Modern Gun Violence and the Wild Wild West

December 7, 2015

 

In doing historical research, it is easy to find charm in so much of our past. The wild west with it's gun slingers and armed prostitutes seems empowered and bad, in that good way like when you cheat on a diet for a really really good dessert. It can be funny or at least entertaining. There is an appeal to the anything goes culture of the times, the lack of civilization, the seeming lack of rules, as opposed to the overwhelming number of rules we abide by (most of the time) now.

 

One of my favorite books for these kinds of stories is Thomas Noel's The City and the Saloon, Denver 1858-1916. It is the stuff great western movies are made of. Early saloons in Denver housed not only the sale of booze, but church services and business offices upstairs. The saloons were banks, boarding houses, the givers of charity, as well as the dens of vice. When William Byers, editor of the Rocky Mountain News and champion of law and order, printed unflattering editorials about taverns, the patrons of his downstairs neighbor, "Uncle Dick" Wooton's Tavern would send bullets through the ceiling to his office. He responded by adding extra floor planking, arming his staff and posting notices of vigilante meetings on his walls. 

 

Denver is strewn with historic buildings that were once brothels, and below the streets a web of (now closed) tunnels made for save passage between government buildings (and sometimes those whore houses). We locals tell our newly transplanted friends, in romantic tones, that those tunnels were built so that lawyers, judges and legislators could move around without getting shot, because back in the "Wild West" if someone didn't like a law, or a judgment someone might shoot them.

 

Sound familiar? I was expressing my fear of the general populous arming up in light of the recent plethora of shootings to a friend of mine. It seems like a bad idea to arm us given that we can't even deal well with conflict on social media, let alone in person. That was when she reminded me that it is the American way. We have always been armed. We have always been bad at conflict. We are still the Wild West, only without the shine of chronological distance it is terrifying. To live in a world where a badly received article (or facebook rhetoric) gets your office shot up, or to be safe at work you have to travel in tunnels is not romantic when you imagine it being how we survive now.

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