Cut thru the lies and myths to understand guns in America

Summary: To understand why we so many mass shootings in America, let’s cut through the myths and the lies to see the naked truths about gun control. Also, today we had our eight millionth pageview since we opened in Nov 2007!

River of blood

Another day, another mass killing in America. To understand how this happens, look at events before the shooting. “The NRA Praised Nevada’s Most Powerful Lawmakers For Blocking Gun Control” by David Sirota at IBT — bipartisan gun love. From Politico: “A controversial bill to loosen restrictions on purchasing gun silencers won’t be reaching the House floor anytime soon …. A bill to allow concealed-carry permit holders to take their guns with them to another state could also be affected after the tragedy, the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.”

Why can’t we respond to the rivers of blood flowing through our cities, from individual shootings to the 59 dead at Los Vegas? We are lost in America in part because we have lost our history. Our love of guns — gun toting macho men, concealed carry and even open carry — comes from fake history about the Wild West. Learning the truth about this might help us find our way back.

"Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America" by Adam Winkler
Available at Amazon.

To recall out real history we can start with Adam Winkler’s 2011 book Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America — a professor of constitutional law at UCLA (see his bio and publications). He discusses the findings of his research in this excerpt from “Did the Wild West Have More Gun Control Than We Do Today?”  at the HuffPo.

“Guns were obviously widespread on the frontier. Out in the untamed wilderness, you needed a gun to be safe from bandits, natives, and wildlife. In the cities and towns of the West, however, the law often prohibited people from toting their guns around. A visitor arriving in Wichita, Kansas in 1873, the heart of the Wild West era, would have seen signs declaring, ‘Leave Your Revolvers At Police Headquarters, and Get a Check.’

“A check? That’s right. When you entered a frontier town, you were legally required to leave your guns at the stables on the outskirts of town or drop them off with the sheriff, who would give you a token in exchange. You checked your guns then like you’d check your overcoat today at a Boston restaurant in winter. Visitors were welcome, but their guns were not.

In my new book …there’s a photograph taken in Dodge City in 1879. Everything looks exactly as you’d imagine: wide, dusty road; clapboard and brick buildings; horse ties in front of the saloon. Yet right in the middle of the street is something you’d never expect. There’s a huge wooden billboard announcing, ‘The Carrying of Firearms Strictly Prohibited.’  {Click to enlarge.}

Gun control sign in Dodge City, 1878

“While people were allowed to have guns at home for self-protection, frontier towns usually barred anyone but law enforcement from carrying guns in public.

“When Dodge City residents organized their municipal government, do you know what the very first law they passed was? A gun control law. They declared that ‘any person or persons found carrying concealed weapons in the city of Dodge or violating the laws of the State shall be dealt with according to law.’ Many frontier towns, including Tombstone, Arizona — the site of the infamous ‘Shootout at the OK Corral‘ —also barred the carrying of guns openly. …

“The story of guns in America is far more complex and surprising than we’ve often been led to believe. We’ve always had a right to bear arms, but we’ve also always had gun control. Even in the Wild West, Americans balanced these two and enacted laws restricting guns in order to promote public safety. Why should it be so hard to do the same today?”

Gun control sign in Lusk, WY (1898).

Excerpts from the book.

“This book shows that we can have both an individual right to have guns for self-defense and, at the same time, laws designed to improve gun safety. The two ideas — the right to bear arms and gun control — are not mutually exclusive propositions. In fact, America has always had both. …Gun control is as much a part of the history of guns in America as the Second Amendment”. {Page ix.}

“Gun rights and gun control are not only compatible; they have lived together since the birth of America. …Unlike the unreasonable right to bear arms promoted by extremists in the gun debate, a reasonable right to bear arms has always been available to Americans – one that balances gun rights with gun control. Although the precise equilibrium has always been in flux, changing in response to the times, the story of guns in America is about regulation and right. We don’t have to choose between fully automatic machine guns and water pistols”. {Page 12.}

Wyatt Earp's gun displayed at the Red Dog Salon in Juneau, AK.

