History Versus Mythology

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.


  1. And yesterday we once again saw what comes when a young guy with a high powered weapon of war uses it in a peaceful city. I do NOT know how the Republicans and NRA folks can sleep at night…. but I bet they do.

  2. I have come to the conclusion many of the folks who spout the “shall not be infringed” nonsense really do love their guns more than their neighbors, often their own, kids or grand kids. I hate saying that, I am gun owner ( I own for hunting) , but I have come to the conclusion we need to drastically toughen up our weak gun laws. It won’t be easy but its better to keep the gun out of the hands of that bad guy than hope the good guy with his/her gun knows how to use it and won’t injure innocent by standers.

  3. I was just thinking the other day about how in the old West, there were very strict gun laws. Had to check your guns with the Sheriff or Marshall when you came into town. Everyone overlooks that.

  4. Halfheimers ooze with the sweet nectar essential for far right exuberant allegiance to falsehoods.

  5. in NoDak, the excuse is investment. but as ive been invited to many a home here,in a land where guns are like cigarette butts on the floor of the pickup(never throw a butt out the widow,its called wild fires) the need to protect ones stock is also a principal need. but,in the decades here, one was never enough.hunting,one,,home protection,one,relic,as many as possilble.like beany babies they are collected and hoarded.look at most any estate sale/auction,poster and theres a list. but many here are responsable citizens. the trumpers encountered,must have their CCP,permit. the eye catcher is being invited to view the gun safe, most everyone has one now,depending on who the mfg is,American made is a must. most ive met are low key types,if,you can call a trumper low key.
    some have arsenals in their basement with a pallet of ammo to expend every year,well ya dont want dated ammo eh? the dump behind the farm usually sees the aftermath of whatever you can shoot at. sounds pretty mundaine eh? this is all the locals here want and know. the city to them is expendable skin color,they dont care. the news brings on the daily body count, it wont happen here,were armed. yea,right.

  6. Sheila’s last sentence is the key. I believe that it was Augustine, in his “Confessions,” who said that when he was young, he did the things the young do, but when he became a man, he put aside those childish things.

  7. From the article – “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 will it take for the “pro-life” party to value life over their guns.

  8. The Pentagon Papers served to separate decades of truth from myth and narrative.

    Glenn Kessler reported in 6/29/22 WAPO that the IFCN — International Fact Checking Network — which first met in 2014 in London, in 2021 included 500 participants in 69 countries. Reportedly, executives of Meta, parent of FaceBook, have spent $100 million to help underwrite fact-checking operations in dozens of countries.

    Is IFCN’s mandate to support truth, or uniform narrative? What will be Meta’s version of truth?

  9. We have lots of fables that have sprung up from our “westward movement,” the “pioneer spirit,” the “fast draw” etc. The gun fetish is one of such outdated unrealities that the gun and ammo manufacturers are enjoying as a result. I wrote a blog a few weeks ago entitled The United States of Tombstone that explored this imaginary voyage into the results of buying into such fables by today’s fruitcakes. The words gullible and sick come to mind.

  10. Didn’t the Republicans ever notice that the good guys in the westerns never even got their white hats dirty? That should have told even them that it was more myth than history.

  11. The current version of NRA is only about taking advantage of our political divide to recruit new donors.

  12. The right claims the freedom to own guns. Why? Because guns give them the power of control of life.

    Hmmm. Freedom or control?

  13. So there is no “scientific proof” that the glorification of violence on mass media has made our culture more accepting of it as the norm? There is certainly no proof that it doesn’t. What we see and hear everyday doesn’t count?

    I see my grandchildren glorying in aiming laser rods, etc. at the bad guys and cheering the “super heroes” as they hurt and, likely kill, others, especially on digital games. No impact, right?

  14. There is one simple solution to it all. A simple change in the law would solve the problem. The good guys with guns must be required to wear white hats and the bad guys with guns required to wear black hats so when the next shoot out occurs in a school and the cops arrive, they will know who the bad guy(s) is(are), so as not to shoot the good guy security guards, or the teachers, or the kids who have a guns in their backpacks… Oh yes. Any bad guys who are cops must also wear black hats and the good ones, white. Gosh knows we have some of each in police departments across the land. Ain’t America Great?

  15. Follow the money. The wild west myth is cynically perpetuated by the profiteers running the NRA. That group overlaps significantly with those pursuing the end of replacing our current system with the fascist model.

