The Wild, Wild Us

I was reading yesterday’s litany of gun-related deaths on Facebook when I started wondering why America, more than any other country, has a gun culture that loves and accepts guns. If you don’t have links to organizations like Everytown for Gun Safety you probably will see only the local incidents on the news—or you may not see them at all. Here are six recent gun-related deaths that serve as examples of the wild, wild us:

So how did America come to be a country where gun ownership by individual civilians is accepted, approved, and admired? I thought about how most countries have gone through periods of violence as their civilizations were established. In Europe, Japan, and China, those violent upheavals occurred before guns had been created or were widely available. Their fighting was done with swords and knives. They managed to kill a lot of people with sharp blades and they do still admire them. It’s not difficult, for example, to find displays of katana and wakizashi swords in Japan, broadswords in England and claymores in Scotland. 

Founded on Gunfire

Citizen soldiers fight in the Revolutionary War

Citizen soldiers fight in the Revolutionary War

When America was established, however, it was with gunfire and we associate the founding our country with guns. From the French and Indian War through the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, we fought with guns. Guns were essential tools as we settled the east and pushed west across the frontier. We used guns as tools to put food on the table, to protect our homes and land, and to kill deadly predators. We used them to shoot rattlesnakes, armadillos, coyotes, wolves, bears and mountain lions. The wild, wild west started on the east coast and survival often depended on having a gun and knowing how to use it well.

Lacking a standing army, we depended on volunteer soldiers, as defined in the Second Amendment:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

In the seventeenth century, those militias met and drilled every fall to keep their skills sharp. In many places in New England they still do. Historical re-enactors of the Companies of Minute and Militia muster in September with their powder horns and long rifles to drill and shoot. They march the Battle Road on April 19 to re-fight at Concord Bridge and on Lexington Green.

We reveled in the feats of fictional woodsmen like Natty Bumppo—Le Longue Carabine—and real ones like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. We celebrated marksmen and women like Wild Bill Hickock, Calamity Jane and Annie Oakley.

Daniel Day Lewis in The Last of the Mohicans

We used guns to fight the British and Mexican armies, a wide variety of Indian tribes, outlaws, and one another. We reveled in the feats of fictional woodsmen like Natty BumppoLe Longue Carabine—and real ones like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. We celebrated marksmen and women like Wild Bill Hickock, Calamity Jane and Annie Oakley. We even made national figures of sociopaths such as Billy the Kid and Jesse James, not to mention Bonnie and Clyde. Beyond that, however, guns also drove the passenger pigeon to extinction and almost did the same for bison. 

National Doublethink

Today it feels like guns to the right of us, guns to the left of us, guns in front of us and, increasingly, guns nearly everywhere. There have been mass shootings in movie theaters, on military bases, in elementary schools, high schools, at political rallies and on university campuses. We are becoming inured to these murderous rampages and, along the way, we have developed a national form of doublethink about guns. Here are three examples:

  • Responsible dog owners accept that they will buy a dog license, make sure their animal gets its shots and medical care, and train the dog so that it is well behaved and no danger to others. Responsible automobile drivers study for a license, keep their vehicle well maintained so it doesn’t present a hazard on the road, and don’t drive when they are impaired or distracted. Gun owners can, should they choose to do so, purchase a gun without a license or a background check, without any training in proper usage, and without any requirements for storing the weapon safely. Yes, responsible gun owners have no problem with any of those things but there are too many irresponsible ones threatening the safety of themselves and others. See the six examples above.
  • Gun owners have taken to protecting military recruitment offices from terrorist attacks and crazy people with powerful weapons. Yet those same gun owners have their weapons to protect themselves from those very same soldiers in the very unlikely event that the military comes to take their guns away.

    Armed Civilian Protecting Military Recruitment Center

    The military is supposed to protect civilians but gun owners have taken to protecting military recruitment offices from terrorist attacks and from crazy people wielding powerful weapons. Yet those same gun owners depend on their weapons to protect themselves from those very same soldiers in the unlikely event that the military comes to take their guns away.

