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Guns in Western Culture
Originally posted September 1, 2009

Here's a question from one of my students,  Tom.  I always try to answer any questions that students send me at length. Please pardon my rather pedantic response.

Dear David,
Hello,my favorate teacher.It has been a long time since I wrote my first letter .I know a lot from your class ,movies,and your answer to some questions.I really appreciate your insights.I aquired much knoeledge about Ameriacan"s medical systems.
     Recently, I have seen the Bowling for Columbia by Micheal Moore .It tells the gun issue and a sery of problems as a result of the abuse the gun.It is a tragedy that an innocent boy killed a girl of his classmate.Canada also has lots of guns,instead,there are far less lives took by guns.
     Guns are dangerous.But why Americans do not ban the use of guns like China?Can you explain it?Can you tell me sth about the gun culture in America?
     This semeser ,Ruth is our teacher.Sheis also very excellent.I really appreciate that.I have browsed your website.I really enjoy it!
Best regards!

Your student,

Dear Tom:

What a delight to get your letter. I really appreciate your kind words about my website, my teaching, and my fiancée.

You asked me about the gun culture in America. This is a very complicated issue. America was created by a revolution against the British.  Because they had fought a war against tyranny, one of the things the founding fathers feared was tyranny by a corrupt government, or domination by a foreign power. So they put the "right to bear arms" into their constitution. The idea was that an American should always be able to defend himself and his family against injustice, and against criminals.

This was put into their constitution at a different period in history, when guns were all single shot muzzle loaders.  There is an argument that this constitutional right was never intended to arm individuals, but was intended to arm a citizen's militia who would be trained as soldiers, the way the American militia had organized to fight the British.  Now this is used as an argument for hunting deer with a fully automatic military assault rifle. We have gun technology now that is far beyond anything envisioned by the founders of America.  Many Americans want to restrict guns.  In many states they are already very restricted. California, for example, has a ten day waiting period before the gun can be taken from the gun store. (To quote Homer Simpson: "Ten days! But I'm mad NOW!)

Many Americans love guns. Samuel Colt, who invented the Colt revolver, the traditional Western six gun, called his weapon "the equalizer", because with it a weak man was the equal of any bully. This is very attractive to some people.
     The gun has been romanticized and glamorized in American books and movies, much the same as kung fu and swords have been romanticized and glamorized in China.  Many Americans see gun ownership as a part of their cultural heritage.  It's not hard to see how this could develop.

When I was a child, there was a hunting rifle and a shotgun in the closet at home. Of course we never had a loaded gun in the house, and ammunition had to be kept in a separate place. But it seemed normal and natural to have a gun around.
     When I was eight years old, my father bought me a single shot 22 caliber rifle for my birthday. He taught me gun safety, and took me out into the country for target practice and hunting. 
     I loved watching cowboy movies, and I loved guns. When I was a teenager, I joined a rifle club and earned my gold pin for marksmanship.  When I became an adult, I bought a western style pistol, and I joined a fast draw club. This was a club where we would meet to compete against each other at drawing our guns and breaking a balloon, using black powder blank cartridges, timed by a clock that started when we took our finger off a button and stopped when the gun fired. I could draw and fire my single action Ruger .44 magnum revolver in .28 of a second.  It takes you .15 of a second to blink your eyes. At one club competition I won a turkey.  I was not the fastest in the club, but I seldom missed the target.

Competetive fast draw.  For these guys, a gun is sports equipment.  Aluminum barrels would blow up if they fired a real bullet through them.  Thunderbird Fast Draw Club,  my old club in Burnaby, B.C., Canada

As I played with guns more and more, I came to realize that they are not romantic or glamorous at all. They are simply tools designed to throw a piece of lead through the air, to hit a target or to make a hole in an animal, or in a human body. They are no more romantic than a drill press or an electric saw. I gradually lost the desire to play with them, and now I don't like them at all.
     But many people in Canada and America still love to play with guns. In Los Angeles, almost every house has a hand gun of some kind in it. Oddly enough, I never found this situation threatening. I am as nervous around somebody with a kitchen knife, a baseball bat, or a sword as I am around somebody with a gun. And there are situations where I would really like to have a gun myself - when facing an angry grizzly bear for example.  There aren't many bears on this campus, so I can get along just fine without being armed.

Unfortunately, having guns around means that there will be accidents and tragedies.  Some people will go crazy (Now known as "going postal" because there were several instances of employees of the postal service in America going on a murderous rampage.)  Children will get their hands on the gun and treat it like a toy.
     Ownership of a gun is much more restricted now than it was when I was a child. Back then, I could actually walk around in my home town carrying a gun and nobody would complain or be worried. Now... well, it's a different world. Now you must have a trigger lock, and a barrel lock, and a locked cabinet to store your gun, and your ammunition must be stored in another locked cabinet in another room. The days of having a gun in the hall closet are gone.

There is more personal history I could tell you about this issue. But this is enough for now.

Thanks again for writing. I really appreciate students like you.

All the best


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