Paul Andersen: Fair Game
Aspen, CO, Colorado
Most National Rifle Association members would be envious of my arsenal: matching .45s in tooled leather holsters, Thompson submachine gun, hand grenades, bow and arrow, knives, tomahawks and a gun-toting attache case right out of James Bond. I was 9 years old, and I was armed to the teeth.
The Mattel toy company reminds me of my gun fetish in its current ad for the M-16 Marauder where a young boy happily fires an assault rifle: “The most authentic-looking and -sounding rifle you’ve ever seen! Just pull back the cocking lever, and this amazing gun is ready to fire. … You can cut loose with a solid blast almost a minute long … and all with the loud, realistic sound of a real M-16!”
My 9-year-old self would have put that gun at the top of my Christmas list, but my adult self recoils (pardon the pun) at the image. Things have changed in the ensuing half century of my life.
For one thing, I stopped watching TV 30 years ago, so I’ve had time to fully decompress from mainlining institutional violence. TV and movies promote a steady barrage of gunplay that has shaped malleable segments of American culture into a quasi-warrior cult.
As a kid who was fed a steady diet of TV, my role models all carried guns and used them with aplomb. I’ll never forget “The Rifleman!” as he walked down the dusty street of his Western town, raised a modified Winchester to his hip and unleashed a torrent of lead on whatever miscreant was on the receiving end.
Chuck Connors acted this role with deadpan certitude, his face rigid, his eyes narrow slits, his whole demeanor merciless and deadly. Glued to the tube, the youngsters of my generation venerated Lucas McCain as he ventilated his enemies.
Another role model was Johnny Yuma, played by Nick Adams. “The Rebel” wielded a sawed-off shotgun as if it were an appendage. He smote the baddest of the bad with a terrifying buckshot blast that spoke with deadly finality. How satisfying!
Steve McQueen in “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” used a sawed-off .44-40 Winchester nicknamed Mare’s Leg that he unsheathed with machismo and mayhem. McQueen’s handsome, boyish features belied his killer instincts as he pursued outlaws like an angel of vengeance.
Richard Boone as “Paladin” was the darkest of the dark. He wore black. His hair and mustache were black. He was like Death himself riding across the Western landscape on a black horse, his manhood clinging to his hip in a black holster that viewers wanted to see in blazing action.
For young, impressionable kids of the ’60s, the lineup of TV gunfighters spoke to mythic heroism at its best – men wielding lethal firepower with moral authority. Every Western hero had deadly aim, deadly eyes and a deadly mythos that awed kids like I was. I watched some shows wearing my holster and gun set, fast drawing when my heroes did, with the same narrow eyes and curl of lip.
My poor, peace-loving parents must have died with every pull of my trigger, the smoke from my caps filling the TV room with the acrid stench of gunpowder. And my victimized younger brother, the target for my every killing device, from rubber knives to plastic grenades to suction-cup arrows, suffered ritual death on a regular basis.
The movies were even better. In “The Alamo,” martyred gunmen held off the entire Mexican army with bravado and bullets. As a boy, these were images to live up to with a naïve and youthful fascination. Born was a love for guns and killing that now plays out regularly and sordidly in the news.
Bringing it full circle, an e-headline last week read, “Giffords Says ‘Enough’ to Gun Violence Two Years After Shooting.” Below ran a sad photo: “Families of theater shooting victims listen as police describe horror.” At the top of the page a pop-up showed a man in a cowboy hat brandishing twin pistols: “All New Season – ‘Justified.'”
As a 9-year-old, I would have been all over that show. As a sadder but wiser adult, it’s another sign of cross-messaged cultural insanity.
Paul Andersen’s column appears Mondays in The Aspen Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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