Once Upon a Time I was a Cowboy

Jake the Cowboy - 1939

Jake the Cowboy – 1939

Once Upon a Time, a long time ago … I was a Cowboy – complete with ten-gallon hat, chaps, vest, and, yes, gun. A pearl-handled six-shooter, just like the Lone Ranger’s – sorry, no silver bullets, but caps that smoked when I pulled the trigger.

Look at me! Who could face down the stern look of such a tough guy!

And I even had me a horse. My dad had lost his business in the depression, started it again, and got wiped out in the 1938 downturn, so he went back to horse trading, something he had done as a teenager in Ohio (Frank James was one of his customers). So, between trades, I feed horses, I cleaned stalls and I rode. We lived on a dirt road near the lake shore in Superior, Wisconsin, and there were a lot of fields and plenty of places to gallop, with the William Tell Overture, the Lone Ranger’s theme song, resonating in the folds between my ears – just like on the radio – with me riding “A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty ‘Hi Yo Silver!’”

The NRA, had it been around, would have had nothing on my 7-year-old sister, my “straight-shootin’” sidekick, and me! We organized our own “Gun Club,” complete with rules. We met secretly in the dark, deep recesses of our attic. We knew nothing about 2nd Amendment Rights, but we learned the “Lone Ranger’s Code“ – Always do Right. We got that 30 minutes every Wednesday, at 6:00 p.m., when we glued to our kitchen radio and listened to the tales of the “masked man” who, with his faithful Indian companion Tonto, championed justice; who never shot to kill; and whose Code us Gun-Club Members lived by:

Want a friend? Be one first! Up to a challenge? You’ve got within yourself the power to make the world better! Need to be focused? Always be prepared to stand up for right! Not as big or fast as the next guy? Make the most of what you’ve got! Tough decisions to make? Do what’s best for all concerned, not just you! And never forget: “That sooner or later … somewhere … somehow … we must settle with the world and make payment for what we have taken.”

What a life! My imagination soared! I even tried my hand at writing heroic stories about my rides with the Lone Ranger.

By the time I got to high school, for reasons now lost in memory, football and cheerleaders replaced those early adventures. And then I settled down to the reality of university life, family, military service, business, law school, and ultimately, a legal career.

But today, as I watch and read about the never-ending parade of gun and gun rights horror stories, I could not help but reflect on those days when I was a Cowboy.

Gun Club Meeting Notice

Gun Club Meeting Notice

Yes, I suspect I could write a provocative brief about whether Justice Scalia’s opinion that the Second Amendment creates individual gun-ownership rights is correct, or whether former Chief Justice Berger’s view that the Second Amendment is really about organizing militias (which Congress regulates under the Constitution) is right, since the Amendment was adopted at a time when all adult, white males ages 18-45 had to be in the militia and had to furnish their own guns.

Or maybe I could write about “original meaning” of the Second Amendment at the time it was adopted, when “arms” were single shot, front-loaded muskets, useful for self-defense (Thomas Hobbes’ “first law of nature“) or hunting on a thinly-populated frontier; not when “arms” sold over the web and in supermarkets and gun shops to most anyone include automatic Thompson Submachine Guns and Rapid-Fire Glocks, perfect for today’s “killing fields,” the populous streets and schools of American cities like Chicago, Tucson, Denver and Newtown, where self-defense and hunting have different meanings – and where there are entirely different “balancing of rights” concerns than there were some 25 decades ago when the idea of “Rights” came into being.

Or maybe I could provide a few comments regarding the concerns gun manufacturers expressed that any regulation of guns could reduce sales and, therefore cause job layoffs in our bad economy, followed by a question as to how many young lives lost to gun fire are appropriate to preserve even one gun-manufacturing job – and maybe a question about the cost of gun deaths and injury to  our country, estimated by the American Medical Association to cost taxpayers billions.

Or maybe I could write about troubling facts like the United States leads the developed world in prison population, gun sales, gun owners, gun deaths – including over 119,000 children killed by guns since 1979 (87% of all children gun-killed in the 23 wealthiest nations are Americans) – and is way behind in education. And we could delve into gun-studies that indicate:

“[I]f you own a gun it is 22 times more likely to be used to kill you (suicide) or someone you love (accident, homicide in a heated argument) than a stranger in self-defense. The costs of living in a society of gun owners also means a substantially higher rate of homicides, suicides, and accidents.”

Yes, I could write such thoughts.

But I have another mission – to discuss a deeper, more basic concern, visibly ignored in the political debates about guns and gun rights.

It’s about “The Weapons Effect.”

Our discussion pokes under my stern, almost defiant, 8-year old Cowboy face and strong stance and takes a look at  “virtual reality,” a subject I addressed in a different context in the Spirit of Salcantay-Communion with the Cosmos in Our Virtual World.

