America’s Gun Myth

Ad for Daisy air rifle, c. 1968.

Columbine. Red Lake. Sandy Hook. Parkland. Santa Fe. The names of the schools where shootings have occurred ring out in a frightening, familiar litany. Some remain in the public consciousness for years. Other fade from memory as soon as the news cameras and microphones are put away.

Twenty years ago, my own district became the site of one such shooting. Edinboro, PA. Late April, 1998. I was a high school senior set to graduate in a few weeks’ time, and had spent the day with classmates on a field trip to Toronto. We visited the CN Tower and felt the thrill of vertigo standing on its glass floor, and cracked jokes about receiving Canadian currency in change after lunching at a nearby McDonalds. I toured the Ontario Science Centre with a group of friends and marveled at the tiny poison frogs, preternaturally bright, in the rainforest exhibition. We chattered on the four-hour bus ride back, arriving back in Edinboro shortly before midnight. And we returned to our homes and went to sleep, not knowing that our quiet college town had just become a bellwether for a horrifying trend of shootings that would only grow more nightmarish in the coming years.

I learned the news early the following morning. Four people had been shot, one fatally. The casualties included my middle school science teacher Mr. Gillette, a tall, blue-eyed former football coach. He was only in his 40s, but his balding head made him appear older, at least to my teenage eyes. He and I had a good relationship, once talking about geodes and minerals after class following my family’s trip to Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. And now Mr. Gillette was dead.

I remember walking out to the backyard in shock.  It was a beautiful spring day, bright and warm, with white clouds drifting in the sky. I sat in a hammock and looked at robins hopping on the tree branches, wondering how the world went on, how nature could be so oblivious to the fact that my entire town had been rocked off of its axis.

As the weekend passed there were vigils and songs and candles and prayers. Come Monday, we returned to school. I walked a media gauntlet every step along the sidewalk from the parking lot to the school entrance, a gauntlet now lined with news vans and cameras and reporters from the local newspapers all the way up to national networks. I didn’t want to look at them. I didn’t feel like “news.” I felt only sad, confused, invaded. And pissed off.

We weren’t headlines. We were kids.

At home, I saw my town and the story of what became known as the “Parker Middle School shooting” surreally played out on CNN and other outlets. It quickly grew into a repeated narrative: a 14-year-old loner named Andy Wurst had taken his father’s gun, entered the venue where the off-campus dance was being held, and shot Mr. Gillette on the patio. He then opened fire on his 8th grade classmates before running out of the building into a nearby cornfield. The venue’s owner, armed with a shotgun, gave chase and Andy was taken into police custody. He remains in prison today.

Lake Edinboro. Edinboro, PA.

Eventually the reporters and their ever-present cameras went away, and I was relieved. While the media was present, they had a wildly distorting effect on everyday life. The story they told about the place I lived wasn’t one I could recognize.  I’d grown up a free range kid, riding bikes with friends across town and spending hours playing imaginary games in a nearby woods. My parents hardly ever locked their doors. Violent crimes were practically unknown. And yet, overnight, home had seemingly become a place where previously unconceivable violence could – and had – occurred.

Too many other American towns have shared in this experience. Too many other students have lost classmates, friends, teachers. Too many other children haven’t lived to see their high school graduation.

I am angry. I am angrier now than I was 20 years ago. Because we have seen this. Again and again and again. And again. We grope for ways to explain it, for ways we can assure ourselves that every time will be the last time. All too often, the answer is another gun. We create the myth of escaping death by becoming capable of inflicting it. This myth has long, insidious roots.

Because didn’t guns win the West? Didn’t the American Revolution start with “the shot heard ‘round the world”? Isn’t the “right to bear arms” as unalienable as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

The fact is – for anyone who still cares for facts – guns remained exceptionally rare for America’s first decades. Gunsmiths were few and far between, as only a small number of settlers could afford firearms. Guns were expensive and time-consuming to make. Many components, including gunpowder, had to be imported from England, as colonists lacked the means to produce these materials themselves. During the War for Independence, American forces relied heavily on shipments of French muskets. After the war, American-produced guns remained modest in number; the Hawkens brothers, a well-known pair of St. Louis gunsmiths, employed a dozen men and even then they were only able to make about a hundred rifles a year.  The U.S. government itself shied away from encouraging new gun manufacture well into the mid-1800s. For years after the Civil War, Springfield was stuck using leftover parts from Civil War-era weapons in the rifles that it produced for the U.S. Army. And Army brass frowned upon weapons capable of rapid fire. Bullets cost money, and officers worried that trigger-happy soldiers would waste too much ammunition.

But as American gun production became easier, cheaper, and faster, companies skillfully manufactured a need for guns along with the guns themselves. Advertisements presented firearms in all manner of alluring guises, from the hallmark of gentleman shooter, to a reliable form of home defense, and even as a stylish accessory for fashionable women. During the 1880s and 1890s, manufacturers targeted female buyers with illustrations of attractive, corseted ladies engaged in hunting or sport shooting with “suitable” (i.e. small caliber) rifles. These chic women frequently appeared surrounded by admiring men as well as other quarry. Simultaneously, Colt marketed revolvers toward nascent police forces in America’s larger cities. (In those days, many police officers furnished their own weapons.) The grips of Colt’s 1888 “New Police Single Action Five-Shot Revolving Pistols” are decorated with an image of a uniformed policeman. The officer is drawing a gun against an assailant. His assailant is brandishing a knife.

But what sells guns better than fear? Guns have promised protection against everything from burglars to vagrants to attacking grizzlies. Now some of us look to guns to protect us against school shootings. I believe such hopes will be disappointed. Rather, they indicate the dangers of when inherited beliefs go unquestioned.

Guns did not build America. And I’m convinced that more guns will not save it. Only courage and change will do that. Courage to question and challenge the status quo, as the students from Parkland have been doing. And change that is abysmally overdue – change in our worldview, change in our policies, change in the way we look at guns. Some myths we need to let die.

References:

Douglas C. McChristian. The U.S. Army in the West, 1870-1880: Uniforms, Weapons, and Equipment. University of Oklahoma Press. Norman, OK, 1995. p. 107

Laura Browder. Her Best Shot: Women and Guns in America. University of North Caroline Press. Chapel Hill, NC, 2006. pp. 3 -7.

Colt’s Military and Sporting Arms, 1888. Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company. Autry National Center, Museum for the American West. Object ID 87.118.167.

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2 Comments

    1. It is something I’ve been wanting to say for awhile, I think. And this weekend it all came out. The research on guns in early America I found particularly stunning – so much of the lore around them simply isn’t substantiated by the available historical evidence. And this piece in today’s Washington Post has an interesting summation of the NRA’s changing views on access to firearms: https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2018/national/gun-control-1968/?utm_term=.11bd63dc47b0

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