More about the Wild West

A long line of research going back to Robert R. Dykstra’s (prof history, SUNY Albany) book The Cattle Towns (1968), which shows that the Wild West was not very wild. There were only 15 murders in Dodge City in 1877 – 1886, aprox. 1.5 per year. This was typical of the most wild frontier towns in the West, most of whom had strict gun controls. Mining camps, which had few laws and less enforcement, often had murder rates of 4 or 5 per year. For more about this see his 1996 article.

Richard Shenkman’s (founder and editor of History News Network) Legends, Lies & Cherished Myths of American History (1988) describes how in frontier towns the “carrying of dangerous weapons of any time, concealed or otherwise, by persons other than law enforcement officers …was nearly always proscribed.” The shoot-out at the OK Corral was sparked in October 1881 by the Earp’s arrest of rustler and robber Ike Clanton for violating Tombstone’s Ordinance No.9: “To Provide against Carrying of Deadly Weapons.”

The bottom line, from Richard White’s (prof history, Stanford) book “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own”: A New History of the American West (1993): “Those towns such as Bodie and Aurora that did not disarm men tended to bury significantly more of them.”

These rates in towns consisting largely of young men cannot be meaningfully compared to those of modern cities — which have populations more diversified by age and gender.

The bottom line: about gun violence in America today

What Researchers Learned About Gun Violence Before Congress Killed Funding” by Joaquin Sapien at ProPublica, Feb 2013 — “We spoke with the scientist who led the government’s research on guns.”

“One of the critical studies that we supported was looking at the question of whether having a firearm in your home protects you or puts you at increased risk. This was a very important question because people who want to sell more guns say that having a gun in your home is the way to protect your family. What the research showed was not only did having a firearm in your home not protect you, but it hugely increased the risk that someone in your family would die from a firearm homicide. It increased the risk almost 300%, almost three times as high.

“It also showed that the risk that someone in your home would commit suicide went up. It went up five-fold if you had a gun in the home. These are huge, huge risks, and to just put that in perspective, we look at a risk that someone might get a heart attack or that they might get a certain type of cancer, and if that risk might be 20% greater, that may be enough to ban a certain drug or a certain product.

“But in this case, we’re talking about a risk not 20%, not 100%, not 200%, but almost 300% or 500%. These are huge, huge risks. …

“We were finding that most homicides occur between people who know each other, people who are acquaintances or might be doing business together or might be living together. They’re not stranger-on-stranger shootings. They’re not mostly home intrusions. We also found that there were a lot of firearm suicides, and in fact most firearm deaths are suicides. There were a lot of young people who were impulsive who were using guns to commit suicide.”

Some comments from Twitter


NYT Editorial: “477 Days. 521 Mass Shootings. Zero Action From Congress.”

Draw your own conclusions. Then act on them. See how much you can do before the next mass shooting.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about faux historyabout gun violence and regulation, and especially these…

  1. Guns do not make us safer. Why is this not obvious?
  2. Myth-busting about gun use in the Wild West.
  3. Do guns make us more safe, or less? Let’s look at the research.
  4. What are the odds of violence from the Right in America?
  5. The number of children killed by guns in America makes us exceptional, not better.
  6. Debunking the myth: “An armed society is a polite society.”

Books rich with insights about this uniquely American problem.

Gun Guys: A Road Trip by journalist Dan Baum (2013).

Living with Guns: A Liberal’s Case for the Second Amendment by journalist Craig Whitney (2012).

"Gun Guys: A Road Trip" by Dan Baum.
Available at Amazon.
"Living with Guns: A Liberal's Case for the Second Amendment" by Craig Whitney.
Available at Amazon.

30 thoughts on “Cut thru the lies and myths to understand guns in America

  1. Obviously those folks in the old west just did not have the privilege of the NRA to teach them the fine arts of whataboutism and primary challengers. Or else they would have known better.