  16. A further referral to the book, “Jesus and John Wayne”, mentioned in this blog by multiple contributors….

  17. Bet Howard Zinn never told you this:

    “ The Black Robed Regiment
    By Dan Fisher

    On Sunday morning, Jan 21, 1776, pastor John Muhlenberg climbed into his pulpit in Woodstock, VA to preach. In his black clerical robe, the traditional dress of 18th century preachers, Muhlenberg preached from the third chapter of Ecclesiastes. He read how there is a time for all things. There’s a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to harvest. Then his voice began to rise as he said: “There’s a time of war, and a time of peace. There is a time for all things, a time to preach and a time to pray. But there is also a time to fight, and that time has now come!”

    Then he did something his congregation did not expect. He removed his clerical robe revealing a colonial officer’s uniform beneath. Muhlenberg then stepped down from his pulpit and challenged the men of his congregation to join him in the fight for liberty.

    Just a few days before, he had been commissioned by General George Washington to raise a regiment from the Woodstock area. As Muhlenberg walked down the aisle and out the door of his church, a drum began to roll outside. One by one, the men of Muhlenberg’s congregation filed out of the auditorium and volunteered to follow their courageous pastor.

    Bidding farewell to their families, some three hundred men rode away from Woodstock, VA with Col. John Muhlenberg in
    the lead to form the 8th Virginia regiment. Muhlenberg led those men throughout the War of Independence, fighting at the battles of Morristown, Brandywine, and Monmouth Courthouse. By the war’s end, Muhlenberg had been promoted to Major General and had become one of Washington’s most valued commanders. Muhlenberg was front and center at the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown.

    James Caldwell was pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Elizabethtown, New Jersey. Because of his strong stand for liberty and his sermons encouraging the colonists to fight, he had made himself numerous enemies. So he would step into his pulpit each Sunday wearing two pistols, place them on the pulpit, and then proceed to preach powerful sermons about the need for Christians to stand for truth. When the war began, Caldwell became a chaplain in the colonial army. He was so hated by the British they called him the “Rebel Priest.”

    When the war finally came to Elizabethtown, during the fighting, the British killed Caldwell’s wife. By the time he had completed her funeral, the fighting had moved to Springfield, New Jersey so Caldwell rode there to join his men. During the fighting, the colonists were running out of wadding for their muskets. Caldwell jumped on his horse and rode to the First Presbyterian Church of Springfield and gathered up two armloads of hymnals written by Isaac Watts, a popular hymn writer of the era. He hurried back to his troops, threw the hymnals at their feet, and commanded them to tear out the pages and use them for wadding. As he did so, he yelled, “Give’m Watts boys, give’m Watts!” This is origin of the famous phrase, “Give’m watt for!”

    On the night of April 18, 1775, as Paul Revere was making his famous ride through the Lexington, Massachusetts countryside yelling, “The British are coming! The British are coming!” he was headed for a particular house; the house of pastor Jonas Clark. Jonas Clark was a pastor in Lexington and on Sunday afternoons after church, he and Deacon John Parker, a captain from the French Indian War, had been organizing the Lexington men into a citizen army to fight the British if they invaded. On the night of April 18, Clark had two special guests staying in his home, Samuel Adams and John Hancock. The British had heard of Adams’ and Hancock’s whereabouts and they were marching toward Lexington to capture them.

    As Revere rode up to the front yard of Clark’s home, Clark, Adams, and Hancock ran out to meet him. When they heard that the British were marching toward Lexington, Adams and Hancock asked pastor Clark if the men of Lexington would fight. Clark responded, “I trained them for this very hour; they would fight, and, if need be, die, too, under the shadow of the house of God.”

    The next morning, April 19, 1775, Pastor Jonas Clark and Deacon John Parker led the Lexington “Minutemen” out to face the invaders. As the British approached the Minutemen, they cried out “in the name of the King of England throw down your arms.” This response rang out from the colonists, “We recognize no Sovereign but God and no King but Jesus!” Then Captain Parker said to his Minutemen, “Stand your ground, don’t fire unless fired upon. But if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.” Then the first shot rang out, the shot heard around the world.

    These are just three examples of the courage and commitment exhibited by many of the colonial pastors in the days before and during our nation’s War of Independence. These men saw no contradiction between standing for the truths in God’s Word and the principles of liberty. In fact, they viewed the two as inseparable. These “black robed patriot preachers” fanned the flames of liberty as they not only encouraged their congregations to fight but were also willing to actually lead their men onto the battlefield. These preachers fought.

    The British viewed these pastors such a force, they called them the “Black Robed Regiment.” King George III blamed the war on the preachers by calling it a “Presbyterian rebellion.” Horace Walpole, the English Prime Minister, said, “There is no use crying about it. Cousin America has eloped with a Presbyterian parson.” Although Presbyterian preachers were certainly involved, preachers from practically every denomination joined in the fight.

