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Return To The Wild West

Do we want a world in which you never know who is concealing a weapon?

Copyright © 2003 Dorian Scott Cole

This commentary is about recent events regarding guns that indicate a change in direction in our society, and its implications for the type of world that we are creating.

I understand that the Western is making a comeback on TV. My favorite TV program, when I was a kid, was Yancy Derringer. Most of this Web site's audience is unfamiliar with the 1950s riverboat gambling character who always had a gun hidden up his sleeve, and a trip device to send the small gun to his hand when needed. When the derringer didn't work, his side kick took a shotgun and blew the bad guy a few feet backwards. I also had a derringer up my sleeve, and the really, really long Wyatt Earp pistol (all toys).

Power! Hollywood does a great job of capturing the imagination. Derringers, shotguns, long pistols - each have a motif surrounding them from the combination of Hollywood and our own imagination. Are they true? Well, as a clue, large living things hit with a shotgun blast just drop, they don't get blown several feet backwards. Big guns? They definitely have an impact - vicious. Derringers? Derringers have long been popular in stories and in actual use, and thankfully they don't do much harm even though they can sometimes kill.

Carrying a derringer always seemed like a neat idea. People you meet can't tell that you are "packing" or "carrying" or "concealing," but when in a dangerous situation, suddenly your gun appears and effectively overpowers the person creating the danger. TV programs romanticized the old Wild West, and made heroes and idols out of the characters and the stars who presented the character's personas. Adults and children both identify with the popular images.

I'm not much of a fan of guns. My father and I used to go hunting in the woods and fields to shoot rabbits and quail, partly for food. I was a good shot. The last thing that I shot "to test my accuracy," encouraged by my father and my uncle, both WWII veterans, was a wild cat (probably abandoned) in a tree. The cat died on the first shot. I really never had much desire to shoot anything living after that. I'm more of a live and let live person.

I have had my time with weapons, being taught well in the military how to defend myself, or just kill, with or without a "piece." I practiced rifle firing in the Navy, using the old M1, with old weak ammunition. You could see the bullet strike the sand yards in front of the target. The activity was more demoralizing than useful, and I have hearing (shot) loss in one ear because of it. It was always more fun for me to take the M1 and the .45 handgun apart and put them back together, blindfolded.

Some people really enjoyed guns. Their eyes lit up as they talked about firing hollow point ammunition into Jell-O blobs and watching them bulge and then collapse with a huge hole where the bullet exited, just like a human body would. Self-defense is a good thing, but I already knew that causing death is not nearly as fun as shooting Jell-O. Research interviews have shown that many war veterans in all nations fire and miss on purpose. Bringing death is a hateful activity. A woman once plowed into the back of me at 50 MPH, as I waited to turn, and she soon died. Like the cat, it was a sobering experience. So is conducting funerals, guiding people past a casket as daughters tearfully whisper, "Bye, bye, Daddy." Being involved in another's death is not an experience that you forget, even if it was totally innocent. My Father's death reminded me of just how absolute and final death is. What if you cause someone's death by carrying a gun?

I've never been much of a proponent of gun control or gun rights. Our US Constitution guarantees us the right to "bear arms," so any serious attempt to restrict arms quickly comes head to head with the constitution and powerful opposing advocates. I am an advocate of learning from our collective experience. For example, I find it very difficult to see why anyone would have an actual need for an assault weapon for any legal use. Experience says that it isn't necessary for the public - assault weapons are most likely intended for criminal activity.

Why is it not necessary for the general public to carry assault weapons? Although in rare cases a person who is enraged or on drugs may take several medium caliber bullets (.38) to stop him, just one .38 bullet will stop most people. Animals shot for food, and "varmints" that destroy crops or cause danger, and people who endanger others, are butchered enough by just one shot. If you really want vicious slaughter, use a .45 or a hollow point bullet. An assault rifle is just overkill. Checking out an assault rifle to play macho at a firing range might be OK, but actually carrying one would be ridiculous. If someone is afraid he is going to be attacked by a mob, it is time for good sense to prevail and the person to move to civilization. An assault rifle is not a realistic solution.

