Like so many Americans, I have been called into relationships with guns since I was a child and have been made to understand, even long before I could articulate it, that guns represented something essential about what it means to become a fully realized American man.
My first guns were toys, followed by a pump-action Daisy BB gun that I used to shoot down green army men in my father’s garage. Then came the real guns: the .22 rifle I learned to use at summer camp in the fourth grade, the handgun my father taught me to shoot during a boyhood visit to a friend’s ranch in Nevada and the Colt 1911 he let me fire years later, which had been carried by my grandfather throughout his service in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
As I became older, guns were given to me as a rite of passage — by my father, by my mother’s boyfriend and by the United States government upon my graduation from the Border Patrol academy when I was 23.
Guns have long been an integral part of our national mythology, woven deep into our most sacred lore about the winning of our independence, about manifest destiny and territorial expansion, about the defense of democracy and the spread of our empire across the globe. At the center of this mythos is an abiding archetype — the lone man and his gun. This figure (usually white and positioned in opposition to people of color) has been represented throughout history in many familiar forms: the musket-toting militiaman with a revolutionary thirst for liberty; the cowboy chasing freedom with a six shooter across a frontier full of hostile natives; or the soldier with a rifle deployed to conquer or save a distant people inferior to his own. In each case, the gun is an essential counterpart — serving, like King Arthur’s sword or Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber, as the one tool that makes possible the hero’s journey.
Proponents of gun reform in this country are not just up against a powerful gun lobby, they are up against our most durable myth, the exceptionalist notion that a man with a gun is a force powerful enough to defend against any danger.
For evidence of how completely this mythology has been metabolized into law, we need look no further than last week’s Supreme Court’s decision striking down a gun restriction implemented in New York State. In his majority opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas dismisses a history of public safety protections as burdening the right to “individual self-defense,” gesturing ultimately to the “enduring American tradition of permitting public carry.”
This “tradition” has caused guns to become integral to the identity of countless Americans, giving rise to a gun culture defined by fundamentalist zeal and sloganeering well suited for the social media age. In a world where so many people are asked to compress their personhood into succinct lines and images, it is little wonder that these often end up including guns — America’s most potent symbol of masculinity, power and self-determination.
In the United States, nearly 98 percent of mass shootings are committed by men, and increasingly, these assailants are younger, often acquiring their arms as a coming-of-age ritual. The assault rifle used to murder 21 people at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, in May was purchased by the shooter in celebration of his 18th birthday; the gun used in last year’s shooting at Michigan’s Oxford High School was a Christmas present given to the 15-year-old shooter by his parents; and the 20-year-old perpetrator of the 2012 shooting in Newtown, Conn. reportedly grew up with a mother who often turned to guns as a way to bond with her difficult-to-reach son before he eventually murdered her at their home before slaughtering 20 young children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary.
I do not believe that violent stories, films and video games, popular all around the world, are the cause of America’s singular problem with gun violence — but they do help explain our relationship to it. Violence, after all, is shaped by what we see and understand as possible. But violence can also only be manifested with the tools that are available to us — and research shows that ours is a country where civilian-owned guns outnumber people.
Our national mythology has also clearly hampered our capacity to respond to gun violence — a favorite line of the N.R.A. is that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” This delusion, disproved in Uvalde and countless times before, flows directly from Hollywood fantasy and underlies arguments about arming teachers, expanding open-carry laws and ushering armed law enforcement into more and more public spaces.
The mythos of individual heroics is one that helped determine the course of my life. In the naïve and hopeful days after I first graduated from university, for example, I was drawn to join the U.S. Border Patrol by imagining that I could act as a force for compassion within the agency — a “good guy with a gun.” Obsessed with the border throughout my studies, I had come to understand the flaws in enforcement while also being subtly taught to accept its cruel realities as somehow inevitable — but my American upbringing also instilled in me the belief that I might be the one capable of finding ways to change them.
Instead, what I found was a place that absorbed individual ambitions into an institutional culture too often awash with cruelty and impunity, where acts of violence and dehumanization both big and small were normalized to the point of banality, carried out by agents who were often gleefully living out unburied boyhood fantasies of cowboy lawmen chasing criminals across a strange and foreboding frontier.
