As a kid, I packed heat.
I wore a sidearm. Strapped a big iron on my hip, just like Marty Robbins, one of my idols of the day.
As a little boy, nothing made me feel so vital every morning as getting dressed, putting on my cowboy hat and strapping on my gunbelt. A few birthdays and Christmases and I owned quite an arsenal.
Toy guns, of course. Cast alloy replicas of authentic firearms of the Old West favored by the good guys and bad guys portrayed on TV and in the movies. Modeled after guns made by Colt, Remington and Smith & Wesson (which I mispronounced Smith & Weston without any adult correction) all made in the scale of a child’s hand. Some of the metalwork was scrolled along the barrels like they were engraved and finely tooled. The handles either had some kind of rough grips or were mother of pearl smooth. The trigger and hammer mechanisms worked with varying smoothness, depending on toy manufacturer – I seem to recall Mattel as being of high quality and most realistic to a discerning kid under eight years old. And there were the holsters, stitched leather and snug against the hip, belts tooled with cowboy baroque designs and cinched with big bold buckles. Some holsters had ties for the thighs to facilitate a quicker draw.
How can I reconcile American gun culture without confessing my own complicity?
My earliest TV and movie heroes carried guns. Hopalong Cassidy. Gene Autry. Roy Rogers. Wild Bill Hickok and his old pal Jingles. Cisco and Pancho. The Lone Ranger – my heart still stirs when I hear the 1812 Overture. Wyatt Earp. My namesake, Buffalo Bill Cody.
I most liked the ones who favored pistols. Bat Masterson carried a trick cane. The Rifleman lacked a certain savoir faire. Yancy Deringer – not to be confused with Henry Deringer – relied on a sneaky little pistol that reminded one too much of John Wilkes Booth. Josh Randall the bounty hunter carried a sawed off Winchester carbine, a little overhanded for my taste but kind of cool aesthetically.
Above all I admired the ones who righted wrongs and came to the aid of the downtrodden and the victimized. Yule Brenner and Charles Bronson’s Magnificent Seven. Paladin for hire, who dressed as a gentleman in the city and embossed the image of a chess piece on his calling card – for all I knew about chess it might as well have been the jack of spades. The Maverick brothers, Brett and Bart in nice suits, reluctantly distracted from their livelihoods playing poker to help somebody unfortunate. John Wayne and Gary Cooper and every epic drama based on a theme called Shane. Destry Rides Again – a crush on Marlene Dietrich – “and don’t be stingy baby.”
Nothing like a shotglass of Pepsi at the Long Branch Saloon of my dreams after confronting the bad guys of my fantasies in a shootout on the streets of my own personal Dodge City. Good guys came and went, but every week of every year there was Matt Dillon the US Marshall, the plain spoken righteous quintessential good guy standing tall against the forces of bad in Gunsmoke. The star, James Arness, was from my own home town.
“Hey Buff, let’s play guns!”
Didn’t have to ask me twice. Me and my friends, as we used to say before we were taught good grammar, shared for a time a common fanaticism for gunplay. Dressed in cowboy hats and gunbelts we chased each other around the neighborhood, hiding behind garages and taking cover behind birdbaths, swingsets and sandboxes, all pulling triggers. We shouted pow-pow-pow and blam-blam to enhance the ambient sound effects. Then there were caps – paper spools of dots of gunpowder threaded through the chambers of some toy guns like a movie through a projector or like an old school computer punch tape that synchronimously detonated with the impact of the hammer and made a loud explosive crack like a firecracker, obviating any need to verbally pow-pow and bam-bam. Caps also emitted the burnt aroma of what Francis Ford Coppola in another weapons context would later describe as Victory. Caps generally annoyed grown-ups and became forbidden long before we were discouraged against pointing our guns at each others faces. So it continued blam-blam-blam until we all finally gave up our puny pistols for Daisy air rifles and their hefty pump action pop when we evolved to more sophisticated games of combat.
From the early days we did not play Cowboys and Indians. It was always cowboys and cowboys, or just cowboys. Nobody wanted to be Indians. Up north of where we lived we encountered real Indians living in teepees on reservations, and among us guys there was a tacit understanding it seemed wrong to play at persecuting people so obviously picked on and bullied – like picking on someone not your own size. We weren’t interested in being cowboys either, or cared about horses, saddles, or acting out the humdrum routine of herding cattle. It was all about posses, and chasing rustlers and thieves and no ‘count polecats and bank robbers. It was about hideouts, forts and territory, somebody’s back yard.
From there it progressed to cops and robbers as the themes on TV changed. Gradually the westerns diminished and detectives and private eyes came into vogue, and I acquired a snub-nosed .38 complete with shoulder holster to wear concealed under my Sunday sport coat like Jeff of 77 Sunset Strip – wondering if Kookie would ever graduate from parking cars to getting a license and solving his own cases.
There were experiments with forays into galactic space gunfights with ray guns that generated sparks, the forerunners of phasers, but they didn’t catch on. We had some fun with water pistols crafted in the designs of Lugers and Berettas, but they had to be refilled with water all the time and we were too impatient to take time outs.
Then came the war movies and TV shows like Combat. John Wayne went military. The focus of entertainment went from winning the wild west to refighting and redefeating the nazis in World War II. Audie Murphy. That’s about the time me and my friends took up Daisy air rifles. Me and them, playing jungle war in the wild woodlands of the nature preserve along the swamp they called the lake, that last summer playing guns. Man that was fun.
