something happens, and it’s I-told-you-so.” This is a small random sample, one guy, but I have found this again and again. I was talking to some gun owners in rural Missouri. One of them owned, he said, 30 or 40 guns — he’d lost count. They all thought universal background checks, which the NRA fiercely opposes, were a good idea.

But these people aren’t visible. What we keep hearing are the most radical voices. And it doesn’t help that some of the most vocal anti-gun activists consistently caricature gun owners as rednecks.

What made the switch from muskets to rifles such a pivotal moment in the history of America’s gun culture?

It was like the invention of the Internet. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration in any way. For four hundred years, the infantryman’s weapon had been a smoothbore musket. He’d gone from matchlocks to wheel-locks to flintlocks but the basic technology was the same, and the limitations of that technology meant that warfare hadn’t changed much either.

The big innovation wasn’t the rifle itself. It was the bullet, the Minié ball, which made rifled muskets possible. And once that came along, we went to breech-loaders and then to cartridges and then to repeating rifles. In the space of a single lifetime, the world went from muskets to machine guns, which was like going from a Commodore Vic-20 to the smartphone. It revolutionized warfare. And it revolutionized warfare in a way that resonated with American individualism; in the musket era, the infantryman functioned as part of a mass formation, robotically following commands, but now he was an individual soldier whose initiative and skill would be decisive.

It’s important also that these developments came along just as America was gobbling up its frontier and exterminating its native people. If you stage the creation of America as a drama, this is the final act, and the gun is the star. All this stuff went into the pot and boiled down to form the gun culture as we know it.

The troublesome faction of gun-toting Americans (and Canadians), it seems, believes they’re all cowboys. What do Westerns like High Noon and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral tell us about the country that created them?

There’s always a lot of fretting about violent movies making us violent, but the fact is that movies really only tell us what we already believe. They explain us to ourselves. And it’s no coincidence that the Western, the genre that America created, concerns itself mostly with justifying violence. The Western is all about why you have to carry a gun and why you have to stand your ground.

So we see Kevin Costner in Wyatt Earp explaining to Josie Marcus that he won’t back down because Tombstone is his home. In High Noon, Marshal Will Kane has just married a Quaker, and he sets down his gun and flees town to escape the Miller gang – but a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, so he turns back and faces them down, alone. In the end, his wife saves his life by abandoning her non-violence, and shooting a bad guy in the back. The screenplay forces her to admit that her pacifism is just the foolishness of a silly girl.

The code of masculine violence is all important here. Whenever the Western gives us an argument for backing down, it comes from the mouth of a silly girl. “It’s not worth it,” she says, or, “It won’t solve anything.” My favorite example of this is in a very bad B movie, in which the foolish girl asks a reluctant gunfighter over dinner, “Why do men have to carry guns?” Our hero doesn’t even answer. He just says, “Say, how about another slice of that pie?” It’s the ultimate “Don’t worry your pretty little head.”

The fact is, she’s right. Our foolish girl is the only one who’s really thinking clearly. But the screenplay creates its own alternate reality. Our hero will not lose the gunfight, or suffer some permanently crippling wound, or whatever. The Western is never a tragedy. And this is the deeply seated thinking: that going armed will not end in tragedy, but in triumph. It’s why Americans think they can arm themselves for protection, in the face of overwhelming evidence that keeping a loaded gun around will end in tears.

Nowadays, Westerns aren’t so popular anymore, so in place of cowboys, America idolizes soldiers. But the code remains the same.

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What errors in the American concept of “self-defense” does the Trayvon Martin case illustrate?

In the simplest possible terms, stand-your-ground laws have created an incentive to kill. If there are no surviving witnesses, your claim of self-defense is unassailable.

Centuries of law had whittled away our justifications for killing. In the English common law, you would be justified only if the person you killed had been committing a capital crime, and as the number of capital crimes fell, so too did the range of justifications. Killing someone in a common fight, where it wasn’t clear who was at fault, could be excused only if you were left with no other option. The problem was, this was defined as a “duty to retreat,” and of course running away is un-American, cowardly, and feminine – just as the Western reminds us.

This duty to retreat completely vexed American judges in the late nineteenth century, and they discarded it in favor of the “True Man” doctrine, which said you were justified in killing anyone who attacked you, as long as you were in a place you had some right to be. So stand-your-ground laws have actually been with us for over a century – except, surprisingly, in Florida, which held onto the duty to retreat until 2005.

But the whole idea of standing your ground relies on a fantasy: the idea that in a fight, there’s a good guy and a bad guy, and that the good guy is just going about his business when the bad guy shows up and starts doing evil. That’s obvious nonsense. Most self-defence cases are actually dirty little fights between people who have a history, a history that escalates until someone gets killed. This is why the duty to retreat existed in the first place: the law recognized that you couldn’t make an honest claim of self-defence unless you had tried to avoid the whole situation in the first place.

This brings us back to Trayvon Martin. The problem here is not so much the verdict as the law under which that verdict was, perhaps, inevitable. The law is dumb. It actually allows you to seek out a fight, kill your opponent, and then claim you were just defending yourself. Nobody, not even the proponents of this law, wants the law to allow this – but the people who back stand-your-ground laws can’t bring themselves to admit something is wrong, because their thinking is trapped in the good-guy-vs.-bad-guy model.

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