    My own observation about the real hard-core gun nuts – I mean like the people who will probably show up here in a few minutes to call you a Bolshevik, not like game hunters or, for want of a better term, normal shooting sports enthusiasts – is that you have the mix of the Bircher/survivalist types but you also have this strain of people for whom their expensive consumer hobby becomes a defining cause of their life. These hobbyist issues seem like a surprisingly cost-effective way to mobilize a small but passionate audience – see GamerGate, 4chan’s origin as an Anime board… I wonder if we’ll see more of that.

    And of course, the prospect that THIS mayhem will be the last straw has sent gun maker stocks rising. I can imagine a thriller of some kind, where gun manufacturers sponsor some Death Wish/Punisher character to go mow down a bunch of people. The only problem: Wouldn’t the ending probably involve a good guy with a gun, stopping a bad guy with a (lot of) gun?

    1. SF,

      A good friend of mine was a skilled surgeon and dentist. The combo made him rich, well-deserved money, with which he built his dream house and filled it with art. He was far-right wing and a gun nut. Lots of guns, shooting competitions, hunting.

      One day something extraordinarily rare happened: daytime home intruders came to steal his art. He was upstairs when they entered. He came running down with his pistol. Shot and killed one, wounded another. He was killed and his wife shot. The others fled.

      Needless to say, the crooks didn’t intend to hurt anyone. That’s not how you win in that game. Kim died to save the money of his insurance company, who didn’t even send his widow a Thank-you note.

    2. My God, that is awful; I am sorry for your friend.

      “Defend your castle with our firearms” is the fantasy a lot of these manufacturers are catering to. I had to sit next to a guy describing his home invasion defense strategies in enough detail that it shaded from “a theoretical chat, like you might have about what you’d do if you won the Powerball jackpot” into “you’re just fantasizing about killing a guy.”

  2. Until the lobbying power of the NRA is restricted, nothing is going to change. The NRA has immense funding – and as a result immense influence – on the politicians in Washington DC. Obama was blocked by the Republican party from implementing increased gun controls, so until the Republican mindset changes, or the Demos have a huge majority in both Houses, the status quo is set to continue. Fatberg got a lot of support from the NRA so he will do absolutely zilch to curtail their lobbying powers, so we will just have to wait for the political climate to change (and exactly the same arguments apply to the Republican party’s approach to climate change).

    1. Ivankinsman,

      “Until the lobbying power of the NRA is restricted,”

      I totally disagree with that approach.

      Gun rights have a lot of support in America. And their supporters are politically active. One expression of their support is thru free association in the NRA. That influences our politics. America is a democracy, and that’s how it is supposed to work.

      The Republic cannot be wiser that its people.

  3. First, congratulations on the 8 millionth page view and here’s to 8 million more.

    Next, one of the few things to make this mass murder even more depressing was the utterly predictable flood of talking points masquerading as a debate that it was bound to unleash, with both sides once again waving the bloody shirt as a battle flag as they charge into the fray on Twitogram, MyBook, FaceChat and other useless websites.

    A couple of observations:

    1. You seem to be really anti- concealed carry and open carry, though that has absolutely nothing to do with this case. He didn’t “open carry” anything into the hotel since the hotel has a no weapons policy. Also, people with concealed carry permits commit crimes at rates lower than police officers. Also, very little crime is committed by open carriers, for reasons that I would hope would be rather obvious. Next.

    2. Kellermann 1993 did indeed find that having a gun in the home increased your risk of being murdered by 2.7. But that was only the 5th-place factor. Far worse than having a gun is to rent your home instead of owning, which increases your risk by 4.4-fold! Where are the moms demanding action on Rent Control!?! Somebody get Bloomberg on this! Seriously, though, there are some pretty serious methodological flaws with that paper and related ones that I don’t have time to get into but should be pretty apparent to even a casual student of statistics and social science research.