Death is a serious penalty. In the old Wild West, a man could be hanged for stealing another man's horse. If you took his horse, you took his transportation and could leave him stranded in hostile territory and lead to his death. While death for horse stealing may sound harsh, today you can be shot in the commission of any crime, but most typically a felony (serious crime like driving while intoxicated, rape, burglary), especially if you try to escape the police or carry a weapon during the commission of the crime. I'm not sure what that says about us as a civilization, especially one in which one is presumed innocent until guilt is proven in a court of law. The person who steals money from a store clerk, or shoplifts, and then runs, could possibly be served the death penalty as his feet carry him from the scene of the crime.

Presumably lawlessness and chaos would occur if the police had this death tool removed from them. Perpetrators of any crime often run. One reason they run is fear - of course they don't want to be in the hands of the police, or sent to prison. For some it is an irrational fear. Many Mexicans in this country have experienced the tyranny of the Mexican police in some areas of Mexico who beat and even kill them with impunity. Falling into their hands is a sentence for a beating or death.

I know this from law-abiding Mexicans living in the US that I know personally. I know of one really nice man whose life is dominated by fear of his or his family causing any trouble of any kind. They have little reason to believe that the US is any different - we have too many news stories about the police beating, abusing, and planting incriminating evidence on both guilty and innocent people, especially minorities.

The police, who have a few "finest" who often act like criminals during capture, interrogation, evidence collection, and testimony, are losing their credibility among everyone, that the police are connected with justice, but are instead connected with injustice and vigilanteism. So in the US, even innocent people sometimes run in order to avoid police abuse... and risk being shot on the spot.*1 Of course "citing fear" is a too convenient excuse for those who do run.

When the police brandish a gun, it moves them from being those who have the right to enforce the law, as given to them by the people, to those who impose the absolute right to force you or kill you, whether legal and deserving or not. Sometimes imposing that absolute right is justified, as when someone threatens the life of another. But imposing total control at other times is questionable.

Similarly, when a criminal brandishes a gun, he imposes the absolute right to force people to do anything. Just showing up with a gun means that the person has the ability and presumed intention of killing someone if things don't go his way. The person has to be treated as if he does intend to kill you. Similarly, the police, since they are losing credibility because of the actions of some, are automatically reacted to as if they plan to do the worst to people. Those few, who justify acting like criminals as the only way to catch criminals, are dragging us into disorder and chaos, the very thing that law enforcement is supposed to prevent.

Two US States, Michigan (2001) and Missouri (2003), recently approved carrying concealed weapons. Missouri became the 25th. US State to allow concealed weapons. In Missouri, this was despite recent referendums by the public against carrying concealed weapons, and overturned a veto by the governor. One wonders if the politicians truly represent the people, or just represent special interest groups. Maybe we should have our politicians pose on government building balconies firing a rifle into the air with one hand, like Sadam Hussein. In Michigan, one out of every 100 people (51,000) are now registered as carrying concealed weapons, adding to the people and criminals who carry them illegally. So far Michigan reports no increase in crime related to concealed weapons.

In Missouri, concealed weapons are automatically banned in stadiums, hospitals, jails, courthouses and airports. Permission from the owner has to be obtained to carry concealed weapons in schools, bars, restaurants, casinos, churches, and child care centers. Any business or residence that doesn't want firearms on the premises must post a sign. The penalty in Missouri for taking weapons into these places, and the weapon gets discovered, is a horrific: you may be removed from the establishment, and it could even cost you $100.00 if you resist being removed. Hopefully while resisting being removed you won't demand absolute rights by drawing your weapon.

