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The Gun: America’s DNA

by Charles Shaughnessy

I get it! I get why many Americans feel naked without a gun strapped to their chest, hanging on a hip or slung over their shoulder. I do, I really get it. It is part of the country’s DNA: it is burrowed deep, deep into the American genetic architecture.

Americans, unlike the people of other countries, had never fought with the soberingly intimate, hand to hand weaponry of sword and pike. When this country was first populated, violence already had the depersonalization of a shot fired at distance. This country was born into the age of the gun, which won its freedom from tyranny at the muzzle of a musket. It came of age through the communion of blood and iron in the wrenching trauma of Civil War. It shot its way into adulthood by opening up the West. Native Americans, stubborn homesteaders, rival gold-diggers and lawless brigands alike all fell to the gun’s authority: all questions answered and problems resolved by a hail of bullets. Well into the last century, the rule of law and justice on the streets of Chicago and New York was enforced by the gun. It’s just how we do things.

Our faith in the gun’s role as judge, jury and executioner is enshrined in our Second Amendment. The first few words of that amendment: “a well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state …” give implicit license to us civilians and our guns to thwart any government, foreign or domestic, that seeks to take away those other rights promised in the same document. The grand political experiment that is the United States created a brand new model of government where true power flowed upward from the individual citizen to the elected official who was always bound to “do the people’s work.” This “individualism” lies at the heart of America. It explains the “laissez faire” idealism of the GOP, it gives perspective to our deep distrust of authority and it makes inevitable our worship of the gun: this iconic symbol of that same self-determination.

It is no surprise, then, that as the movies developed into the primary art form, through which we gave narrative to our history, our ambitions and our values, the western quickly emerged as our dominant genre.

The strong, laconic, deeply moral hero of so many of these movies became role model, fantasy and mentor to generations. From High Noon to The Magnificent Seven by way of “the man with no name,” we understood, identified with and yearned for the same sense of empowerment depicted on the screen.

The western has made up around 20% of all movies made to date in Hollywood. If you count those movies that transposed clear “western” themes into different formats, the number is closer to 50%. Even today, in our technological, urbanized, multi-ethnic and multi-cultured society, our entertainment preferences seem to suggest a kind of nostalgia for simpler, morally less ambiguous times when a good man could deliver justice with his trusty sidearm. Nothing could more clearly describe one of the western’s most popular themes than Taken starring Liam Neeson and set in the very contemporary world of international security contractors: mild-mannered man’s daughter is kidnapped; authorities are helpless to intercede; man turns into deadly avenger as he goes on personal, blood-soaked mission to save her.

The gun is, in fact, so ingrained in our consciousness, and so iconic that we even made a film about a gun. Winchester ‘73 made in 1950 followed the “life” of the West’s favorite rifle as it passed from owner to owner. As we move deeper into the 21st century, the Wild West retreats farther into the historic past. What was still immediate and familiar in the 60s and even the 70s is getting less so. The costumes, the language, the style seems quaint and unreal now. So we have a plethora of re-imagined westerns that import anachronistic details more familiar to today’s audience. Quentin Tarantino, Gore Verbinski and even Mel Brooks have all put their personal stamp on this venerable genre. Nevertheless, the iconic details remain the same: loner against the world, self-determination and … the gun.

Charles Shaughnessy

About Charles Shaughnessy

British born actor, Charles Shaughnessy, known to millions as Fran Drescher's long-suffering boss, Max Sheffield, on the CBS sitcom, The Nanny, lives with his family in Los Angeles, where, he is delighted to say, he continues to make his living as an actor. Despite the heavy preponderance of estrogen in his household, he is never happier than when he is at home with Susan, Jenny, Madelyn, Maya (the dog), and Lulabelle (the feral cat!). Please follow Charles: @C_Shaughnessy,, CharlesShaughnessy Facebook Fan Page.

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