In addition to hunting and target/sport shooting, gun collecting can also be understood as a form of serious leisure. Although only 2% of gun owners indicated collecting is their main reason for owning guns in 2013 (down from 4% in 1999), 34% of gun owners in 2015 indicated that collecting was a primary reason for gun ownership.
In The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture (Basic Books, 2016), historian Pamela Haag observes the rise of gun collecting in conjunction with the evolution of guns from being utilitarian objects to objects of desire in the early 20th century.
As the value of the American gun shifted from utility to mystique, guns with the patina of history became valuable collectors objects. An antique gun subculture and market emerged that still flourishes.… “The collecting of antique firearms is becoming a passion with thousands of persons in the United States,” reported the Savannah Morning News in 1914, “particularly millionaires and other rich men,” as well as the dabbler who hung an old gun on the wall of the newfangled space called the den. In 1914, there were around 5,000 serious collectors, compared to perhaps 500 a few decades earlier. (p. 365)
In this sense, gun collecting was not unlike art or book collecting. Wealthy individuals accumulated valuable objects for their personal collections, which were often then loaned or donated to cultural institutions like museums for posterity. As when the National Firearms Museum opened the Robert E. Petersen Gallery in 2010 to display 425 firearms collected by the magazine publishing magnate that were donated by his widow.
As with so many aspects of American culture and society, “collecting” was democratized (and commodified) over the course of the 20th century. As Leah Dilworth observes in her introduction to Acts of Possession: Collecting in America (Rutgers University Press, 2003), we now have collectible Hallmark commemorative plates, Beanie Babies and other collectible toys, and the TV show Antiques Roadshow for ordinary Americans to have their collectibles assessed and, of course, valued monetarily.
The democratization of collecting generally is reflected in gun collecting as well. For example, for 56 years there has been a “Gun Collectors Row” at the NRA Annual Meetings & Exhibits. In 2016, it occupied 40 booth spaces. Exhibitors included the Winchester Arms Collectors Association, the North Carolina Arms Collectors, and the Miniature Arms Society. These are not collectors like Robert E. Petersen but ordinary individuals who have a passion for particular firearms.
In her study of “gun avocationists,” sociologist Barbara Stenross interviewed 14 gun collectors. Most of them owned at least 30 guns, and four owned 100 or more. A recent National Firearms Survey found that as few as 3% of Americans own 50% of all the guns in America, an average of 17 guns per person, with the high end of the range reaching 140 guns. Some of these “super gun owners” are simply “accumulators”; I have written previously about how easy it is to accumulate a gun “arsenal.”
But others are true collectors. While average recreational gun owners see guns as tools for particular purposes (e.g., hunting, target shooting), and anti-gun people sees them as implements of death, gun collectors see guns as “aesthetic objects” to be understood and appreciated like other collectable objects (Stenross, “Aesthetes in the Marketplace: Collectors in the Gun Business,” p. 30).
Like Stenross, Jimmy D. Taylor in American Gun Culture: Collectors, Shows and the Story of the Gun (LFB Scholarly Publishing, 2009) finds that the pleasure of collecting firearms comes from an appreciation of their beauty, the craftsmanship that goes into making them, and their connection to history. Indeed, like those who collect stamps or other material objects, gun collectors often see themselves as “curators” of history, helping to preserve valuable objects for the future.
What’s wrong with that?