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Arms and the American West

I was 14 years old when I first shot a gun. My family and I were at the local rod and gun club and I had just received my first gun safety lesson from an instructor. With my junior NRA rifle handbook under my arm, I took the .22 rifle that my dad had given me and went to the range. There were some boys there that I knew, also shooting, and I was vaguely interested in one of them. I took my first shots at the target.

During the next hour or so the shots of those around me became less distracting and my focus intensified on the concentric rings on that distant piece of paper. The instructor would stop and offer advice as he walked up and down past his students. “Don’t close your left eye; use your sight. Control your breathing, like so.” He then used a quarter to measure my shots’ distance from the bull’s eye. “A regular Annie Oakley,” he proclaimed, and I could see that I had done well. It was also a rare evening of leisure with my father, who worked as a locum tenens doctor in various tiny Montana towns. My family was together, and it is a good memory.

I added other memories to that one as I grew up, as friends shot their first elk or I watched my father clean his guns. The smell of gun oil still reminds me of him, and all of these memories linked me to a way of life that was still very much alive in Montana.

Last month I was reminded that this culture of the frontier still exists, when I traveled to Colorado, my birth state. I always miss the Rocky Mountains, and being in their presence with my extended family was a consolation. The years when we all lived near each other in the sight of Mt. Evans were some of the best. Since I now live in the San Francisco Bay Area, I can never be sure what is actually happening in the rest of the country, but yes indeed, the guns were still there. A few streets down from my uncle’s home is a house with a sign above the garage door, “We don’t call 911.” If you can guess what is mounted under that sign, then you can probably conclude, as I have, that guns are still a part of our identity. For if you were to travel to Wisconsin, or Louisiana, or New Hampshire, you would find gun racks in pick-up trucks, and probably a few signs with similar messages.

Why are we so taken with guns? Some might look to find their legacy rooted in the Constitution, but gun culture has not maintained its momentum from our founding documents. Early Americans did rely on firearms, and citizens were compelled to purchase firearms during the Revolutionary War. I maintain, however, that our current gun culture, with its view of the individual as lone hero and defender, is the product of the frontier. For the most part we can trace our attitude towards guns from the opening of the American West, in an unbroken legacy that approximates 150 years.

Guns have their best advocate in the cowboy of old. He is still one of our central heroic figures, though a flawed one, and his erstwhile reliance on weaponry is still romanticized. We see his influence on everything from modern individual ideas of defense of the homestead to our leaders’ conduct in foreign affairs. Frontiersman culture, which American elites dismiss as corny and retrograde, is still very much alive in the Western U.S. Until our cultural arbiters of taste understand the cowboy’s influence and can find an effective archetype to replace him, he will reign supreme.

Just how hard is it to topple the cowboy from his heroic status? All of Montana (about 850,000 people) was abuzz when the novel Lonesome Dove was being adapted and filmed as a mini-series there. Having read it only recently, I was struck by the story’s violence: all of the stupid characters die, as well as some of the smarter ones. One character, elderly and deranged, methodically stacks thousands of buffalo skulls into high pyramids under the blazing Texas sun. The grim absurdity of his actions reminded me less of a freewheeling western and more of a Kurt Vonnegut novel.

In writing Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry sought to restore the cowboy and his world to the realm of reality. Regardless, fans of the tale have persisted in exalting both arms and the man. McMurtry admitted defeat in an interview with Mother Jones magazine:

MJ: To what degree have you succeeded in your demythologizing mission?

LM: I haven’t succeeded at all. It’s just as racist and misogynistic as it ever was. The image of the cowboy is one of the dominant images in American culture….

MJ: You felt that Lonesome Dove was misinterpreted, that you’d intended it as an anti-Western. In what sense?

LM: Would you like your menfolk to be that way? The Western myth is a heroic myth, and yet settling the West was not heroic. It ended with Custer; it was the end of the settlement narrative, which had been going on since 1620.

At least one historian has joined McMurtry in the cause of cultural change. One cannot research the history of guns in America without coming across Michael Bellesiles’ Arming America, a book that won and then lost the prestigious Bancroft Prize in the space of one year. Bellesiles sought to prove that guns had not always been a part of American culture, and concluded that our gun culture could be undone. Truth rings clearer in McMurtry’s novel than in Bellesiles work, however, as an independent academic panel later reviewed Bellesiles’ methods and data and found them lacking. As I traced the rise and fall of this potential source, I realized the extent of Bellesiles’ commitment to his gun-free premise. His Procrustean endeavor, however, has left the cowboy untouched.

So the stubborn figure of the cowboy and his troubling settlement narrative endures. Even as we acknowledge it, we must always frame it in the West, a place that remains as expansive, wild, and lovely as portrayed by the most fanciful of westerns. Its resiny mountain air and sun-warmed sage still permeate our senses, and when we experience its expanse and heights, we still feel grateful to be a part of its scale. And so our relationship to place remains as complicated as any other relationship, and if we are honest, as we should be in relationships, we know that the past never just goes away.

I’m willing to conjecture, however, and imagine an America where Bellesiles’ conclusion plays out. If the rifles were to be turned to plowshares, who, if anyone, would replace the cowboy? The app developer? My husband’s family settled our California town 170 years ago, and its muddy Main Street once hosted some wilder elements. Main Street has long been civilized, and the winemaker has replaced the cowboy. Even so, the winemakers still wear cowboy boots.

Abigail Palmer lives with her family in California, where she translates Latin, teaches and writes.

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