Opinion

Gun-totin‘America turning into Wild West

“Mammas,” the old country song advised, “don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys.” Pity nobody took the message to heart. Has anybody noticed that this country is turning into the Wild West?

Sure looks like everyone wants to be a cowboy, not necessarily with cows involved but certainly guns.

In Austin, Texans with holstered guns gathered New Year’s Day on the steps of their state Capitol to celebrate a new law promoting the open-carry of firearms for folks with licenses.

Why not? Plenty of Americans think the solution to more gun violence is more guns. They believe that armed, responsible law-abiding citizens never get drunk, never lose their temper in traffic, never have suicidal thoughts or mental disturbances and never become involved in jealous love triangles.

We are all safer, right? Absolutely, as long as the Tooth Fairy has a pistol.

While it is tempting to dismiss this as Texas being Texas, where everything is big except possibly brains, lots of states have open-carry laws. The gun culture is everywhere and it carries a strong whiff of the old West, not of the sage but the stables.

As if to prove the point, a posse of armed activists in Oregon took over a federal wildlife reserve — on the theory that conservatives want freebies from the government too, in this case land.

So before we blame America’s gun violence on the gun lobby and the members of Congress who love it and pimp for it, let us mosey on down to take a look at the gun culture that makes the cows look like the sensible ones. That’s the whole shooting match right there.

Here’s the problem: While many folks like me think the nation is turning back into the Wild West, others think that would be just swell.

The other day, President Barack Obama took executive action to better control gun sales in an attempt to thwart the regularly occurring gun massacres, which promise to bring an OK Corral shoot-out to a school, college, cinema or church near you, sooner or later.

Obama did this because on the gun issue, Congress has been a border town where most of the folks are having a siesta, dreaming how safe everybody would be if only they kept a big iron on their hip. If only.

As soon as the president acted, the usual herd of long-horned steers stampeded, wild-eyed and snorting. A terrible bellowing was heard: “The Second Amendment has been lassoed and hog-tied” — which, of course, it hadn’t. The Second Amendment suffered no injury, just a mild salve of responsibility put on its lame parts.

This nation’s infatuation with the shoot-’em-up ways of the old West is understandable. Cowboys hold a special place among cherished American myths. There’s hardly a person above middle age who wasn’t enthralled growing up by the romance of the Western frontier.

The culture was inescapable. To an extent hardly imaginable today, Westerns dominated the American entertainment industry in much of the 20th century, producing classic films and TV series galore.

The ’50s and ’60s, when I was a kid, was the golden time of TV westerns. Families could hardly avoid watching gun-toting cowboys every night. I confess to loving those old shows — “Rawhide,” “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp,” “Tombstone Territory” and “The Rifleman.”

Some Westerns seemed as if they might on forever without riding into the sunset. “Bonanza” ran from 1959 to 1973 and “Gunsmoke” — my favorite — from 1955 to 1975.

Besides the heroic Marshal Matt Dillon, “Gunsmoke” featured his assistant Chester, who had a limp and may have parked his horse in a handicapped space. Another memorable character was Miss Kitty, who worked in a saloon, although the producers were very coy about what she did there. Audiences at the time were left to wonder whether she taught knitting.

Although cowboys got shot, these shows bore little resemblance to reality. They were an alternative universe with their own standards and stereotypes. The blood and gore would be saved for later generations and the coming of Quentin Tarantino.

Some of the boys and gals who watched those shows are now in Congress. Some of them realize that what they saw was an entertaining fable. Others appear to remember them as a true prescription for a free life, not a sign that civilization was absent and life was cheap.

The West was won with guns. In our time, North, South, East and West are being lost with guns. As long as the gun culture keeps supplying Boot Hill, Marshal Obama is right on target.

Reg Henry is a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist. Readers may email him at rhenry@post-gazette.com.

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