There Are All Kinds Of Myths About Why We Love Guns, But Myths Don’t Help Us Reduce Gun Violence At All.

What is a myth?  According to most dictionaries, a myth is a widely held but false idea or belief.  And if there’s one area where myths abound, it’s in the statements made by Gun-nut Nation to justify their ownership of guns.  Now I have no problem with tall tales – we all learned fairy tales as kids, we then went on to be enchanted by The Wizard of Oz or Alice in Wonderland, but if you get into a discussion with someone and want to prove a particular point, you’re not about to use a rhyme from Doctor Seuss as your source.

boone1           Unless someone wants to explain why they just went out and bought another gun. Because the one thing that nobody in Gun-nut Nation will ever admit is that they just picked up their tenth, or twentieth, or thirtieth gun because they had a few extra bucks in their pocket and the truck doesn’t yet need a new set of brakes.  But nobody wants to admit that they didn’t have a good reason to lay down some real, cold cash, so out comes the nonsense about they ‘need’ the gun because guns are our American heritage and without guns we would not have ever settled this great land.  Or if that one doesn’t work, they can always trot out the 2nd-Amendment script about how guns make us ‘free,’ and if that one doesn’t fly, let’s not forget that ‘guns protect us from crime.’

These slogans are all nothing but myths but the reason they are so powerful, the reason why people believe them, hold onto them, often shape their views of themselves and the world around them is because every myth has just enough reality within it to appear plausible, logical and true. For example, let’s look at the myth about how guns made it possible to conquer the frontier and turn an inhospitable wilderness into a verdant and rich landscape from sea to shining sea.

The settlers who got off the boats first in Virginia and then at Plymouth Bay came armed with guns.  And they used these guns to hunt game and, on occasion, shoot a few pesky Native Americans who got in the way.  But the forest which started right at the water’s edge stretched clear through to the Great Plains.  And in order to open land for crops and animal husbandry this immense woodland had to be cleared.  And what cleared it was controlled burning, called swidden, and then mechanized farm implements like plows.

Daniel Boone didn’t discover Cumberland Gap by using a gun.  He got friendly with Indians and followed them through the valleys that had been used by Native Americans since prehistoric times.  And there was so much rich, open land that the early settlers didn’t have to rotate crops as they did in Europe in order to keep land fertile; the moment a piece of land became less productive, they picked up, tramped a couple of hundred miles further west, and started a new farm over again.

From earliest times guns were used for hunting and self-defense. But what settled America wasn’t the frontiersman, or the mountain-man, or the hunter.  It was the farmer and then the stock breeder, all of whom owned guns but didn’t use those guns either to clear forest land or fence off the plains. And when guns were used to pacify and exploit the wilderness, this was largely the work of commercial hunters whose furnishing of hides and feathers to urban markets drove many game species almost to the point of becoming extinct.

And that’s what gun myths are really all about: take a tiny bit of evidence and turn it into an explanation for how a whole country developed and grew which then validates the way you behave today. But guess what?  You don’t reduce 115,000+ yearly gun injuries by inventing a myth. You reduce that kind of violence by understanding its true cause – the existence of guns.

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There’s Still Plenty Of Wilderness In The Lower 48: Just Use Your Imagination.

Badlands from the Elkhorn (sm)

Elkhorn Ranch courtesy Sean Palfrey

In 1883, then 25-year old Theodore Roosevelt went out to the western edge of North Dakota to fulfill his dream of shooting a trophy buffalo and bringing the mounted head back to his home in New York.  Roosevelt had been interested in nature and natural environments since he was a little boy and his affinity for the outdoors was eagerly encouraged by his father, Theodore Sr., who was one of the founders of the New York’s American Museum of Natural History in 1869. By the time he was a teenager, Roosevelt had trecked through much of the Adirondacks and journeyed through Europe and Egypt collecting specimens of all kinds, but the trip to the West in 1883 marked the first time that Roosevelt actually immersed himself in what was still wilderness lands.

Actually, the wilderness that Roosevelt hunted through in 1883 was, in reality, almost gone.  The transcontinental railroad linked both coasts since 1869, the Plains Indians were more or less pacified by 1877 (and slaughtered at Wounded Knee in 1890), and the U.S. Census announced that there were between 6 and 20 people living on every square mile of land in at least half the land mass of the lower 48.  Which meant that the wilderness, as far as the U.S. government was concerned, was gone.

TR was keenly aware of these changes, partly because he knew that it wouldn’t be much longer until animals like the American bison would be gone for evermore; but he was also a man of his times who believed that the frontier represented a remarkable resource for nation-building, both in economic and cultural terms.  In many respects, his comments sprinkled through his writings about the virtues of living on the frontier, presaged the single, most important essay ever written about the development of America, namely, Frederick Jackson Turner’s ‘Frontier Thesis,” published in 1894.  In this essay, the author described America as being uniquely different from Europe insofar as the social, economic and legal institutions brought over from the Old World were not the same institutions that were developing as the country moved West.  In this latter space, basically the land between the Missouri River and the western coast, America was developing a new brand of institutions, a new culture, a new organizational ethos that reflected the egalitarianism and independence of the frontier.

Not only did Turner and Roosevelt know each other’s works, but Roosevelt used Turner’s ideas to sell his notions about conservation and nature to skeptical politicians whose support he needed to promote and develop what later became our present-day system of natural monuments, including national historic sites, national preserves and reservations and, the greatest treasure of all, the national parks. The law that TR signed in 1906 gave the President the right to designate “historical landmarks, historic preservation structures and other objects of scientific interest,” which today represents 12% of the protected landscape in the entire world.  That’s not bad considering that the U.S. occupies 6% of the globe’s land mass.

The reason I find TR so fascinating is that all of this interest and concern about preserving nature grew out of his desire to go into natural places in order to hunt big game.  Which is something which a visitor can still feel by visiting what remains of TR’s Elkhorn ranch.  The property lies midway between the two branches of the national park named after our 26th President, and while the ranch house itself has not been preserved, you can stand where TR stood in front of the house and look over the Badlands the same way that Sean Palfrey looked over the Badlands when he took the photo which adorns this page. And then bed down for the evening, watch the stars come out, and wait for the first slivers of daylight to brighten the sky behind the buttes overlooking the ranch.  And maybe if you are quiet enough, a few of the bison who once again claim this area as their home will amble by.  It may not be wilderness in the technical sense, but it’s as good as you’ll ever get.