  • Actors decry the ready availability of guns and the carnage they can cause in our society while starring in movies where they fire powerful weapons to kill a variety of enemies from criminals to terrorists. Those same movies help fuel the gun culture that the actors criticize freely.

See what I mean? Does this make any sense to you? Are you at all concerned about the direction this is moving in?

Caught in the Crossfire

You might own guns, shoot guns, store them in a gun safe, support the right to keep and bear arms. Fair enough. But do you want to be standing nearby when (a) a gunman opens fire where you are shopping or watching a movie (b) concerned and well-armed citizens shoot back at him, (c) bullets are flying everywhere and your kids are caught in the crossfire?

This is not history or fiction, safely contained between the covers of a book or in a picture frame. This is not the movies, where gunfights are choreographed, bullet strikes are really squibs exploding, and the hero never gets hit. This is real life. We have no script, no choreography, no squibs, and the bullets are all live.

I’m worried about the wild, wild us because we seem to be growing wilder every day. How about you?

9 thoughts on “The Wild, Wild Us

  1. I used to be on the fence about the Second Amendment. As I thought long and hard about it over a few years I slowly turned to be staunchly pro Second Amendment. I wouldn’t characterize myself a ‘pro gun’ but rather as a means-to-an-end in favor of what they can do for me in the way of protection of myself and those I love.

    If the bad guys have a weapon, the good guys (not just law enforcement) need to have the same weapon. Ordinary citizens cannot be deprived of the right to defend themselves. We know that gun-free zones are a joke and if a bad guy comes in with a firearm to shoot up a place chances are it’s a firearm that will take him down. Chicago has some of the toughest gun laws, and the worst gun crime. Contrast that with the (lack of) crime in Kennesaw, GA, where gun ownership is mandatory.

    Yes there are accidental gun deaths, and they are tragic, but are we going to ban cars? They can be accidentally fatal as well.

    • Well, Greg, we live in Massachusetts and have one of the toughest gun laws in the country. We also have fewer of these mass murders than states with lax gun laws — or none at all. And the killings at Simon’s Rock college that I described in a previous post happened because the killer could buy a gun and ammunition under the law of his home state, where only a driver’s license is needed. From his prison cell he has described that little regulation as stupid. If I walked into a restaurant and saw someone open carrying a pistol or and AR-15, I would leave. The idea of armed but untrained and volatile vigilantes shooting out in a public place is terrifying.

      • Interesting, our different perspectives.

        Last year I saw a guy wearing a vest whose front was open. I could clearly see, because of my position, the two spare magazines the man had on his belt. I inferred though did not see his concealed pistol. My only thought was “Dude, need to be more careful in the concealment.” Fear was nowhere in my mind.

        Nor was it found this year when, at a Walmart, I saw a man carrying a pistol in clear sight – open carry – on his hip. Barely gave it a second thought.

        As economist Thomas Sowell points out, there are no simple choices, only trade-offs. Am I thrilled with a “yahoo” whose first reaction would be to haul out his pistol and start shooting? No. But… definitively and provably… carrying of guns DEPRESSES crime. Concealed carriers have STOPPED mass killings. And guns are used up to 2.5 million times a year to DETER criminals and protect people from them.

        You say I am arguing statistics; true. But at least I’m arguing from facts, from studies. You’re arguing from emotion. You’re scared of guns and, based on some of your prior pieces, you have a right to be scared of them. But IMHO you are letting your fear override reason.

        • David: I have thought a bit about your comments and Greg’s as well and here’s my question: When you walk into a restaurant, store, coffee shop, or Wal Mart and see a man carrying an AR-15, how do you know if he’s an open-carry advocate, a gun nut looking for trouble, or a schizophrenic whose inner voices are telling him to kill? They don’t wear signs advertising their intentions. What if an armed man makes the wrong call and shoots someone who has no intentions of starting trouble? If you make the call and you’re wrong you can end up a target or caught in the crossfire. Is that a risk any of us want to take when we go out of the house?

