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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How Savage Were Those Savages? Part 2 of 2.

Native Americans flee from the allegorical rep...

Native Americans flee from the allegorical representation of Manifest Destiny, Columbia, painted in 1872 by John Gast (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the last post I tried to explain that the two civilizations that confronted each other when the United States cleared its wilderness had very different social and political structures because of the difference in how they viewed and used land.  For the Indians, land was something held in common by everyone but owned by no one.  For Whites, land was property with its value set by the market.  We used the Common Law and the political system based on Common Law to secure and protect property; Indians had no law to protect property, hence, no political system based on anything like our conception of laws.

Added to this different view of land was how it was used.  Indigenous populations used land for subsistence; they took what they needed from the land but what they took was the amount required for survival of the tribe.  For white Americans, what was produced from the land very quickly passed from subsistence of people living on the land to commercial enterprise in faraway markets.  Within one generation after the frontier was opened to settlement, even the settlers were deriving their primary goods from faraway markets, delivered to them by wagons, canals and trains.

This difference in how we used land only intensified the degree to which white settlers and the promoters of settlement (commercial interests, government) viewed the Indians as a less-civilized species whose removal from the frontier was a “natural” consequence of the change from wilderness to settled lands.  And the “proof” that the Indians weren’t civilized was the extent to which all our efforts to provide them with the advantages of our civilization through the development of the reservation system ultimately failed.

What’s so interesting about the Indian-White confrontation in North America is that at the beginning, when fur trappers and traders first went West over the Great Plains and through the Rockies, they had a much different view of the Indian civilization than what later emerged when we later pushed the Indians out of the way.  Not only did the early Western explorers need the Indians to show them the trails, the watering-holes and the game, they also reflected again and again on the civilized manner in which the Indians behaved.  Here’s the description of a Snake chief recorded by a member of the Wyeth expedition that crossed the Rockies in 1834: “The chief is a man about fifty years of age, tall and dignified looking with large, strong aquiline features. His manners were cordial and agreeable.”  And here’s a description of Indians met by another traveler in 1810: “Their manner of speaking is extremely dignified and energetic. They gesticulate with great force, freedom and animation.”

These early descriptions of the ‘uncivilized’ inhabitants of our ‘wilderness’ can be found in many of the journals and letters of Western explorers collected on a remarkable website devoted to the history of the Western fur trade.  Reading these documents, and comparing their contents to the “Manifest Destiny” exhortations of Polk or John Quincy Adams makes clear just how different were the views of Whites and Indians about the land in which both were now having to live.  Did the inability of indigenous peoples to cut canals, railroad tracks and highways through this landscape mark them as savages? You decide.

Based on my book, Hunters in the Wilderness.  Volume II in the series, Guns in America, to be published in December.