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.
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.