3 accurate predictions about guns in America from an 1881 cartoon.
Ahh, guns. As American as apple pie!
Those fancy firearms are right there in the foundational DNA of our dear country. (Or at least, in the Bill of Rights, which was published 15 years after the official Declaration and a few years after the Constitution itself. These things took time, even back then.)
For all our squabbles about the comma placement and the technical and/or historical meanings of the phrase “well-regulated,” it’s true that firearms have pretty much always been a part of our great nation’s rulebook, whether we like it or not.
In fact, you can see America’s deep gun history clearly in this comic, which was published in 1881, almost a century after the Bill of Rights was ratified.
“A Dangerous American Institution The Free and Untrammeled Revolver” first appeared in 1881 in a popular political and humor magazine called Puck and was written and illustrated by American cartoonist Frederick Burr Opper.
Notice anything familiar about it?
Yup: This comic, created around 135 years ago, created a century after the nation’s founding (and about 15 years after the Civil War that almost tore it apart), makes the same criticisms about American gun culture that many people still make today.
Let’s take a closer look:
1. Check out the “Pistol Emporium for Cranks” in the top left corner, with a man carrying a letter from the “Divine Commission to Kill.”
While our larger understanding of mental health and neurological functions has certainly improved since 1881, this moment in the comic illustrates two particular aspects of the gun violence problem that still haven’t changed:
First, it shows our often wildly inaccurate ideas about what “crazy” means and looks like.
And second, it shows the fact that, yes, we need to find a way to keep guns out of the hands of “dangerous people” but we’ve never been good at defining what “dangerous” means.
There’s a lot of talk in our country about guns and mental health. But unfortunately, it’s just not the conversation about guns and mental health that we should be having. 100 years ago, mass violence was about a lot more than mental health, and that’s still true today.
2. In the opposite corner of the comic, there’s a cop shooting wildly: “The One Man who has a Right to Use it, and who Never Knows How.”
Up until the 1840s, towns and cities relied more on individual sheriffs or night watchmen than actual organized municipal police forces. These volunteer law enforcers functioned as a kind of local “militia” which would of course, give them the right to bear arms.
But as the idea of an armed and trained police units caught on and started to spread through the country, they were mostly employed to round up slaves and keep the working class “in line” and to generally punish the poor. By the 1880s, when this comic was made, police brutality was a serious problem.
In 2016, fatal police brutality is still a serious problem. Modern police training regarding firearms has come under question lately, particularly as it relates to de-escalation, discipline, and background checks. In that regard, Opper’s observation that these officers “never know how” to use their guns may have been regretfully prescient.
3. Finally, there’s the woman right above the police officer with her revolver, “Practicing for the Coming man.”
Self-defense is a commonly cited reason for owning a gun. The data is conflicted over whether gun ownership among women is rising or falling, but either way, that romantic, adventurous vision of faux-chivalrous men protecting women and children or of women taking care of themselves, with the help of a firearm still persists.
Here’s the thing: Men are actually more likely than women to be victims of random crimes. But women are significantly more likely to be killed by guns and are almost always killed by someone they are intimate with. 93% of women murdered by men were familiar with their killers, and 63% of those women were married to or intimate with the men who killed them. While 1 in 5 women believe a gun could keep them safer, some studies have found that abused women are more likely to be murdered by partners who have access to a firearm even up to 5 times as likely.
There are obviously lots of problems with toxic masculinity that our culture could and should address. But regardless of how “safe” they might make someone feel, guns don’t actually protect women most of the time. That was true in the 1880s, and it’s true now.
Our country has been struggling with the same gun violence problems for a long, long time. So let’s stop talking and start doing something.
It’s time we start collecting data on gun violence and use that information to find common-sense solutions to prevent more bloodshed. It’s time to start training our police and holding them accountable for their actions. (On that note, it’s time to talk about systemic racism, too.) It’s time to reform our destructive ideas of gender roles and find new forms of self-defense that don’t endanger people’s lives even more.
Simply put: It’s time to find solutions to the American epidemic of gun violence. Otherwise, I’m afraid we’re just going to keep having these exact same conversations over and over and over again, shrugging off each tragedy with thoughts and prayers while we wait 17 minutes for another one to happen. Because I don’t want some other writer to find this article on the Internet archives 150 years in the future and say, “See? This has happening so long, and we still haven’t fixed it.”