I don’t know much about guns. My immediate experience amounts to about three different occasions in my whole life. Yet I have vivid memories of each.
The first time was when I was six years old. It was twilight, and my cousin Kenny and I had been out exploring beyond the grape vineyards and across the creek that bordered our grandfather’s farm. As we stood there at the edge of the field on the threshold of the blackening woods, I heard a rustling in the grass and could make out the shadowy form of a large garter snake. Kenny, who was 11, carried a small pistol his dad had given him. He began shooting at the snake, finally hitting it in the head. After several seconds, the snake stopped moving. Leaving it there in the darkness, we walked quickly and silently back toward the safe, orange glow of the farmhouse.
The second time was when I was 15 after getting my hunting license. It was during a time of construction and expansion in the town. Backhoes and bulldozers had torn up a big chunk of land at the outskirts, destroying a great rabbit warren and scattering its denizens in all directions to seek shelter in the log and brush piles. My friend Tommy and I, who knew about that warren, went there with our shotguns one Saturday morning in October. Kicking at the logs and shaking the brush piles, we rousted them, one, two, three, sometimes whole families at a time. Hardly aiming, we shot a half dozen within a few minutes.
Much later in life, I shot for the third time. It was with my friend Lyle (who but a redneck would be named Lyle?) in late October out on the plains. Our target was his field of rotting pumpkins. I couldn’t help but think what it would feel like to shoot a real person as I blasted those pale blobs that splattered into pieces.
So I don’t know much about guns. But I know something about American history and the role guns played throughout the westward expansion.
More than that, I know about guns in the history of popular culture and the thousand-and-one myths that have contributed to their 21st century popularity.
The legends of Jesse James, perhaps our original anti-hero, underscored the American sense of individualism and cynicism regarding officious law enforcement; in that sense, he is our version of Robin Hood.
Billy the Kid incited within us a sense of horror and self-blame. A series of personal misfortunes and social injustices had turned an innocent boy into a merciless killer, and we could not help him.
The dime novels of the post-Civil War period offered sensationalized versions of Indians, outlaws, and colorful heroes. Here were the one-dimensional archetypes that would evolve into the internally conflicted protagonists of the epic western novels of Zane Grey, and later, the John Ford films.
My first TV recollection is of Rawhide, a show that featured the cowboys who drove the cattle herds over the Chisholm and Sedalia Trails from San Antonio to Kansas City. Clint Eastwood, as young Rowdy Yates, represented the antithesis of Billy the Kid. A young gunner, under the guidance of a wise adult, could learn restraint, despite his predisposition to shoot first.
Then there was the image of Roy Rogers firing his pistol into the air from atop a magnificently rearing Trigger. Roy was a decent and somewhat refined man-of-the-law who used his gun only as a last resort.
In Gunsmoke, one of the most intense Western series, Marshall Matt Dillon was nearly shot to death several times while trying to maintain order and seek justice in a dangerous Dodge City. The bad guys on this show were some of the most evil villains ever portrayed on TV, and we rejoiced at their being shot down in the street at the hands of the good Marshall.
Perhaps the greatest of all was Bonanza. America’s love affair with the Cartwrights aired for fourteen years (second only to Gunsmoke). The backstory of a motherless, wifeless family was compelling. These were decent men, representing the most wholesome yet complex set of characters on television. Little Joe (Michael Landon), with his mane flowing from under his cowboy hat, was one of the sexiest ever to wear a gun belt and holster. And when he was forced to use his pistol, it was absolutely right.
Clint Eastwood returned, this time to the Big Screen, and through several films came to embody the new American West gunman. He was typically dark, disconcerted, brooding, cynical, always dangerous; he would ultimately retaliate against the world’s injustices.
Later he morphed into Dirty Harry, a modern day vigilante who carried a big gun and uttered things to the bad guys such as “Go ahead, make my day.”
Fascination with guns is rooted deep in the American psyche. It is part of the DNA of our collective mentality. It imbues every boy’s dreams, infuses every man’s reckoning with a world that threatens. For many who practice real shooting, I imagine it becomes a kind of extension of the self, much like the instrument in the hands of a musician.
And in that collective consciousness, the idea of guns has come to symbolize the key to the opening of the great American frontier and all its treasures—an endlessly expanding universe of freedom and opportunity. That ideal is founded on a principle expressed through the Second Amendment. We have the innate human right to defend ourselves and to preserve the law of the land. And when we are trapped, we are justified in shooting our way out.
But against whom or what are we defending ourselves in this post-Western American pop culture? After Dirty Harry, our heroes became the likes of Rambo and John McClane and a host of other watered down versions. As these plots became more and more implausible and the characters less and less believable, directors like Quentin Tarantino capitalized on a whole new way of making violence a kind of character in itself, a character that appeals to the basest aspects of human nature, or becomes the living fantasy of the mentally depraved.
Here’s my point: Just as intelligent plot and character development has been replaced or obscured by the demand for incredible violence in films, the original intent of the Second Amendment has been displaced and obscured by the interests of big business, i.e. gun manufacturers, and lobby groups like the NRA.
What is the nature of this perceived threat to American citizens that warrants the right for anyone to buy any kind of gun? Who or what is it that has brought about this demand for easy access to the kinds of automated weaponry that can mow down a classroom full of little kids or citizens at a theater, all in mere seconds? Who or what is it that would prompt parents to train their eight-year-old daughter to learn to fire an Uzi? Who or what is this monster that threatens our civil liberties to the extent where we must arm ourselves to the teeth with weapons that are designed for one purpose—to kill other human beings as rapidly and efficiently as technology will allow?
I try to imagine what it is those advocates of absolute gun rights fear. Is it our own government? Is it Obama himself, who might order up an army of Chicago Blacks, or worse, Muslims in red coats to attack their towns and take over their property? Or is it boatloads of Chinese who will land on the beaches of California while the Mexicans advance from the South?
Maybe I have stumbled upon a plot here for a new Hollywood film: The True Patriot Wars. Peppered here and there among the battle scenes, we’ll meet colorful characters much like those in the dime novels. In the end, the ones with the best killing machines will win.