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Annie Get Your Gun?

Yesterday one person was killed and 21 injured in a shooting during the Kansas City celebration of the Chief’s Super Bowl victory.  Current news reports do not indicate that the shooting was the result of a terrorist attack nor that it had anything to do directly with the celebration.  It was the 49th mass shooting in the US since the first of the year.  What is it with America and guns?

 

In 1881 a five foot tall young woman of 21 years won a sharpshooting contest against professional shooter Frank Butler, more than 13 years her senior.  So, began the remarkable career of Phoebe Ann Moses (or Mozee, as she preferred), better known to the world as Annie Oakley.  A year later she and Butler were married, a bond that lasted 44 years.

 

During her life she set numerous marksmanship records, toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, became a close friend of Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake (Sitting Bull), performed for the


crowned heads of Europe (Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom, King Umberto I of Italy, France’s President Marie François Sadi Carnot, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, and others).


Her career as an entertainer and her financial success may be well known.  She became a cultural icon in movies, a musical, tv, and literature.  However, perhaps less well known is her championing women’s education and empowerment.  She taught more that 15,000 women how to use a gun, believing it to be a sign of social status, as well as, personal defense.  She even offered President McKinley 50 self-equipped women sharpshooters in anticipation of what became the Spanish-American War.  He never took up the offer.  Her generosity was such that, by the time of her death in 1926, she and her husband had nearly exhausted their significant earnings in support of family and charitable giving.


Annie Oakley could easily be a poster child for American gun ownership.  But she did not own guns to demonstrate her right to “bear arms” by way of the 2nd Amendment.  Coming from a poor “frontier” family she developed her marksmanship skills by hunting food for the family table and as a means of earning an income.  She provided game to hotels and restaurants in her region of Ohio.  Ohio was still nearly frontier.  A rifle was a tool to provide food and possibly income from hunting. 

 

As a young woman her rifle became a tool for competition and showmanship that also created income.  It is said that she was second only to Buffalo Bill himself in terms of income from the Wild West Show.  It is true that her rifle and those of her female sharpshooters might have become instruments of war, had not McKinley turned her down.  But that was not among the primary reasons she owned firearms.

 

Over the course of her life she purchased or was given numerous rifles, shotguns, pistols, and revolvers.  These were the tools of her trade.



Yet, it would not be appropriate to classify her as a sports shooter nor as a sports hunter.  She hunted out of necessity and competed in shooting matches or performed sharpshooting for income. 

 

Given her early life and vocation one might wonder what she would think of her country today.  A country in which there is virtually no frontier but there are more guns owned than there are people (120 guns per 100 people); a country with such a proliferation of firearms in spite of the fact that very few people need guns to hunt for food or are employed in professions in which a gun is a necessary tool.  I also wonder what she would think of hunting with an AR-15 or similar weapon with laser sight and an extended magazine, features that mitigate against the need for sharpshooting skills.

 

While gun ownership was common in Annie Oakely’s America, especially in rural areas and the frontier west, ironically, it is not the case that there were no gun regulations.  As a matter of fact, though there may have been additional factors that led to the conflict, the immediate cause of the iconic “gunfight at the OK Corral” was Tombstone’s regulation forbidding carrying weapons (concealed or otherwise) within the city boundaries.


Tombstone was not alone of towns with strict firearms regulations within city limits.  We love our myths of the “wild west” quite apart from the facts of the matter, especially as such myths justify our current actions. 

 

Early western communities were interested in attracting people from the east.  But, they were not interested in developing reputations for gun violence on their city streets or in their commercial establishments.  At the same time, they sought to paint movement to the west as an adventure.  For many, the purported “wildness” of the west was seen as an attraction.


In light of mass public shootings and homicide deaths in the U.S. over the past two or three decades some have suggested that today is like the “wild west.”  But those days of yore were safer, at least with respect to gun violence, than today.  And this not least due to municipal gun regulation.  The frontier towns of Dodge City and Wichita, KS, both had strict regulations about firearms within their city limits.

 

There are those who say that the ubiquity of gun ownership is unrelated to the level of gun violence. However, the numbers suggest something very different. A graph plotting gun ownership vs. firearm homicide among 35 developed nations indicates that the U.S. is by far an outlier both in terms of gun ownership and gun fatalities. It could be argued that this is a mere correlation and not evidence of causation. Or, could it be an example of “where there’s smoke, there’s fire?”



How did America become a “gun culture”?  Let me begin by suggesting that it has little to do with the 2nd Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  To be clear that Amendment reads:

 

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

 

I’ll come back to the 2nd Amendment in a moment.  But first I want to consider the history of guns arriving on American shores. 

 

The earliest permanent settlers in what was to become the USA, the Jamestown Colony, brought firearms with them from Europe.  These weapons, wheellocks and matchlocks, were primarily for subsistence hunting but also as projection against those in the indigenous population who would resist an alien invasion. 


From early in the American colonial period, indigenous people themselves acquired firearms through trade but mostly through capture.  While they did use them for subsistence hunting, they also sought to use them as a deterrent against further territorial invasion; first, by colonization from Europe and then by geographic expansion of the new American nation westward.  Actually, the quality of the relationships between the colonists (and later, westward moving settlers) and indigenous peoples waxed and waned over the decades between 1607, when colonists first arrived, and 1891, when the last armed engagements between the U.S. Army and indigenous Americans ceased.

 

But, the colonists also took up arms against those representing the royal motherland.  Whether it was the Minute Men at Lexington and Concord or the ranks of British soldiers, long guns and later cannons were the main forms of weaponry.  And then, Americans took up firearms against one another in an un-civil Civil War that lasted four years and took the lives of more than 214,000 combatants.

 

Over the time between the first colonization of the Americas through the American Civil War, there was innovation in firearms both handguns and long guns.



But it is not just warfare that accounts for American deaths by firearms.  In 2021 the Center for Disease Control recorded 49,000 deaths due to domestic non-combatant gun violence.  At that rate there would be more American deaths in five years than during the Civil War. 

 

America has been a nation-of-the-gun since its founding.  Guns were employed first, as a tool for survival in the wilderness but quickly became a lever to displace indigenous people from their traditional lands; then, as a tool to secure political freedom through armed combat; then, as a means to settle the political dispute about whether America would be an aggregate of relatively autonomous states or a federal union.  Today, among other purposes guns are instruments of criminal force, political disaffection, and disturbed mental aggrievement. 



These current distortions of American gun culture encourage gun acquisition by some, well beyond for purposes of sports hunting, target shooting, or professional necessity.



But, what about the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution?  Hasn't the Supreme Court determined that personal gun ownership is a constitutional right of each individual citizen? Let us look at the text again:

 

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

 

This amendment, part of what is known as the Bill of Rights, was ratified in December of 1791.  The pre-Constitutional farmers at Lexington and Concord were an informal militia who more or less spontaneously took up their existing firearms to support the emergence of a free State (Massachusetts).  Soon, these and citizen soldiers like them became part of the Continental Army under the command of George Washington seeking to secure a free State (what was becoming the United States of America).


Beginning with the Civil War, systems for conscripting or drafting military forces, on the one hand, and the establishment of state-based National Guards (as military reserve forces for the Regular Army and Air Force) supplanted organizations like the earlier colonial militia.

 

Today there are autonomous paramilitary groups that identify themselves as militia (and claim protection under the 2nd Amendment) but their orientation is not the protection of an existing State or the Federal Union but protection of their own ideology that may be at odds with both the State in which they reside and the Federal Government.

 

Today, criminal gangs, militia, and mentally unstable people have access to military style firearms and ammunition that can cause devastating, if not fatal, injury to people.  And these victims are not necessarily specifically chosen targets (e.g., rival gang members) but can be unrelated by-standers or the random targets of a mentally unstable shooter.


When I began drafting this blog there had just been two mass shootings.  One in the Austin, TX, area took seven lives, the other at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas took three lives and seriously injured a fourth person.  As of the 15th of February, this year, there have been 1,958 homicide/murder/unintentional/defensive gun use deaths in the US.  In addition, there have been 3,036 suicides by gun.  These number put us on track this year for more than 15,000 homicide/murder/unintentional/defensive gun use deaths and more than 24,000 suicides by gun. As yet, we have no comprehensive national strategy to curb such results. 

 

Further, technological innovations like bump stocks and hand gun switches continue to emerge converting legal semi-automatic guns into illegal more deadly automatic weapons.  Hand gun switches allow the weapons to fire at a rate of 20 rounds per second.  Even in expert hands, such a weapon creates a wide spread of damage.



Developing a comprehensive national strategy to curb gun violence will require multiple dimensions of law (criminal and civil), committed and universal enforcement, design constraints, collateral social services (e.g., mental health services), and, perhaps the most challenging, a cultural transformation.  Should it be easier to own and use a gun than it is to own and operate an automobile?

 

No strategy will be perfect nor will the implementation of any strategy.   But as often noted, the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.  Failure to develop and implement such a comprehensive strategy, even if imperfect, makes us all complicit in the ongoing domestic gun deaths and injury.








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