- Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun by A.J. Somerset
In the United States, the historical debate concerning gun culture and the propriety and efficacy of firearm regulation has been a minor front in the larger cultural, social, and legal war over the role of firearms in the American republic. This has often been a total war, with the result that some writers have marshalled strong rhetoric and selective evidence in order to make historical claims that support their view of how Americans should think about and regulate firearms. The war has resulted in at least one academic casualty: Michael Bellesiles resigned his tenured position at the Emory University after many errors became apparent in his book Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture. The academic literature examining gun culture and firearm regulation in Canada, compared to the work in the United States, is small and, generally, less motivated by desire to shift public attitudes or shape policy. This is despite the fact that political debates in Canada over gun control have been fierce since the 1970s, particularly since the 1989 Montreal Massacre and the 1995 Firearms Act.
A.J. Somerset, in Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun, attempts to track and describe the development of extremism in the debate about firearms in both Canada and the United States. A former member of the Canadian military, Somerset acknowledges owning guns and enjoying target shooting and hunting. He positions himself, however, as a responsible firearms owner analyzing, and critiquing, extremists who offer what he deems to be unreasonable opinions. “I like guns,” he admits, but not “guns nuts.” (p. x)
Somerset tackles a wide range of topics, from the connection between guns and masculinity, the myth of the western gunslinger, mass shootings, the development of the National Rifle Association, the role of race in the American gun control debate, zombie movies, and the development of “stand your ground” legislation. Through most of the book, Somerset’s sights are set on the “gun nuts,” although he also suggests that, at times, people had rational reasons to arm themselves, such as when workers had to physically resist particularly oppressive employers backed by the state.
The book is not a work of history per se (or of any other particular discipline), though Somerset draws from historical sources and makes historical claims. Most of his assertions about history are drawn from existing academic literature, though tracking the sources of Somerset’s facts and interpretations is difficult as the book eschews traditional citations in favour of a bibliography that simply indicates the books and articles employed in each chapter. Only scholars very familiar with the existing literature will be able to accurately identify the sources for Somerset’s claims, facts, and quotations.
While the historical sections are mostly derived from existing literature, Somerset adds to our knowledge of several recent events. He employs, for example, original research in describing Justin Bourque’s murder of three RCMP officers in Moncton in 2014. It is the best description of the event available. He also offers a fascinating account of the actions of Bruce and Donna Montague, [End Page 717] who became celebrities within the extreme elements of the Canadian firearm community by, first, refusing to follow Canada’s gun laws, then by fighting efforts to prosecute them for several firearms offences after police discovered a small arsenal in a vault in the couple’s basement.
There is perhaps a tendency by authors examining debates over guns to highlight the most extreme rhetoric—the views of survivalists, the National Rifle Association, or mass murderers—because the statements of such people and groups can strike non-gun owners as nonsensical or amusing, albeit darkly funny. Somerset admits being drawn to “the weird stuff,” (p. xvi) and that his book is “about ideas that kill people, about the palimpsest of untruth, half-truth, and wishful fabrication that Americans have piled up to paper over their inconvenient truths.” (p. xvi) Somerset offers plenty of over-the-top quotations to catch the reader’s attention and...