The frontier as it was actually lived was not precisely like that, or at least not like that for everyone. Historians have discovered that in Tombstone, Arizona; Dodge City, Kansas; and Virginia City, Nevada—the legendary gunslinger towns of the West—no more than a handful of people were ever killed in a year. Militias and posses were rare: According to Robert Dykstra of the University of Albany, most killings came when one drunk man got in a fight with another, and in the majority of cases, the murderer was a lawman. What’s more, Dykstra noticed, some frontier towns adopted “blanket ordinances against the carrying of arms by anyone.” In Dykstra’s telling, violence on the frontier looked a lot like contemporary violence: not much more frequent, not much more florid, and the cause for some agonized consideration, by local leaders, of how to balance public security against the right to self-defense. In Dodge City in the 1870s, a huge billboard straddled the town’s busiest corner: THE CARRYING OF FIREARMS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.
The rifle is such an antique—and such a comparatively tame-looking firearm—that it can now inspire a certain nostalgia, in both liberals and conservatives, for a time when guns were used mostly for sport rather than for self-defense. If that moment ever existed, it has slipped into the past. In the mid-nineties, the NRA conducted a study of all American gun buyers, says Joseph Olson, a law professor at Hamline University in Minnesota who was then a member of the NRA’s national board, asking them to list two reasons they’d decided to buy a gun. “Just about everyone who hadn’t put self-defense as their first choice put self-defense as their second choice,” Olson remembers. “I think that even surprised a whole lot of people at the NRA.” These changes in attitude took some time to shape the market: By the turn of the millennium, manufacturers were still making twice as many rifles as pistols. But by 2010, they were producing more pistols. The old firearms, designed for the necessities of the frontier over a century ago, were being replaced by more modern weapons of protection.
10-mm. Glock Semi-automatic Pistol
Gaston Glock was past 50 years old, a small-scale manufacturer outside of Vienna, when in the early eighties he began to tinker with pistol prototypes for the first time, firing them at targets with his weaker left hand so that he’d still have his right in case the gun exploded. Pistols were getting cheaper and replacing older revolvers. Glock’s innovation was to radically strip down the semi-automatic pistol, cutting out extraneous parts and using new, light, extra-strong polymers. His gun was blocky, matte, and partly plastic, a kind of video-game design. Soon after the Glock’s 1985 introduction to the United States, it became “the firearm of both the cop and the outlaw,” writes the journalist Paul Barrett in his entertaining history Glock, and the iconic gun of self-defense against violent crime in the eighties. By 1991, one exasperated Smith & Wesson executive slammed a Glock down on his conference table and cried out, “Copy the motherfucker!” to his subordinates. “What the Glock did,” says Aaron Karp, a senior consultant with the Small Arms Survey in Geneva, “was it made the pistol so stupid that anyone could use it.”
Adam Lanza carried two semi-automatic pistols to Sandy Hook Elementary School: a 10-mm. Glock and a 9-mm. Sig Sauer, but this in itself was somewhat unexceptional. More than eight million Americans hold concealed-carry permits, and the gun lobby has worked for years to liberalize licensing requirements. (“The gun industry should send me a fruit basket—our efforts have created a new market,” crowed the NRA’s chief lobbyist in 1996.) That purchases of concealed handguns would accelerate in the eighties made sense. America had become more dangerous. But the conceptual shift has lasted, and the idea of armed self-defense is now so central to gun culture that the NRA’s magazine for subscribers, American Rifleman, opens each issue with its ripped-from-the-headlines “Armed Citizen” column. Cleveland Plain-Dealer: “Mrs. Cawthon walked calmly to a nearby closet, picked up a snub-nosed automatic, turned to the knife-wielding bandit, and said, ‘Where do you want it?’ The thief ran out the door.” Paducah Sun: “Deputy sheriffs found Mr. Thompson’s assailant on the back porch, in a pool of blood.”
The arguments the NRA has made since Newtown have extended the logic of the “Armed Citizen” column: That we should station armed guards in every school, that the more people carry guns, the safer the world is. This is also something close to the personal philosophy of Manny Kapelsohn, the set of ideas about armed self-defense that seduced him, in the eighties, away from New York and across the invisible cultural line that separates blue-state culture from red.