I don’t remember any grown ups strictly forbidding us from playing with toy guns. There was no event transforming our behavior – no one shot out an eye, even though it got darn close when somebody discovered you can pack the barrel of an air rifle with dirt and shoot little mudballs, a practice we made a pact to disavow except at inanimate objects and squirrels. I don’t recall any formal decree from a parent or authority person telling us to stop playing guns. Looking back I would hope somebody saw through the fun we were having and saw the crazy violence we imitated and said, we have to stop this. We just stopped.
Maybe it was like St Paul the evangelist who wrote about putting away childish things. For me, I cannot point to any transformative revelation. Nobody said to me, look at what you are doing – you are entertaining yourself pretending to kill people.
Maybe it was sports, or rock and roll.
I never went hunting – men in my life didn’t hunt, except for an estranged grandfather who never got to know me. The first time I fired a real gun was at summer camp, under strict instruction and supervision. It was a breech load bolt action single shot .22 rifle fired from a prone position on the ground. It was scary to shoot a permanent hole in something at a distance, even if it was a paper target. Later I fired shotguns at cans in the woods, and then at clay pigeons. I was awed by the force and scared of what could go wrong. I never got comfortable with the responsibility.
Along with the rest of the toys of my youth, my guns disappeared. Today they would probably be illegal because they were such faithful replicas and so similar to real weapons. Whether I chose not to keep them or I just let them get tossed out, the timing coincided with a phased awareness of firepower and death.
Even in my musical soundtrack I can trace awareness of the futility of the life of a gunfighter, from the lessons of the ballads of Marty Robbins – how come the guy from the West Texas town of El Paso sings the song if he ends up dead – and the most blunt cautionary tale from Johnny Cash, Don’t Take Your Guns To Town. My mom likely presumed I would grow out of it, playing with toy guns, and I did. By the time the Beatles White Album came out I was ready to be transfixed by the John Lennon song that goes, “Hey Bungalow Bill / What did you kill? / What did you kill?”
In the movies, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid brought the Old West into the 20th Century by deglamorizing gunplay. On TV the western genre went away in a puff of Gunsmoke. Doctor shows took over. Little House on the Prairie and the Waltons cozied in.
And hard news journalism. There was a bloody war in Southeast Asia. The whole world watched.
Somewhere in there I got delusions of peace and love. A yearning for a society and a world without violence. Seemed doable.
So in my life I never owned a real gun – an admission these days which could cause me harm, I suppose, from somebody who knows I’m unarmed. Not owning a firearm seems to run counter to the demographic trends that show more and more people are armed with guns in their households and taking advantage of conceal and carry permits. Do I feel left out? Not when it comes to having the right to choose not to make up reasons to own a gun.The sense that everyone else is doing it doesn’t mean it’s right for me.
It’s a dangerous world. Agreed. Cars crash and we are allowed to treat them like toys. We use cars for transportation and we regulate and license their use.
Violent crime exists, and wars. Gun crime occurs with appalling frequency. People arm themselves for protection, I get that. Fear is a basic motivator. Self defense is a basic instinct codified as a right and doctrine of law. If you outlaw guns, the saying goes, only outlaws will have guns – and the police, our hired peacekeepers. And the armed forces who defend our country, of course, against regimes who would kill us all and trash the Constitution with its Second and all Amendments, all of them armed with guns to use against us supplied by who knows who of the worldwide arms trade.
Like Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee I feel responsible for the gun craze, and I can’t take it back. I think of kids today and the allure of video games that simulate the killing of human beings more graphically than any kid of the 1950s could imagine, yet there is no proven causal relationship between video games and violent behavior, and this is a free country. The same could be said of toy guns in my day.
There is a serious worry about the allure of real guns. The allure of real bang-bang pow-pow. The illusory intoxicating smell of victory. Real caps, as in cap your ass. The empowerment of solving a problem impulsively and with an aura of impunity with guns. Joining up with others to solve perceived wrongs, take territory, impose ideas and creeds, and change the world with guns.
I look at succeeding generations, and the next ones, and I wish I could reset my example. Our culture has defined itself repeatedly by legends of the Old West, and what sticks is the image of the gunfighter. Are we so ignorant that we are doomed to repeat it? Can this be altered without denying the past? In the age of Star Wars and Quentin Tarantino?
What comes to mind is advice from Leonard Cohen’s song about the Old Revolution:
“Into this furnace I ask you now to venture/ You whom I cannot betray.”
I know, this brings us back to the beginning.
The other day one of my neighbors held a family picnic, and there were kids all over, sometimes playing in my yard. One little girl about 8 had a toy gun. It was bright blue and had a boxy stock with a bright red barrel, and she kept peppering a younger boy with orange nerf bullet projectiles. At a pool party I recently attended I observed kids shooting one another with colorful toy water guns called Super Soakers, and I heard one kid cry out, “Not my face!” There must be something primitively hard wired into sisters to torment little brothers by any means at hand.
It was interesting to observe these modern toy guns were conspicuously designed not to resemble in any way a real firearm. Whether manufactured voluntarily or mandated by some state law or federal regulation, you cannot mistake these toys for the real thing. The days of little boys running around with replica Colt .45 Peacekeeper Army pistols appear to be over.
If a consensus can be achieved to regulate toy guns for a greater good, rather than try to take them all away, then real grown ups ought to be able to negotiate meaningful regulation of lethal firearms, as if regulating a well regulated Militia.