In the aftermath of the Buffalo and Uvalde mass shootings, 70% of Republicans said it was more important to protect gun rights than to control gun violence, while 92% of Democrats and 54% of independents expressed the opposite view. Just weeks after that mass shooting, Republicans and gun rights advocates upheld the Supreme Court ruling declaring the state of New York’s gun license law invalid and declaring the Second Amendment guarantees the right to carry a handgun outside the home for self-defense.
Mayor Eric Adams, who voiced his opposition to the ruling, suggested the court’s decision would turn New York City into the “Wild West.” Contrary to the images of the Wild West, however, many towns in the real Old West had restrictions on carrying guns that, I would suggest, were stricter than the one that had just been invalidated by the Supreme Court.
Support for gun rights among Republicans has played an important role in determining the content of the two-party law on safer communities, the first new gun reform bill in three decades. President Joe Biden signed it just two days after the Supreme Court’s ruling was released. In order to attract Republican support, the new law does not include gun control proposals such as a ban on assault weapons, universal background checks or raising the purchase age to 21 for certain types of guns. The bill was nevertheless condemned by other Republicans in Congress and was opposed by the National Rifle Association.
I have found that for those Americans who see the gun as both symbolizing and guaranteeing individual freedom, gun control laws are considered fundamentally un-American and a threat to their freedom. To the most ardent proponents of gun rights, gun violence – as horrific as it is – is an acceptable price to pay for that freedom.
My analysis finds that gun culture in the US largely stems from its frontier past and the mythology of the “Wild West,” which romanticizes guns, prisoners, crude individualism, and the inevitability of gun violence. This culture ignores the fact that gun control was widespread and widespread in the Old West.
The appearance of guns
Guns are part of a deep political divide in American society. The more guns a person possesses, the greater the chance that they will oppose gun control legislation, and the greater the chance that they will vote for Republican candidates.
By 2020, 44% of U.S. households reported owning at least one firearm. According to the 2018 international study Small Arms Survey, there were approximately 393 million firearms in civilian hands in the U.S., or 120.5 firearms per 100 people. This number is likely to be higher now, given increases in arms sales in 2019, 2020 and 2021.
Americans have owned firearms since colonial times, but American gun culture really took off after the Civil War with the images, icons and stories – or mythology – of the lawless border 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 double novels, and traveling Wild West performances by Buffalo Bill Cody and others. It continues to this day with Western-themed programs on streaming networks such as “Yellowstone” and “Walker.”
A marketing move
Historian Pamela Haag attributes much of the country’s gun culture to that Western theme. Before the mid-19th century, she writes, guns were common in American society, but were imperceptible tools used by a wide variety of people in a growing nation.
But then arms manufacturers Colt and Winchester began marketing their firearms by appealing to customers’ sense of adventure and the romance of the frontier. In the mid-19th century, arms manufacturers began advertising their guns as a way for people across the country to engage with the excitement of the West, with its Indian wars, cattle, cowboys, and gold and silver boom towns. Winchester’s slogan was “The gun that won the West”, but The Hague argues that it was really “the West that won the gun”.
By 1878, this theme was so successful that Colt’s New York City distributor recommended that the company market the .44-40 caliber version of its Model 1873 single-action revolver as the “Frontier Six Shooter” to appeal to the to make public’s growing fascination with the Wild. Wes.
Weapon ownership was common in the Old West after the Civil War, but actual gun battles were rare. One reason was that, contrary to mythology, many frontier towns had strict gun laws, especially against carrying concealed weapons.
As Professor Adam Winkler states in UCLA’s constitutional law: “Rifles were widespread on the border, but so was gun regulation. “Wild West lawmakers have taken gun control seriously and have regularly arrested people who violated their town’s gun control laws.”
“Gunsmoke,” the iconic TV show that ran from the 1950s to the 1970s, would have seen far fewer gun fights if its fictional marshal, Matt Dillon, had enforced Dodge City’s real laws banning the carrying of any firearms within city limits.
The appeal of this mythology extends to this day. In August 2021, a Colt Frontier Six Shooter became the world’s most expensive firearm when auction house Bonhams “sold the gun that killed Billy the Kid” for more than $ 6 million at auction. As a mere antique firearm, that revolver would be worth a few thousand dollars. Its astronomical selling price was due to its Wild West origins.
The historical reality of the American frontier was more complex and nuanced than its popular mythology. But it is the mythology that fuels American gun culture today that rejects the type of laws that were common in the Old West.
A special view of security and freedom
Hardcore gun owners, their lobbyists and many members of the Republican Party refuse to allow the thousands of annual firearms deaths and the additional thousands of non-fatal shootings to be used as justification to restrict their rights as law-abiding citizens.
They are prepared to accept armed violence as an inevitable side effect of a free and armed but violent society.
Their opposition to new gun reforms as well as current trends in gun rights legislation – such as permit-free carrying and the arming of teachers – are but the latest manifestations of American gun culture’s deep roots in border mythology.
Wayne LaPierre, executive director of the National Rifle Association, the country’s largest gun rights group, used images from border mythology and American gun culture after 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 movie: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. . ”
This view of a lone, armed person who can get up and save the day has since continued and offers its own answer to mass shooting: Guns are not the problem – they are the solution.