Speaking of history…
Over the past few years, I’ve read a lot of American history–most of which I hadn’t encountered in high school or college history classes. (One unfortunate result is that I no longer get goose bumps when I hear the national anthem; the people opposing the teaching of accurate history aren’t entirely wrong about its potential to dampen jingoism…)
Accurate history can be depressing, but grown-ups can deal productively with the gap between the country’s values and aspirations and our past failures to live up to them. As I argued yesterday, understanding actual history allows us to address the inaccurate mythologies that continue to warp contemporary political discourse.
In a recent essay for The Conversation, my friend Pierre Atlas–a political scholar, gun owner and NRA member who stresses he hasn’t donated to the organization since 1997– examined effects of widely-accepted myths about the Old West on today’s policy debates. I encourage you to click through and read the article in its entirety, but I’m sharing passages I found particularly illuminating.
Pierre began by recognizing the partisan divide over “gun rights” and the effect of that divide on the recently passed–and widely hailed–“bipartisan” gun legislation.
In the wake of the Buffalo and Uvalde mass shootings, 70% of Republicans said it is more important to protect gun rights than to control gun violence, while 92% of Democrats and 54% of independents expressed the opposite view. ..
In order to attract Republican support, the new law does not include gun control proposals such as an assault weapons ban, universal background checks or raising the purchasing age to 21 for certain types of rifles. Nevertheless, the bill was denounced by other Republicans in Congress and was opposed by the National Rifle Association.
What is the wellspring of this widespread gun fetish?
My analysis finds that gun culture in the U.S. derives largely from its frontier past and the mythology of the “Wild West,” which romanticizes guns, outlaws, rugged individualism and the inevitability of gun violence. This culture ignores the fact that gun control was widespread and common in the Old West…
Americans have owned guns since colonial times, but American gun culture really took off after the Civil War with the imagery, icons and tales – or mythology – of the lawless frontier and the Wild West. Frontier mythology, which celebrates and exaggerates the amount and significance of gunfights and vigilantism, began with 19th-century Western paintings, popular dime novels and traveling Wild West shows by Buffalo Bill Cody and others. It continues to this day with Western-themed shows on streaming networks such as “Yellowstone” and “Walker.”
Historian Pamela Haag attributes much of the country’s gun culture to that Western theme. Before the middle of the 19th century, she writes, guns were common in U.S. society, but were unremarkable tools used by a wide range of people in a growing nation.
Pierre explores the effects of gun-makers’ PR campaigns, which romanticized guns and their role in the settling and taming of the West. Contrary to that invented mythology, he found that–while gun ownership was common– actual gunfights were rare, and that many frontier towns “had strict gun laws, especially against carrying concealed weapons.”
As UCLA constitutional law professor Adam Winkler puts it, “Guns were widespread on the frontier, but so was gun regulation. … Wild West lawmen took gun control seriously and frequently arrested people who violated their town’s gun control laws.”
“Gunsmoke,” the iconic TV show that ran from the 1950s through the 1970s, would have seen far fewer gunfights had its fictional marshal, Matt Dillon, enforced Dodge City’s real laws banning the carrying of any firearms within city limits.
Pierre notes that NRA hardliners are willing to accept gun violence as an inevitable side effect of a free and armed but violent society. Their opposition to new gun reforms as well as the current trends in gun rights legislation – such as permitless carry and the arming of teachers – are but the latest manifestations of American gun culture’s deep roots in highly inaccurate frontier mythology.
Wayne LaPierre, executive director of the National Rifle Association, the country’s largest gun rights group, tapped into imagery from frontier mythology and American gun culture following the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012. In his call to arm school resource officers and teachers, LaPierre adopted language that could have come from a classic Western film: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
Recent studies actually show that giving those “good guys” concealed carry permits is linked to 13-15 percent higher violent crime rates–and accurate history confirms that the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is rational gun regulation.
Those shoot-em-up Westerns were fun when we were children, but it’s past time for Americans to grow up.