I wonder if you might comment on the television series The Rebel, in which Johnny Yuma deployed a sawed-off shotgun; the series The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp in which the lawman often fired a Buntline Special; and the series The Rifleman in which Lucas McCain dispatched bad guys with a Winchester Model 1892 rifle with a modified trigger mechanism allowing for rapid-fire shots. Specifically, I wonder how these programs, seen by many of us in our youth, may have affected our adult view of our own right to bear arms as set out in that mystifying fashion in the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution.~ Wondering if Life Reflects “Art”
Dear, Wondering if Life Reflects “Art”,
Personally, I’ve always wondered whether these shows, portraying handsome and unusually well groomed men riding tall in the saddle wearing tight pants and chaps, could have contributed to the rise in the Log Cabin movement. Maybe something to consider in a future post, but today we will be talking about something else these men were packing.
It is true that, in the early days of television, viewers seemed to have an insatiable appetite for shows about well groomed white men riding into town on horseback and administering justice with their firearm of choice. For kids, these shows demonstrated the basic technique of how to act when shot by a gun (lurch backwards, quickly put your hand over the area of the body where you were shot, and then fall), but more importantly, children absorbed the crude morality tales these shows served up on a weekly basis.
In the case of the Rebel (1959-1961), viewers followed the tales of Johnny Yuma, a young disillusioned veteran of the confederate army, who finds himself wandering the west after the war and helping people out of tight spots where ever the trail takes him. No matter the situation, his double-barreled shotgun, with a sawed-off stock and barrel for easy concealment, was always able to ensure that justice prevailed.
Simply replace Johnny Yuma with the legendary western lawman, Wyatt Earp, and you have The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (1955-1961). Since this show predates Johnny Yuma the swap of characters would actually go from Earp to Yuma - but, either way, it really doesn’t matter. The point is, all the producers had to do was replace one well groomed white guy with another well groomed white guy (seriously, these guys could have starred in Brokeback Mountain), put them on the same horse and simply give them a different firearm. It all added up to the same thing - the guy with the fastest gun wins.
And nowhere was the eminent importance of gun-slinging prowess made more evident than in the opening credits of The Rifleman (1958-1963). Every episode began with a closeup shot of a rifle being fired in rapid succession; then the camera would pull back slightly to focus on the lower half of the protagonist walking down the street holding his weapon at hip level. Finally, with a fancy flick of the wrist, the rifle would twirl upwards and we would see our beloved gunslinger, Lucas McCain, reloading his weapon and starring into the camera with a look that says, “Yeah, I’m bad.”
What I find most interesting about The Rifleman’s pre-show exhibition is that - it’s just an exhibition. As far as we can tell, there is no reason for Lucas to be firing his weapon except to demonstrate to the viewing audience his exceptional ability to turn a single shot firearm into a rapid-fire machine gun. Right from the start our appetite is whetted for a show down between good and evil. We can’t wait to see some bad guys end up on the wrong side of Lucas’s rifle and be filled full of so many holes they will easily run out of hands to cover their numerous wounds.
Yuma, Earp, and McCain represented everyman who, like in a fifteenth century morality play, could have easily been given the simple name of Hero. Their badly groomed antagonists could have been scripted as Greed, Lust, Avarice, Sloth, or Generally Unreliable. There was no need for dialog to tell you who was good and who was evil - the contrast was as black and white as the sets on which we viewed these simple dramas. But unlike morality plays, that depended solely on God to be the arbiter of justice, these shows took a different tack. Not to say that these were not God fearing men - they could often defend their actions by miss quoting scripture better than the feckless religious characters who didn’t carry a gun. But these standard bearers understood that there are times when God needs someone with a good sidearm to help maintain heaven on earth.
So one could imagine a young James Perry, lying on the living room floor of his childhood home in Paint Creek, Texas, his head cradled in his hands under his chin, his eyes glued to the grainy images emanating from the family’s 17 inch Zenith; and while the picture may not have been crystal clear, the predominant weekly message he received was loud and clear - might makes right.
Fast forward to today, and we find James, who now goes by the name of Rick, running for President of these United States and spouting a lot of the aphorisms that could have easily been lifted from one of those early western scripts. Put him on a horse and he could likely be the next Johnny Yuma; spouting secession and longing for the old days of the confederacy. He’s a God fearing man who holds prayer rallies to solve environmental and economic problems. But when that doesn’t work, he takes matters into his own hands by casting threats at the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke - saying he will be treated “ugly” if he happens to visit Texas. Someone should warn Mr. Bernanke that Rick often carries a concealed weapon - a laser sighted pistol.
It’s difficult to say for certain whether early TV western dramas had a direct influence on the rise of the current gun toting culture we see today. More likely than not, those shows simply resonated and amplified common core beliefs within the viewing public. Seldom does something popular actually change public opinion. Anything that has a broad appeal most likely taps into some base human instinct - like sex and violence. These types of shows simply exploit a basic need to be in control and not feel helpless when threatened. Not a totally bad instinct. But it can lead to a vigil-anti mentality, or to seeing a whole group of people as a threat, or, worst of all, cause a whole nation to rush head long off a cliff into a never ending “war on terror” to kill all the terrorists.
I’m sure that those who call out for Second Amendment remedies, to get others to conform with their way of thinking, found a comforting message in these programs when they were a kid. Today, they seem to be having wet dreams about being able to draw down on their opponent (Mr. or Ms. Uncooperative) with either a Buntline Special or a Winchester Model 1892 rifle, coolly held at the hip, or being able to whip out a sawed-off shotgun and demand that their opposition cast a like minded vote on a piece of legislation. I also imagine these people often received the, “Does not play well with others”, teacher’s comment on their report cards.
Thanks for the question and thanks to all who have been submitting questions. Keep them coming and stay tuned.
This one could be tricky.