    3. The U.S. does indeed suffer from a high death rate from mass shootings. From 2009-2015 we ranked 11th in the world, right behind such Norway, Serbia, France, Macedonia, Albania, Slovakia, Switzerland, Finland, Belgium and the Czech Republic. When those lawless places adopt strict gun control maybe they can stanch the tide of blood flowing in their streets. Oh, wait.

    4. It’s commonly misunderstood where the lobbying clout of the NRA comes from. It’s not to do with money, which they spend fairly little of compared to other groups. It’s their simple act of grading each politician with a letter grade based on their gun-friendliness. They know and the politicians know that their millions of members will vote based on this grade and that’s what makes them scary. About the only way to “restrict their lobbying power” would be to disenfranchise huge swathes of the electorate, which I know many folks would enjoy, but still.


    1. phageghost,

      Some really obvious points. Absurd that I have to point them out, and they’ll have zero effect on you — as known to anyone who has talked with gun nuts.

      (1) About the Crime Prevention Research Center study.

      First, a five year study is absurd for low-frequency events like mass shootings. A nation that has few can be on top because of one event — like Norway on that list. Second, it is not a list of peer nations, but includes second and third world nations (like Albania). We are 6th on the list, including only peers. Third, the Center was started in 2013 by John Lott, with his long history of bogus research. It’s perfect for gun nuts, whose public advocacy shows little interest in facts or logic.

      (2) “anti-concealed carry and open carry, though that has absolutely nothing to do with this case.”

      Almost too stupid to warrant reply. First, the shooter was easily able to assemble an arsenal. Second, this is just a banner-size incident in the daily flow of blood in gun shootings in the US — far beyond that of any other developed nation. Third, I believe in regulation of gun ownership, severe regulation of concealed carry, and prohibition of open carry (with the usual exceptions, as in Switzerland).

      (3) “Where are the moms demanding action on Rent Control!?!”

      Too stupid to reply to.

      (4) About the NRA.

      I agree.

  4. Much of what you write is logical. One exception is your comparison of the “wild west” and the country today.

    The population of Dodge City in 1876 was around 1000. Most likely everyone knew everyone else and the concept of neighbors knowing and looking out for their neighbor was much different, as was the comparable ease of policing.

    It seems unrealistic to project the same societal mindset into today’s’ population of a metropolitan city filled with hundreds of thousands or millions of strangers. The population density also proportionally increases the number of “evil doers” and the mentally impaired. Also, with the onset of tribal identification by skin color, “national origin” and other natural human variations in today’s society, the idea of E Pluribus Unum has been diminished. The result is social separation, voluntarily or by economic status, and suspicion from the “others” has grown.

    Additionally, gang violence in some neighborhoods in these large metropolitan areas forces the sane people in those areas to want to defend their family and/or property. Since police presence in these neighborhoods is sometimes disdained, gun ownership is their only option.

    This is not to mean logical regulations are not needed. For instance, the 1930’s legislation making the ownership of a machine gun by the average person nearly impossible.

    The fact is there have been 131 events in the last 50 years where 4 or more people, which is considered a “mass shooting”, were killed. While horrible and detestable, it is hardly widespread.

    1. Yahtahei,

      (1) “Most likely everyone knew everyone else”

      That’s not just wrong, but backwards. The violence in frontier towns resulted largely from transients. In Dodge, that was from cowboys from the cattle drives. Paid off, with money and leisure time — and no investment or interest in the town.

      (2) “The population density also proportionally increases the number of “evil doers” ”

      Only sorta true. The most relevant different in the people of frontier towns and towns of similar size today — or even large cities — is the different age and gender distributions. The violence resulted from the large number of young men vs. the overall population. It’s not that they were evil does, although there were some of those. Just lots of violence by drunks and aggressive young men, in numbers unlike anything in US communities.

      (3) “Since police presence in these neighborhoods is sometimes disdained, gun ownership is their only option.”

      Let’s see some evidence of that as an effective force in inner cities, esp. in comparison with the bloodshed from easy availability of guns. My guess is that you’re just making that up.