          • I don’t necessarily “know”. But neither do I “know” that a person two tables down is – or is not – a ‘banger waiting for a rival to come to a known hangout. Everyone – you, I – only know what we see.

            Then again, I don’t know if the person coming down my street is drunk, going to stop, maybe casing my house for a 2 AM visit…

  2. You didn’t think I’d let this one slip by, did you Aline? 😉

    First, all crime is declining, gun crime too. Even mass shootings are not increasing; what’s coloring your perception is that we’re hearing about them more. We also don’t hear about times when such things are stopped by people carrying guns. Doesn’t fit “The Narrative”.

    Second, you mention licensing for dogs, cars, etc. Neither of those are rights enumerated in the Constitution; firearms ownership is. And, IIRC, SCOTUS has ruled that one cannot license a right – can’t wait until someone challenges MA’s licensing laws.

    Third, some of your examples: how did they get their guns? According to the National Safety Council gun accident deaths are incredibly infrequent; most of the “children killed by guns” are “children” up to 19. Some kids. And most of those are not random, but victims of crossfire from drug dealers and other criminals.

    Fourth, odds are good that I’d rather have a person with a CCW license nearby, because they’re likely to have taken training, and they’ll be there pinning the bad guy down minutes before the cops get there. Remember, when seconds count, the police are just minutes away.

    In point of fact, John Lott did an enormous study, highlighted in his book “More Guns, Less Crime” showing that CCW laws DECREASED person-on-person crime. He’s a nice guy; autographed my copy of his book.

    And another fact: criminologist Gary Kleck is another nice guy; we’ve talked and corresponded on occasion. He did a LANDMARK study showing that gun owners deter crimes between 645,000 and 2.5 million times per year. His work is discussed, in detail, in the book “Armed” which I’ve repeatedly offered to loan you.

    There are significant cultural differences between countries; in the award-winning book “The Samurai, The Mountie, and The Cowboy” David Kopel (who, at one point, asked me to review a law article submission on firearms) examines many of these differences.

    Aline, I understand that you’ve been touched, several times, by people who have misused guns. I can’t change that. All I can ask is that you entertain that the “other side” might have points too.

    Speaking of which. I used to be anti-gun. Vehemently anti-gun. I changed my mind when I examined the evidence and cross-referenced data and studies between sides. And as soon as I have the money I’m buying a life membership in JPFO, “Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership”. I take “Never again!” seriously.

    • David: Of course I expected you to comment on this post. I knew the focus your comment would take. And I expected the statistical analysis. Did you read the six stories about “accidental” firearm deaths? Do you understand that children are killed every day because the adults in their lives leave unsecured, loaded weapons where they could reach them? I also suggest that you listen to this story from The Moth Radio Hour about a man who killed his best friend with his mother’s gun despite the fact that she had taught him gun safety and he knew better than to do what he did. Children are curious, they don’t know what’s bad for them and they can’t imagine that anyone their age can die. Statistics are comforting but they are just numbers. Lives are what matter. And it just seems to me that a lot of people in this country resist accepting that concept.

      • There is no question that kids – REAL kids, in the single digits of age – do die from shootings. But there is a difference between an accidental shooting and a drive-by banger spraying bullets everywhere.

        In the first case, speaking as a gun owner who has, well, quite a few weapons, nobody touches them but me. Period. And the kids know it. And I need to find a place to take the girl shooting so she understands them… when the boy gets old enough, he, too, will go.

        Each such accident is a tragedy; you want to focus on a larger problem, go after swimming pools.

        As to the second case, do you seriously think a cocaine dealer protecting his turf with a drive by shooting gives one scintilla of a f*ck about who gets hit?

        There is no such thing as a risk-free life. Car accidents happen every year, yet we accept the risk because cars are also useful. Dogs bite – even kill – people, yet we accept that risk. And so on.

        Guns are useful for self-protection, for hunting, and as a reminder to the government not to get… “ambitions”. And that last one, of course, is the TRUE purpose of the Second Amendment. Because gun owners don’t get into cattle cars.

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