Growing up in West Texas and Arizona, I spent much of my childhood in the grip of fantasies like these. Some of my earliest heroes were Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, and I would later watch and rewatch Westerns like “Tombstone” and “Wyatt Earp,” eagerly anticipating their climactic gunfights. Eventually, I developed a taste for the revisionist fare that sought to deromanticize old narratives of “good versus evil” by unflinchingly depicting long-sanitized frontier violence. But these films often ended up reveling in their bloodshed, and as Westerns became increasingly morally complex, their antihero archetypes were absorbed into countless other genres, influencing characters as diverse as Walter White, Batman and the Mandalorian.
Today, I recognize how fictional depictions of America’s “Wild West” have helped solidify real-world attitudes of hardening masculinity in the face of evermore soul-numbing violence. Cormac McCarthy’s novel “Blood Meridian,” for example, follows a band of scalp hunters as they unleash racialized terror across the borderlands. Its male protagonists, unconcerned with the trauma of bloodshed, come to represent the casual, totemic power of violence in America — a force so powerful that it produces its own gravitational pull, becoming an unavoidable black hole at the center of our history.
It could be said that American society has long responded to violence with Western-tinged hardness, moving through perpetual cycles of shock, resignation and calcification. But for so long, the reality of bloodshed has also been dampened by the idea that it is something taking place in the distance, at the fringes of our civilization.
In “The End of the Myth,” the historian Greg Grandin argues that the presence of a frontier “allowed the United States to avoid a true reckoning with its social problems, such as economic inequality, racism, crime and punishment, and violence.” Even as America closed in upon its territorial edges at the end of the 1800s, he writes, our leaders continued to gesture toward new frontiers where the figure of the lone American could be thrust outward to defeat new enemies — across the ocean, into outer space or through clouds of terror oriented around a globalized axis of evil.
As our country slouches deeper into the 21st century, Mr. Grandin posits that we are being made to reckon with a sputtering mythology that has finally run out of ways to divert the rage, resentment and extremism once allowed to fester at our country’s ever-expanding edges. In this respect, our myths have effectively been turned in upon themselves.
In recent decades the figure of the lone gunman has proceeded to bring the once remote-seeming specter of public violence into more familiar public places — schools, churches, grocery stores, hospitals — refiguring it into something that has become impossible to dismiss into the distance.
That, in turn, has led to the increasing militarization of our day-to-day lives under the guise of police-enforced safety. America is not unique in its attempt to maintain a state monopoly on violence, but in a country where most adults can legally acquire an arsenal of weapons with destructive power unimaginable to our founding fathers, law enforcement has found pretext to engage in eternal escalation, acquiring more sophisticated means for waging war even within our most sacred spaces.
It is not hard to imagine a path toward diminishing the presence of firearms in our society: Other countries, unburdened by our gun-soaked mythology, have responded to outbursts of mass violence with striking agility. In New Zealand, after a white supremacist gunned down 51 mosquegoers in Christchurch in 2019, the country’s prime minister promised to reform gun laws the very next day. A month later, Parliament voted 119 to 1 to ban assault weapons, and by year’s end, the country had bought back more than 56,000 firearms, created a national firearms registry, penalized illegal modifications and gun sales, and instituted a new mental health warning system.
In the wake of other mass shootings, Australia, Britain, Canada, Germany, Norway and other countries have acted decisively to restrict the reach of military-style firearms, dramatically stemming gun violence and transforming mass shootings into rare events. By contrast, the bipartisan gun bill signed into law by President Biden last month falls dismally short, serving ultimately as the impotent whimper of a filibuster-bogged legislative system.
In America, we are raised to believe ourselves capable of reinvention, of boldly venturing forth into new terrain. But all too often, our attempts to update and revise our most toxic mythology have ended up perpetuating some aspect of it all the same, almost as if abandoning its familiar narratives altogether might threaten our very sense of who we are.
When I finally quit the Border Patrol after three and a half years, I occasionally dreamed that I was back in uniform and that my old service weapon, a .40-caliber HK P2000, was somewhere just out of reach, rendering me unable to meet an obscure threat looming in the distance. Those dreams continued for years and were like phantom limb pains, evidence that my consciousness was struggling to let go of old stories.
In recent weeks, America has reached new depths in its long doom spiral of gun worship. The urgency of disentangling guns from our sense of individual and national identity has never been more clear. We can safely keep our exceptionalist myths, our cowboy archetypes, our notions of gun-toting good guys holding evil at bay, only as long as we also recognize them as nostalgic delusions at odds with the reality of what it means to live in community with others.
Francisco Cantú, a writer and a teacher, is the author of “The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches From the Border.”