While researching her book Gun Show Nation, WSU English Professor Joan Burbick joined the National Rifle Association, visited gun shows around the country, and steeped herself in the history of American gun culture. Looking beyond the romance of the West, of Buffalo Bill and the magazine American Rifleman, she found issues of race, gender relations, moral crusades, and political and financial concerns.

As someone who writes nonfiction exploring the character and culture of America, Burbick has studied rodeo queens, examined Henry David Thoreau’s efforts to integrate natural history with human history, and looked into the American national culture of the 1900s. Now a professor emeritus, she is exploring violence and memory.

Recently, she participated in the PBS documentary After Newtown: Guns in America. The hour-long documentary, which aired in February, tapped into her gun show expertise. She talked about the politics, history, and patriotism—and fear. “Fear that if you don’t have a gun, you aren’t safe.”

A gun owner herself, Burbick recently visited with Hannelore Sudermann to talk about her experience researching and writing the book and exploring a subject that for some Americans is an obsession and for others taboo.

You wrote the book six years ago. Is it still relevant? Yes. I talk about it with journalists frequently. Now in the wake of the massacre in Newtown, many people inside and outside the United States are trying to understand what is happening in America.

What prompted the book? Two things. The first was a dinner with an old friend who is a Vietnam veteran. He said whenever he gets mad at the government he goes out and buys a gun. I realized that guns have become a form of political expression. And then I wondered, “What are guns saying?”

And the second, I was thrown out of the Moscow [Idaho] gun show. I had been working on a photography project, shooting pictures of the West. The gun show seemed like a good opportunity. But when I got out my camera, I was escorted out really fast.

I wanted back in. Since the event was held at the public fairgrounds, I checked with the city attorney and was allowed in to shoot before the public arrived. I stayed and many of the people I talked with gave me long lectures about politics and not guns. So I decided I had to do this project. As somebody who writes about American culture, I wanted to understand gun talk.

Why didn’t they want you shooting pictures of the attendees? I was told it was because of alimony. I was completely baffled by that response. I learned that women are seen as gun grabbers. In divorce, or through restraining orders, guns are taken away.

Are all gun shows the same? No. In different communities they vary tremendously. In some small towns there were people selling fudge and historical guns and had booths where they showed their collections. At bigger gun shows, there were huge discount gun markets. Many shows have racist, sexist, and neo-Nazi book exhibits.

What did you learn? When I started, I was very naive. I joined the NRA for three years and attended their grassroots training, annual legal seminar, and national meetings. I was surprised at how much the organization has a political message that directly benefits gun manufacturers. There is a surprising amount of violent language directed at other Americans who do not share the NRA’s political opinions. Even librarians who advocate for gun-free zones are described as domestic terrorists. Rhetorically, many speeches advocate insurrection if gun rights are restricted.

I also studied publications like American Rifleman and its predecessors back to the nineteenth century. For many decades the content had been about shooting sports, hunting, and equipment reviews. But the language changed dramatically in the 1970s. That was when the modern gun rights movement became part of American culture. Some key people inside the NRA felt the United States was headed in the wrong direction during and after the 1960s social movements. They felt the civil rights movement was benefiting minorities at the expense of the white majority. They began to see civil rights as civil riots, and “gun rights” emerged as a language to fight their vision of America threatened by crime.

Why are guns often a taboo subject? Many people don’t like to talk about guns. Most households in the United States do not have a gun of any kind. These Americans don’t want to read about guns. Many women, including my daughter, don’t want to own a gun. They don’t want guns in their homes. But women who don’t have guns also need to be part of the conversation. It’s also an issue for urban, low income, and minority communities. The NAACP advocated for decades to promote good laws to restrict gun sales and make gun manufacturers liable if they sell to gun stores known to have ties with criminals. But anyone who wants to talk about gun regulation is labeled a “gun grabber,” even if they’re gun owners themselves. The national conversation must include everyone.

What motivates gun culture? The fear of crime has motivated a lot of gun sales and beliefs. The industry is using it to promote more guns. For instance, conceal-carry laws have resulted in an entire range of new nano-weapons. There’s also the notion of the gun as an answer to social problems. That a person can, through purchasing a gun, resolve the problems he or she might have. And there is the romance of the gun as a symbol of power, entertainment, and even defiance.

What’s in it for industry? Guns are durable goods. They don’t wear out like a pair of jeans. To keep selling them you have to find different methods—new products, improved technology, more exciting advertising. Even movies can be used to trigger the purchasing of particular guns. Certain handguns and military style weapons become cool to own. The problem for industry is that the market needs to keep expanding. Somehow, I’d like to see some gun manufacturers say enough, we’re not going to sell certain firearms to the civilian market. But that will never happen.

Should people own guns? The question becomes not gun ownership, but what are the limits for civilian guns? To me it’s an urgent question because guns are technological machines that continue to become ever more lethal. Large magazines that make it possible to fire a large amount of bullets in a very short period of time do not belong in the domestic market no matter how thrilling they are to fire. In the gun rights world, some gun owners think that any restrictions limit their political freedom. We are in the absurd situation where police and military are under strict command when they engage their weapon, but some civilians are asking for no oversight at all. The question is what kind of lethality are we going to allow?

Is anything changing? After Newtown, Americans are now much more open to talking about guns, even though emotions are still high. We are asking what can we live with in our society. At the end of the day after finishing this book, this issue concerns me even more. There should be a shift from protecting gun rights to talking about how to make communities safe without arming everybody. There are other ways to make communities secure by addressing the big issues of jobs, housing, and education. Even smaller communities face crimes like drunk driving, domestic violence, and drugs. Any community with high unemployment and an alternat
ive drug economy with easy access to guns will have a high rate of homicides. No matter where in the world it is. There’s no way to fix this by arming ourselves. Arming ourselves has allowed us to avoid the real solutions. It interferes with our ability to create public policy that really develops security for our communities. We even need simple things in cities like streetlights, safe parks, and places where kids can go and teenagers can work for a living wage. We need to invest in people, not guns.

How has the book been received? It has been trashed and praised on the Internet and in reviews. The debate online is raucous and often verbally violent. I have also been invited to talk about my book on radio and television and give readings at places like Harvard Medical School and the National Press Club. Intense debate about my book will often disappear until there’s another mass shooting. I find that quite unsettling. I never expected to write a book whose relevance is clear when people die. I would encourage everyone to go to a gun show in their community or nearby. There are 5,000 gun shows every year in the United States. Go look at the book exhibits. See what booths are there. Become part of the conversation. This is your community, too.

Infographic of gun ownership and feelings about gun laws

Using data from two different Gallup polls, we illustrate both gun ownership in the United States and feelings about gun sale laws. Gallup first started looking at preference for laws covering the sale of firearms in 1990. Sources: Gallup’s annual Crime poll and a USA Today/Gallup poll on gun laws conducted December 19–22, 2012