      (4) “While horrible and detestable, it is hardly widespread.”

      Wow. That’s really missing the point. The mass shootings are a capstone phenomenon, the extreme manifestation of US gun culture and policy. They are not a different phenomenon, like an invasion from Mars.

    2. Yahtahei: “Most likely everyone knew everyone else” True, but a person is far more likely to be assaulted or murdered by someone they know than by a complete stranger.

  5. Thanks Larry. I’ve been mugged. Kids came up behind me on a woodland trail in the park and shoved me hard into a tree. I was stunned and disoriented. The kids did not have a weapon other than their fists. If I’d been carrying a gun they would have had it and I would almost certainly be dead. As was the kids got $7 and three years behind bars. We have a police force to protect citizens. While far from perfect, I’m glad I can call on them when I need them.

    1. John,

      That’s an unusually sage comment for an American “I was mugged” story. The usual script is “if I was carrying, I would have been like Charles Bronson and blown them away.” While that does sometimes happen, your description is more common.

    2. I always thought the idea that you’d be able to draw on your muggers is a bit of a fantasy; it was like the idea of putting armed cops in schools to deter mass shootings. On the one hand, perhaps it might, but on the other hand it might mean all they have to do is get the cop’s gun.

      It is less unreasonable for situations like “walking the day’s receipts to the bank,” which was a common reason for people to pack in the 1920s, as I recall.

    3. SF,

      “putting armed cops in schools to deter mass shootings.”

      That idea seems a bit daft to me, plus insanely expensive. It has, however, boosted are already bizarrely large school-prison pipeline — which is perhaps the point. Seeing five-year olds marched out in handcuffs seems to make some people hard. People who wield lots of power in America.

    4. This was in the immediate aftermath of Columbine, when I was still in high school. I think it was only intended for the high schools, and it might have been more like there’d be an officer whose “beat” included walking the halls. It was an instructive experience, because the student government voted against it twice and then got it anyway.

    5. SF,

      The school-to-prison pipeline is a big deal these days, a toxic mix of zero tolerance school policies with cops in schools. The ACLU’s statement sums it up:

      “Many under-resourced schools rely on police rather than teachers and administrators to maintain discipline. Growing numbers of districts employ school resource officers to patrol school hallways, often with little or no training in working with youth. As a result, children are far more likely to be subject to school-based arrests—the majority of which are for nonviolent offenses, such as disruptive behavior—than they were a generation ago. These arrests for minor infractions disproportionately target students of color and students with disabilities.”

      See this PBS article on the “school to police pipeline”. And also see Wikipedia’s entry for the “School-to-prison pipeline“.

  6. “Wow. That’s really missing the point. The mass shootings are a capstone phenomenon, the extreme manifestation of US gun culture and policy.”

    I’m not trying to be argumentative, but doesn’t your comment above dismiss the 2007 event in the Ukraine where 21 people were killed, the 2001 event in Switzerland where 14 people were killed, the 2010 event in the UK where 12 people were killed, the 2013 event in Serbia where 13 people were killed, the 2016 event in Germany where 9 people were killed, the 2011 event in the Netherlands where 6 people were killed.

    1. yuhtahei,

      “but doesn’t your comment above dismiss the 2007 event in the Ukraine ”

      Are you familiar with a Bell Curve? The tails — like mass shootings — are part of the overall phenomenon. Looking at the tails as different phenomena gives bizarre results.

      Also, do you have any comment on the three other responses I gave to you?

  7. The NRA like SPLC makes their owners rich.

    There are postive aspects to the NRA like teaching firearm safety and Range Master Certification. Many shooting clubs make NRA membership a requirement to join.

    Many members are beginning to question the methods of permanent NRA leadership. They are NRA 1 Percenters. They are fearmongers who do so for donations further enriching them. You’re correct about how little they truly spend supporting candidates. Their propaganda budget is also small enough to generate profit. La Pierre takes in basic salary of over $900,000 per annum.