    Today, many believe that had these pastors not been involved, America may never have been born. “

    from: http://reclaimamericaforchrist.org/2010/12/20/the-black-robed-regiment-preachers-who-fought/

  18. What no one mentions is that the NRA is nothing but a paid (I believe) PR piece for the munitions industry.
    Mythology is prettier than (bare) truth, and people like “pretty” It is the source of numerous sound bites and bumper
    sticker sloganizing. It does not require thinking anything through, nor, certainly ask for same. Living here, in Florididia,
    as I do now, “JESUS IS THE ANSWER!” jumps quickly to mind, in regard to quickie, mindless bumper stickers, and more.
    I’ll stop.

  19. Mitch:
    im sure laperrie has a customized gun from every mfg of arms,in the world..after all
    you wouldnt want him $porting a cheap flannel shit now would ya?
    one item, if we let the facists become the weapon of choice for the authoritrians, what do we have?
    we may only have one vote left..time for a major change..
    now,about that public audit of the religious right?

  20. So the shooter in Illinois liked to make violent Tik Tok videos…And we are not “entertaining ourselves to death”? Ain’t the “me” culture fun?

  21. What the myth makers and gun promoters always fail to tell the public is the actual costs of gun ownership. There are more than 40,000 gun deaths and 100s of thousands of injuries and disabilities caused by guns in the U.S. each year. The vast majority of these tragedies are a result of suicide, accidents, or violence directed at people known to or living with the perpetrator. This is an enormous burden on the healthcare system which we all pay for with higher medical insurance costs, lost productivity, resources squandered on the treatment and repair of gun related injuries, and other costs. This is an expensive cultural indulgence and impacts all of us. Owning a gun is the greatest risk factor for gun shot wounds by many orders of magnitude. Some years ago I did a small study of gunshot injuries in Queensland, Australia. It was difficult to make any economic comparisons between this Australian state and any state in the U.S. because there so few deaths or injuries reported in a state bigger than Texas with a population of 5,250,000. There where there were no attempted (as in Zero) murders by fire arms and only 2 deaths by fire arms in 2016 (The last year for which there are stats). Imagine the resources we expend on just the results of guns and how much better our communities would be if these these resources were deployed for other problems. If the true costs of gun ownership and availability were factored into the purchase of a gun almost nobody could afford it.

  22. Pascal de Caprariis: Augustine certainly did write about his, um, youthful enthusiasms, but in the line you quote Augustine referred back to the writing of Paul in the New Testament more than three centuries earlier:

    When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 1 Corinthians 13:11

  23. Gail, thank you for providing an fantastic example of the romanticized garbage that has become standard fare for those promoting their version of the history of gun rights. Your example even pulls in the religious justification so everyone can sleep well at night.

    Fredrick Rovner, we need to treat gun ownership like owning a dangerous dog, deny homeowners insurance, jack rates on life insurance, etc… Right now gun owners are not bearing the cost of the externalities that gun ownership represents.

  24. Here is the Wikipedia article that debunking the romanticized version of the Muhlenberg story.


    “According to a biography written by his great-nephew in the mid-19th century,[3] on January 21, 1776 in the Lutheran church in Woodstock, Virginia, Reverend Muhlenberg took his sermon text from the third chapter Ecclesiastes, which starts with “To every thing there is a season…”; after reading the eighth verse, “a time of war, and a time of peace,” he declared, “And this is the time of war,” removing his clerical robe to reveal his Colonel’s uniform. …. Though it is accepted that Muhlenberg helped form and lead the 8th, historians doubt the account of the sermon, as there are no reports prior to Muhlenberg’s great-nephew’s biography.”

  25. Oh Dan – good luck with Fredrick Rovner’s idea – I bet all those people shooting other people up will be so happy to comply 🤦‍♀️… maybe you should listen to Guy Relford – The 2nd amendment lawyer right here in Indpls for some actual solutions and facts! Or, do you just get all your info from Wikipedia???? Hummmmm
    Sweet dreams – The November nightmare is coming 🇺🇸

  26. Dan,
    November is coming 🇺🇸🇺🇸🇺🇸 It’s going to be okay. Sleep Well

  27. Slipstream,

    Excellent! I guess the only thing I would have added, is what that actually meant. But, well done!


    Greenhouse Gasbaggery at its finest huh? That manure spreader produces way way too much gas, Lolol!!!!!

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