I'm sure most of us, at least old geezers like me, have seen the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Just in case you haven't seen the western drama, here is a brief synopsis:
The film follows Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart), a young lawyer who has followed Horace Greely’s advice to go west with the goal of using the law to bring order to the wild frontier. After arriving in the fictional town of Shinbone, Stoddard is confronted by the reality that the legal system has no place in the west.
The local ‘good guy’ Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) tells a just-robbed Stoddard that he needs a gun in order to survive. When Stoddard resists, Doniphon continues by derisively saying that “I know those law books mean a lot to you, but not out here. Out here a man settles his own problems.”
Undeterred, Stoddard sets up a school to teach literacy to local residents and starts a campaign for statehood. While some in the community support his cause, it is not until Stoddard is credited with the shooting of local villain Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) that he earns widespread support and, most importantly, legitimacy.
What about the message of gun violence in the film? In a historical sense and in the context of the American frontier, the theme reinforces the idea that engaging in violence is a prerequisite to citizenship and a path to success in the United States. Of course, the film exhorts the justice of owning and using a gun as a means of finding justice and respect. After all, the setting of the movie was the Wild West.
Of course, no longer do we have a Wild West nor do we have a lawless frontier, yet many today support the need to own guns and to use violent actions against any perceived threats to their existence. Citizens who support the gun lobby argue that “only a gun can stop a person with a gun.” And, of course, terrorist actions, violent crime, and senseless mass shootings have convinced a large segment of society that they need to conceal and carry a weapon for safety.
Historian Sean Graham comments about gun violence ...
“For 99.99% of the population, this will not lead them to pick up a gun when they reach a low point. But the danger comes from the 0.01% that see this and think that they can use violence as a viable solution to their problems. The common thread between the perpetrators of mass shootings – with the variable of mental illness – is that they tend to be withdrawn from their communities and generally have experienced some sort of hardship immediately preceding their crimes. They have been taught – even implicitly – through the nation’s history and dominate mythology that when you’re down, violence can be your way out. That is what makes it a remarkably dangerous narrative. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.
“Clearly within this environment people should not have easy access to guns nor should the media fixate on those responsible for committing these crimes to the point where they achieve a level of notoriety. Trying to identify a singular motive for taking a gun to a school, mall, or movie theater is a folly – the issue is too complex for that. But when thinking about ways to prevent these tragedies, it is instructive to look to the past to see how the national mythology can inform our attempts to understand the incomprehensible. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.”
(Sean Graham. “Gun Violence in the United States: The Frontier Mentality.”
activehistory.ca. January 09, 2013.)
Freedom, strength, frontier survival, mythology, guns – all enter the American consciousness with great emotion. Without a doubt, history shows us the critical links between guns and democracy. Still, Graham points out that people find that violence in a primitive nation is not presented as “an unfortunate reality of nationhood and national defense, but rather as an expression of American strength and sovereignty.” The frontiersman’s identity came from his ability to assert his dominance on his surroundings, and “violence was not forced on the frontiersman, but rather sought out as a means to redeem himself and declare his authority.”
Thus, today the authoritarian view persists. This is what Graham means with his statement “History doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes.” Violence is not “a way out” of problems in a civilized nation, yet we have been conditioned to believe that the gun is the solution to our threats. In the frontier, a person's need to dominate with armed authority could often be justified. But in modern society this philosophy has led to a trigger mentality.
We can never eliminate “bad guys” with guns and the violence they perpetrate. Granted, firearms in hands of well-meaning people offer advantages in certain deadly situations. I would never deny that just as I would never deny the rights of gun owners to hunt or to target practice. However, the idea of establishing strength and sovereignty by “rhyming” the practices of frontier America most certainly will lead to a new frontier of increasing armed violence and aggression. We see the signs of an armed danger with repeated acts of gun violence every day.
In the United States, the death rate from gun homicides is about 31 per million people — the equivalent of 27 people shot dead every day of the year. The homicides include losses from mass shootings, like Sunday’s Orlando attack, or the San Bernadino, California shooting last December. And of course, they also include the country’s vastly more common single-victim killings.
Gun homicides are a common cause of death in the United States, killing about as many people as car crashes (not counting van, truck, motorcycle or bus accidents). Some cases command our attention more than others, of course. Counting mass shootings that make headlines and the thousands of Americans murdered one or a few at a time, gunshot homicides totaled 8,124 in 2014, according to the F.B.I.
Yes, Dr. Graham: History doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes. I fear the lines of repetition pose a threat to our existence.