19 December 2012

Don't want no trouble here in my place

The West never happened. Cowboys in the 19th century were not, by and large, self-driven lonely men making their own lives on their own terms. They were extremely poor. They were employed by eastern meat-packing firms and were lucky if they owned their own kits. A large number—perhaps a half—were Mexican or freed African-Americans; in addition there were Native Peoples and Chinese on the range. But mythical cowboys loom large in the consciousness of the United States, as does the idea of fending for oneself and making your way by the seat of your pants and the sweat off your brow. This heroic vision of the cowboy as a master of survival, handy with a gun, and ready to fight for what's right grew out of the Wild West shows of Buffalo Bill and others and eventually reached its pure form in the Hollywood films of the 1950s.

Those films were a treasure trove of clichés that all of us know even if we've never seen High Noon. The lone deputy defending the town; the saloon with its rinky-tink piano and swinging doors; the crazy prospector who just struck it rich; the defenseless homesteader in need of saving. One particularly well-worn trope is a scene played over and over in many Westerns: a gunman strides into the bar; patrons look up from their drinks or cards nervously. The bartender spies the man's firearm and shouts "You have to leave your weapon at the door. Don't want no trouble here in my place."

It's telling that this scene is such a common chestnut in the midst of a genre that celebrates the ideal of gun ownership. The barkeep and the patrons recognize the introduction of danger. Perhaps the gunman is virtuous and poses no threat. Perhaps his intent is only to protect himself and others. But the presence of the gun itself invites all sorts of mischief. Someone else could get their hands on the gun. Someone else could feel threatened and respond with violence. Someone else could get shot when the gunman draws. Trouble here in my place.

I get it. The desire to protect yourself and to protect others is strong, even noble, and it's wrapped up with a lot of stuff we like to believe about masculinity, self-sufficiency, and competence. The world is full of real, actual threats and we want to take action against them. It's possible that you could own a gun and train carefully with that gun and keep it maintained and secure and that one day you will save the life of someone you love by shooting dead a very bad person. Here are some other, perhaps likelier outcomes: You could try to shoot the bad person and instead have the weapon turned against you. You could try to shoot the bad person and kill someone else, perhaps the person you were trying to defend. The bad person will see you have a gun and become much more dangerous.

Even more likely are the outcomes that don't involve self-defence: The weapon will remain unused, but you yourself will become more paranoid and hardened to the world. You could have a very bad day and reach for a convenient way out. You could have a very bad argument with someone you love and whom you would've forgiven if you'd only had the time. You could think that you were shooting a bad person and will instead kill a frightened teenager in a hoodie. You could be a responsible, safe, licensed owner and one day someone very close to you will kill you with your weapon and then kill many others, mostly children. 

This is why many of us are skeptical of the idea that we'd all be much safer if more of us were armed. We are all too aware of the possibilities. It's not even that we don't trust you—although really, we don't know you—it's that we can feel, instinctively, the way that the presence of one more weapon makes the situation that much more unstable. Trouble. Here in our place.


  1. I went to college with your brother Dan, and I have thanked him for posting this on Facebook, but wanted to thank you directly as well. This sums up my feelings very, very well and I appreciate the thought and effort you've put into this. Thank you!

  2. Hi John,

    I found the write-up on the old west interesting. What you state regarding the lifestyles at that time in the west seems quite plausible, and generally coincides with what I have read over the years. However, same as the book Flatland was written to offer pointed observations on the social hierarchy of the Victorian culture without actually calling it out directly, it seems to me the post is actually an attempt at portraying gun owners as potentially paranoid people that would possibly do more damage than good in a dangerous situation. I offer an alternative viewpoint from someone that actually does carry a firearm "when it is responsible to do so".

    Your post *seems* quite theoretical, such as a person writing about the dangers of riding a bicycle without actually owning a bicycle which is ridden frequently. I cannot escape this conclusion by reading the paragraph that begins with: "Even more likely are the outcomes that don't involve self-defence: The weapon will remain unused, but you yourself will become more paranoid and hardened to the world". Note that I do agree that a paranoid person should not carry a handgun. I just disagree that a civilian firearm owner will likely become paranoid.

    I focus on offering an alternative viewpoint to attempt to educate the MANY people that live in a big city where Police Response Time can be measured in the low minutes and therefore who simply believe (mostly incorrectly) that civilian gun owners are "glorifying the firearm" or playing Rambo.

    For us that live in a more rural setting, where the Sheriffs response time can be over 20 minutes, owning a firearm is the responsible course of action. Picture receiving a reverse 911 call from your county sheriff, remembering the response time, that states "lock all your doors and windows, there are 2 armed and dangerous kidnappers on the loose in your area. If you see anything suspicious, please report the incident to us immediately". You can try a baseball bat or knives against the armed intruders if they break into your house, but I believe most people would recommend a firearm. There are also areas where if you take your dog for a walk, there is a measurable threat of a wildlife attack and so you also may carry a weapon to defend yourself.

    Remember a firearm is a tool. It is a normal response to be afraid of a dangerous tool when you first use one, such as perhaps a chain-saw, which easily could be fatal. After consistent use and training, the mindset of carrying a weapon is quite similar to that of carrying your motor vehicle keys in your pocket. Consider, you *could* just start up your 2 ton automobile or truck and run through a crowded open air mall. How often does someone consider that when they pick up their keys? Probably never, since they use the vehicle consistently and only for its intended purpose.

    Most people who do not own guns have no idea what it entails to own a gun. This statement should be self evident. Just as if someone gave you a chain-saw and said go cut that 60 foot tree down, and by the way don't hit my house, when you have never handled a chain-saw.

    In closing, I believe it is the right for anybody NOT to want to carry a firearm if they so wish (this freedom is NOT always the case in some countries). To those that choose the course not to own a firearm (or even those that do), I highly suggest that they read the following article "On Sheep, Wolves, and Sheepdogs", by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman.