On the table sits an old revolver, as finely tuned as a musical instrument, carefully tended and cleaned and oiled. It simply sits, no hand upon it, musing, steadfast, not threatening in its form, yet carrying with it a weight of responsibility. The weapon is old, the barrel black, as if fire singed, cauterized by fury and fight, turmoil and threat. It is a weapon of history, of a hand that raised it in response to such things, taking stock of their principals and courage. This is my land, this is my family, these are the things that my hands bled to gain. I may be one man, one woman, but gaunt, tired and undefeated I will take up my arms and not flee.
I do not carry that particular firearm, but I carry a revolver with the same thoughts, increasingly aware of those places I travel that deny me the ability to carry my safeguard, that deny me the same freedoms that our forefathers had. I live in a world totally foreign to the original owner of that old revolver, yet I too bear the weary, indomitable outrage against those that feel that they can come in and steal what I have worked so hard for.
I wonder what a resident of a 19th Century Western landscape would think of us today were he transported here? There, men and women were armed and were often trained in the defense needed of home and property. Yet in such places, homicide was rare and usually involved a transient shooting the same, in violation of local law, or a professional gunman who took care to protect innocent life while bringing a fugitive to justice. The "Per capita" robbery rate was only a single digit fraction of today's urban city. The burglary rate was less than 1%. Rape, though not always reported, was almost unknown.
But firearms were prevalent, not only to protect against wild animals, Indian raids and the like, but also against the rustler and the poacher, to whom the laws, gun or otherwise, meant nothing.
What was of note in the time, if you study history, which apparently many of our elected representatives do not, was not the gun laws. What is notable was a new code of behavior was becoming acceptable in the West. People no longer had a duty to retreat when threatened. This was a departure from British common law that said you must have your back to the wall before you could protect yourself with deadly force. In 1876 an Ohio court held that if attacked you were not “obligated to fly.” My own state also upheld the legality of "no duty to retreat.”.
The code of the West dictated that a man did not have to back away from a fight. He could also pursue an adversary even if it resulted in death. He needed to retreat no further than “the air at his back.” He could legally fight back, with deadly force, and if threatened, he would. Yet the wise man knew, as we do now, the value of avoiding confrontation when he could, picking battles wisely, and fully sizing up an adversary before striking. But when presented with a clear and presented danger, he would defend, without hesitation, but not without thought.
Yet crime in the Wild West was not higher than anywhere else in the country at the time, even though almost all individuals owned a gun. In some areas it was lower, the "Wild" West not being as "Wild" as one would think. In fact, in some places it was downright peaceful. I think of the Robert Heinlein quote - An armed society is a polite society. Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life.
Incidentally, the historical accounts on the West underline a fact that the writers of the scripts of the old Westerns barely touch upon, that the "Wild West" was "tamed" not by any large officialdom, not by increased government oversight, but by private enterprise and the rights and means a citizen had to protect that which he had worked and built up. The "public officials" of the day were more interested in keeping their jobs, than in actually doing them, unwilling to risk their own personal holdings and hide for the safety of a community far away, not at the wages that were likely paid.
What was far more effective in bringing a degree of order to the West, as towns built up and people grew and thrived, was the fact that every individual carried their own government with him or her - there in their holster as they tended to that which they had legally claimed. Private protection that carried a strong voice.
When needed, the citizen of the town could work to employ private enterprise to augment it, such as local "police", armed and deputized, as well as organizations such as Pinkerton. The citizen decided what was needed for the town and how much, knowing it was there to help, not replace what he could do on his own to defend and protect. He knew too, that there were larger entities, the U.S. Marshal Service starting as far back as 1789, but he also knew, that in the day to day of survival when times were tough it might be HIS weapon that would be on hand, the Sheriff or Marshals miles and miles away from his land, spread thin in a population ever growing. He valued the professional lawman, but he trusted in the judgment of his own hand on his own weapon in the defense of his person or property at home.
The old towns and buildings of the West have fallen away, some burned down, tumbled, blackened ruins of lesser walls, not lesser men. Some remain, tougher than fire, stronger than time and the blazing sun, not escaping, simply surviving. Walking through such ghost towns, I get a sense of history, of men and women who gave their lives to gain a foothold of freedom in such places.
I pat the revolver at my hip, just as someone hundred and fifty years ago likely did, remembering the brief burst of sound as the trigger is squeezed, memories of provision and protection both, snippets of sound and feeling, cold and heat, a howling wind across the Plains. Those that resided in such places were always at the ready, giving their firearm the occasional fleeting glance, always aware of where it was, how close, for when, without planning or approach, there would appear in their sight the portent and threat of what is in all of us. There in the form of a wild animal, a predator, an outlaw, someone intent on taking what you have and torching the remains, all that we are and can bear, heat, blood, need; there for us in that instant between pull and sound.
His gun wasn't new, it wasn't plastic, it had the marks of his use on it, guns with the mark of the man on it. Those guns weren't just tools, they were dependability in a landscape not so dependable, confidence in a world that has gone wild.
“I won't be wronged. I won't be insulted. I won't be laid a hand on. I don't do these things to other people and I require the same from them.” John Bernard Books in “The Shootist"
What would he think of us now, with so many of our law-abiding citizens in large cities unable, by law, to carry a weapon to defend and protect while criminals run rampant with them? How would the Old West resident transported here today, take the news that when confronted by a thief who kicks down his front door, he would be expected to meekly surrender what he had worked hard for months to obtain. Or perhaps to feign sleep and hope he's not murdered in his bed or forced to sit by helpless while his loved ones are ravaged in his own home.
Would he ask us how in these last 150 years that we lost our way? Would he look at us and ask, what weakening of our personal will led to this change, what power did we give to the officials we elected that slowly stripped us of these things that could be counted on to protect and provide? Would he ask us how the courage of a nation was muted into blind acceptance , an implicit faith that those who make such laws do so for our own good, not seeing that all that will be required of us in payment for these beliefs will be our own life? Even more troubling, would he ask how long it is until we hand the barbarians at the gate the very keys to the lives we built on the principals of our forefathers?
Would he then, in response to the silence of too many of us, take a deep breath and remind us of that which he brought with him to this day and time. That being the knowledge that when we give up our rights as legal, law abiding citizens to protect ourselves and our homes, the protection of our culture, our language and our very borders will soon be next. Then we will see a land of chaos and violence that he never knew.
There is our American, here, now, and we stand with the same hopes and fears and threats, more so even, than the settlers of the old West. It's hard to look at her and not see that which was, a country so vast and limitless in capacity and courage that it took a couple hundred years for others to disperse and burn away much of the truth and dreams, leaving only the echoes of false promise.
An American of the Old West, trusted with a weapon to protect his life and property, would look at all that is around us now, the murder rate soaring the highest in cities with gun bans, even as I write this. He would see our country flooded with people that respect neither our values or our past, and nations far and wide pointing their own guns in our direction as we bow and attempt to play the peacemaker. He would ask more than how. He would ask WHY?