    Members are beginning to question the methods of the NRA. Membership fluctuates as well, depending on moods.

    The NRA will not commit suicide destroying the industry it lobbies for. Personally, I want my ammo and ammo component prices down so I can enjoy my favorite hobby. The club of which I am a member is populated by good level headed folks. Many are retired Military and LEO’s. The Sheriff’s Dept and US Coast guard practice at our facility. We are patriotic.

    Your points are well taken. I’ve been scratching my head over this for quite a while and discuss with fellow shooters. Your essays make an excellent argument.

    As you stated, nothing will change until major parties agree or there is a major shift to Dem majority.

    Better yet, a whole new Majority Party!

    1. Longtail.

      (1) I agree that the NRA does much good work. With 16 years as a Boy Scout leader, we could not do our firearms programs without the NRA’s help. They train our Range Masters and provide a wide range of other help.

      The NRA is de facto a marketing and lobbying arm of the gun manufacturers, who provide half or more of its income. It was not always so. This is well-documented history. These articles from 2013 are from my file.

      (2) “The NRA like SPLC makes their owners rich.”

      I don’t understand that. How does the SPLC make anyone “rich”? Who “owns” non-profits like the NRA and SPLC? Perhaps you refer to their senior managers.

  8. Larry Kummer:
    “Also, do you have any comment on the three other responses I gave to you?”
    Regarding (3).

    As you know this is a complex issue between our rights under the Constitution and the horrific deaths by gunfire of the innocent. There are currently hundreds – if not thousands – of laws or regulations on the books (Federal, State and local) that regulate the ownership of firearms. None of which would have stopped the mass shooting of the last ten or twenty years.

    The natural process of police forces is reactive. Yes, there are some proactive actions they can take if done within our legal confines, – usually that is a visible presence – but most of the time they react to crime.

    In today’s society, there is fear and suspension of heavy police presence in the inner cities and high-crime neighborhoods. But because our laws are one-size-fits-all, limiting gun position and/or conceal carry restricts people in those areas who may feel the need to have a gun for protection.

    I haven’t heard of any “mass shooting” (defined as 4 or more people being killed in one event) in urban areas or inner cities. Although there may be some in Chicago I’m unaware of. Is the NRA responsible for those deaths as well?

    Is there another way a law-abiding resident can protect themselves and their families from drug-induced burglaries, transient drug dealers and/or turf-guarding gang members?

    1. dashui,

      (1) The United States is not a “Latin American country”.

      (2) If it makes you happy that the US has a lower murder rate than less-developed nations, well whatever. The rest of us will compare America to our peer nations, which shows that we have a problem.

  9. Larry, I do refer to Senior Management of NRA and SPLC. Both organizations wildly exaggerate their respective pet threats.

    The links to your other posts are as good and thought provoking as this one and reinforced my belief there has to be change in American gun owners’ thinking.

    I’ve run accross the so-called Gun Nuts, the Oath Keeper types. They consider themselves patriots too. So do Alt-Right and NeoNazis and they’re armed to the teeth!

    What is ironic passive defense works best. It has been discussed on FM a defensive posture is the best we can take as a nation. It applies to our households too.

    Best regards

    1. Longtrail,

      “I do refer to Senior Management of NRA and SPLC. Both organizations wildly exaggerate their respective pet threats.”

      The NRA, yes. The SPLC — sometimes. Some of the threats they discuss are quite real and not exaggerated. A more serious problem with the SPLC, imo, is that they identify enemies of the Left with legitimate targets of their clients.

      But your comment was on a different aspect: “The NRA like SPLC makes their owners rich.” I assume that the leaders of the NRA are well-paid — rightly so, given their loyal service to gun manufacturers. A quite Google search finds that the SPLC’s CEO was paid $350k in 2013. Not “rich.”

    2. Do a Google search for “Poverty Palace” if you want to see how Morris Dees and the elites at the SPLC have enriched themselves. They keep millions in offshore accounts and who knows where that money ends up.

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