Businesses are now posting signs next to their, "No shirt, no shoes, no service," credit card, and "No pets" signs, "No firearms." Doesn't this add a "Wild West" motif to the area? It certainly raises the profile of concealed weapons - should everyone should consider carrying? Why would businesses care? In retail alone, according to a Sunday Post-Dispatch article of Sept. 14, 2003, citing Bureau of Labor statistics, half of US workplace deaths were homicides, mostly shootings - someone in the workplace shot and killed someone else.

The Missouri law states that people can keep their weapons in the parking lot of those places that refuse weapons entry. So, a hot head gets mad at his supervisor, goes "postal," so reaches into his desk drawer or runs to the parking lot for his gun, and then kills off a few aggravating people. Or someone in a bar, who easily feels comfortable ignoring the "no weapons" law, gets into an argument with a long-time foe, or over a woman, and decides to resolve it with bullets instead of a broken bottle. Bar fight wounds are common. Without a gun, people cool off. Stab wounds heal. Bullets are final.

"Check your guns with the Sheriff at the door before you come in the bar, boys. It gets kind of wild in here sometimes." - An old Wild West practice for maintaining order without death.

Why do so many people want to carry a concealed weapon? Is it that one out of 100 people feel so threatened by the people around them that they have to carry a weapon? Do people fear reprisal by their Ex? Are many of these people so confrontational that others want kill them, so they need protection (from their own actions)? Maybe they should take training on anger control and conflict resolution instead. Or do people simply have a juvenile identification with the Yancy Derringer types, and get a big thrill out of packing a concealed gun? I'm sure there are a thousand answers.

Thankfully most people who have guns are relatively sane and are reasonably good at controlling themselves. But still, increasing the number of people who carry a gun raises questions about the society that we live in, knowing that as you drive down the expressway, visit a museum, sit in a dance lounge, or walk down the sidewalk, that every 100 people you see, is concealing a weapon. I think it is an individual decision, but what kind of world are we creating with all of these decisions to carry guns? The old Wild West? Which direction is our world going?

Sometimes it is useful to look at things from a different perspective. I once slid off the road on a sharp unmarked curve in the fog, and struck a mailbox. The owner of the box said that it had happened several times. I paid him for the box. My vehicle had a huge crinkle in the drivers side door, the box missing me by inches since the box post broke off. The owner of the box said he would prevent the post from breaking again, and put in a huge cut-off utility pole as his new post for the mailbox. So the next time that a car unwittingly slid off the road on the unmarked curve in the fog, it would simply kill the driver, but not inconvenience the box owner. I wondered if he would be the next person to die on a sharp unmarked curve in the fog. The solution to problems needs to be matched to the problem, not solved with overkill.

Once you carry a gun, you also take on the ability to declare your absolute will, and the willingness to fire the gun. Bullets kill almost immediately, while things like stun-guns and conflict resolution don't kill, and even make our world better. You can't take back a bullet. After the bullet leaves the gun, some tearful woman gets to walk by a casket and whisper, "Bye, bye Daddy." Before deciding to carry a gun, maybe we should go outside and consider shooting a pet cat first just to see if we like the idea of taking life away from something. If that doesn't have much affect, we can try telling our mother that we just killed her loved one. That moment of absolute finality of a life stands in sobering contrast to the Yancy Derringer experience of simplistic identities and solutions.

Are we creating a better world for ourselves by carrying a gun, or should we be finding more effective solutions to problems? What kind of world are we creating?

- Scott

1. "Restrictions on the use of deadly force do exist. Police are not given carte blanche. A police officer is justified in using deadly force when (a) the officer reasonably needs to defend himself or herself or others from bodily harm when making an arrest, (b) preventing an arrested subject in custody from escaping, (c) capturing an escaped felon, or (d) arresting a felon who is fleeing from justice and the felon has committed a crime involving the infliction or threatened infliction of serious physical harm to another person. When feasible, some warning is given. However, police cannot use deadly force to make an unlawful arrest (Gould & Gould, 1992).+

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