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American gun culture is based on frontier mythology – but ignores how common gun restrictions were in the Wild West

Following the mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, 70% of Republicans said protecting gun rights was more important than controlling gun violence, while 92% of Democrats and 54% of independents expressed the opposite. Just weeks after those mass shootings, Republicans and gun rights advocates hailed the Supreme Court’s decision that struck down New York State’s gun licensing law and said the Second Amendment guaranteed the right to carry a handgun outside the home for self-defense.

Mayor Eric Adams, expressing his opposition to the ruling, suggested the court’s decision would turn New York City into a “Wild West.” Contrary to Wild West imagery, however, many towns in the real Wild West had gun restrictions that were, I would argue, stricter than the one just struck down by the Supreme Court.

Support for gun rights among Republicans has played a significant role in determining the content of the bipartisan Safer Communities Act, the first new gun reform bill in three decades. President Joe Biden signed it into law just two days after the Supreme Court’s decision was released. In an effort to draw Republican support, the new law does not include gun control proposals such as banning assault weapons, universal background checks or raising the age of purchase. to 21 for certain types of guns. Nonetheless, the bill was denounced by other Republicans in Congress and opposed by the National Rifle Association.

I have found that for Americans who see the gun as both a symbol and guarantee of individual freedom, gun control laws are seen as fundamentally un-American and a threat to their freedom. For the staunchest gun rights advocates, gun violence — horrific as it is — is an acceptable price for that freedom.

My analysis reveals that the gun culture in the United States stems in large part from its frontier past and the mythology of the “Wild West”, which idealizes guns, outlaws, savage individualism and the inevitability of armed violence. This culture ignores the fact that gun control was widespread and common in the Old West.

Re-enactments of gunfights in the Wild West, like this one at a Texas tourist attraction in 2014, are part of the mythology that underpins gun culture in the United States. Carol M. Highsmith via Library of Congress


Guns are part of a deep political divide in American society. The more guns a person owns, the more likely they are to oppose gun control legislation and the more likely they are to vote for Republican candidates.

In 2020, 44% of US households reported owning at least one firearm. According to the 2018 international Small Arms Survey, there were approximately 393 million firearms in civilian hands in the United States, or 120.5 firearms for every 100 people. That number is likely higher now, given the increase in gun sales in 2019, 2020, and 2021.

Americans have owned guns since colonial times, but American gun culture really took off after the Civil War with the images, icons, and tales – or mythology – of the lawless frontier and the Wild West. Frontier mythology, which celebrates and exaggerates the amount and importance of gunfights and vigilantism, began with 19th-century Western paintings, popular novels, and traveling Wild West shows by Buffalo Bill Cody and others. He continues to this day with western-themed shows on streaming networks such as “Yellowstone” and “Walker.”


Historian Pamela Haag attributes much of the country’s gun culture to this Western theme. Prior to the mid-19th century, she writes, firearms were common in American society, but were commonplace tools used by a wide range of people in a growing nation.

But then gunmakers Colt and Winchester began marketing their firearms by appealing to customers’ sense of adventure and frontier romance. In the mid-19th century, gun manufacturers began to advertise their guns as a way for people across the country to connect with the excitement of the West, with its Indian Wars, its cattle transports, its cowboys and its boom towns of gold and silver. Winchester’s slogan was “The gun that won the West”, but Haag argues that it was really “the West that won the gun”.

In 1878, this theme was so successful that Colt’s New York distributor recommended that the company market the .44-40 caliber version of its Model 1873 single-action revolver as the “Frontier Six Shooter” for appeal to the public’s growing fascination with nature. West.


Gun ownership was commonplace in the post-Civil War Old West, but actual shootings were rare. One reason was that, contrary to mythology, many frontier towns had strict gun laws, especially against carrying concealed weapons.

As Adam Winkler, professor of constitutional law at UCLA, puts it, “Guns were prevalent at the border, but so was gun regulation. … Old West lawmen took gun control seriously and frequently arrested people who violated their city’s gun control laws.

“Gunsmoke,” the iconic TV show that ran from the 1950s to the 1970s, would have seen far fewer shootings if its fictional marshal, Matt Dillon, had enforced the real Dodge City gun laws to fire within the city limits.

The appeal of this mythology extends to the present day. In August 2021, a Colt Frontier Six Shooter became the world’s most expensive firearm when auction house Bonhams sold ‘the gun that killed Billy the Kid’ at auction for over $6 million. dollars. As a simple antique firearm, this revolver would be worth a few thousand dollars. Its astronomical selling price was due to its origin in the Wild West.

The historical reality of the American frontier was more complex and nuanced than its popular mythology. But it’s the mythology that fuels American gun culture today, which rejects the kinds of laws that were commonplace in the Old West.


Diehard gun owners, their lobbyists, and many members of the Republican Party object to the thousands of annual gun deaths and thousands of additional non-fatal shootings being used as justifications to curtail their rights as law-abiding citizens.

They are prepared to accept armed violence as an inevitable side effect of a free and armed but violent society.

Their opposition to new gun reforms as well as current trends in gun rights legislation – such as carrying without a license and arming teachers – are just the latest manifestations of the deep roots of the American gun culture in frontier mythology.

Wayne LaPierre, executive director of the National Rifle Association, the nation’s largest gun rights group, tapped into imagery from frontier mythology and American gun culture after the Sandy Massacre. Hook in 2012. In his call to arm school resource officers and teachers, LaPierre adopted language that might have come from a classic Western movie: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is is a good guy with a gun.”

This vision of a single, armed person who can rise up and save the day has persisted ever since and provides a full-fledged answer to mass shootings: guns are not the problem, they are the solution.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. The Conversation is an independent, nonprofit source of news, analysis, and commentary from academic experts.

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