The legendary Wild West fosters America’s love for guns, but shootouts were a small part of the whole story.
Last December, after a young man shot 20 children, six adults, and himself to death in a Connecticut elementary school, a Los Angeles museum faced a dilemma. The Autry National Center, dedicated to history and culture of the American West, had recently been given a collection of firearms—some of the finest from the 19th century.
“Firearms present a unique challenge for curators that just about no other object does,” museum curator Jeffrey Richardson told Lisa Hix of Collectors Weekly. “Regardless of whether it’s the most beautiful, historically important firearm you’ve ever seen, a firearm is a tool that is designed to hurl an object at speeds that can kill people and animals and cause all sorts of destruction. We can never remove that baggage from a firearm.”
Hix proposes that American’s obsession with guns comes in part from the veneration of legendary eras like the Wild West. Through the museum’s exhibition, “Western Frontiers: Stories of Fact and Fiction,” she explores American history, myths, and our continuing fascination with guns.
“Historians continue to debate how ‘wild’ the Wild West actually was,” she writes. “Most towns were not as lawless as they were portrayed.” In fact, as populations grew, many towns adopted gun-control ordinances requiring visitors to check their guns at the local hotel or with law-enforcement, says Hix. While it might not come as a surprise that the Wild West holdups, ambushes, and duels were largely Hollywood’s creation, we’ll need to reckon with the cultural history of guns if we hope to prevent mass shootings of the future.