In The Spirit of Salcantay blog we touched on the “virtual reality” research at Stanford’s Virtual Hunan Interaction Lab, reported by Blascovich and Bailenson in Infinite Reality. Although Blascovich’s and Bailenson’s virtual reality work is primarily about computer-simulated environments, the influence of virtual reality is not limited to the computer environment – we also create virtual worlds for ourselves through the literature we read, the movies we see, the dreams we have, the stories we tell and hear, the pictures we paint, and the games we play – whatever triggers our imaginations.

The prime conclusion of Blascovich’s and Bailenson’s studies is that spending time in our virtual worlds changes the way we act and react in the real world. The baffling thought for me from their writings is that our brains fail to distinguish between real and virtual experiences and, for many of us, our brains favor the virtual experiences.

Professor Rachel Wagner of Ithaca College adds in her Godwired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality.

[O]ur cultural fascination with virtual reality reflects a deeper and basically human fascination with world-building, or what we might also call cosmos construction: that is, the imaging of a world in which we are in control, in which things make sense, in which what we do has profound meaning, and in which we can enact our ideal selves. …

Our “cosmos construction” – architected by our mind’s imagination – makes our version of reality, particularly when it comes to values and judgments, quite subjective. Blascovich and Bailenson describe our perceptual subjectivities:

“[T]he evident variability of our perceptions undermines the common-sense notion of hard and fast, fixed and static, easily defined reality. Ours is not a passive relationship, where reality is and we simply experience it; reality is, in fact, a product of our minds – an ever changing program consisting of a constant stream of perceptions. … The mind decides if perceptions are real. If the mind buys into an experience, it deems it ‘real,’ otherwise it judges it to be unreal.”

So much for Aristotle’s logical man and Ayn Rand’s rational mind!

Where does the research of Wagner, Blascovich and Bailenson take us?

To Batman!

The 2012 studies of Ariana Young, reported in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology: when men bond with a superhero like Batman, the bonding heightens their self-awareness, improves their body image, and they have a stronger, more confident handshake. This sort of mental “improvement” is not just a man thing, Young’s 2011 study found that women think more of themselves when then link to an avatar with a thinner body image. There is also the research of Marcus Appel from the University of Lintz concluding that reading about a character who has certain traits can activate these same traits in us.

Simply put, we adopt our avatar’s “aura.”

Let’s return to Jake the Cowboy: hand on gun, shoulders square, stance firm, and a strong look-into-your-eyes. Hopefully, that’s my Lone-Ranger-avatar look. An October 2012 study by Bailenson and others indicates that a heroic avatar can encourage positive, helpful behavior – sort of a “Batman Effect.”

But, could my tough look also come from what’s known as the “Weapons Effect”?

As long ago as 1967 researchers Berkowitz and LePage concluded that weapons can be an aggressive-eliciting stimuli. The mere presence of weapons, or even visual representations of weapons, can lead to increased probabilities of aggressive behavior! Thus, when some of us carry guns, we take on the persona of a tough, in-control, not-to-be-crossed gun-toter. That internal picture becomes our avatar and we end up acting like our avatar and not our “real me.” When that happens, you have to be careful if you cross the path of a “gun-slinger” like Jake the Cowboy.

Fortunately, some later studies offered a ray of hope when it comes to hunters and sportsmen, trained in the use of firearms. These later studies point out that aggressive thoughts stimulated in non-hunters were not stimulated in hunters, who, through training and experience, thought differently about guns. However, the good news about hunters and their sports guns doesn’t appear to be true when it comes to assault weapons, not normally used by hunters or sportsmen for recreation.

All of the studies I have read on the Weapons Effect tell me that we have more to learn and more research is needed, not only about our national love affair with guns but also violent video games. Rachel Wagner raise this perplexing question in Godwired:

“Can you virtually sin? … So let’s say you’re playing a shooting game that takes place in Iraq, and you’re supposed to shoot people who come out of mosques. There’s a game like that, and I think that game can have real consequences for how you perceive inter-religious encounters in real life.”

One can wonder why there hasn’t been sufficient research after all these years. To find answers you might consider:

• The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention began its study of gun violence in the early 1990s; however, the National Rifle Association (“NRA”) pushed Congress to pass a law that prohibited the Center from engaging in research that could be used to “advocate or promote gun control.” The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has been similarly handicapped.
• The NRA has also had laws passed that prohibit the military from asking soldiers about their private use of guns, despite the fact that more soldiers die from suicides than war. The military is now fighting the NRA.
• Similarly, the NRA has fought the idea that gun suicides and homicides are a national health issue by promoting legislation, including Florida legislation, that prohibits doctors from asking patients about their guns. [A Florida Court struck down the law, but the Governor has appealed the decision. Obama has stated that federal health care law allows such questions.]

What you or I think about carrying guns, about the Weapons Effect, about violent video games, the wisdom in research, or about asking questions about guns depends upon our “perceptual subjectivities” as Blascovich and Bailson call our very personal versions of reality.

You may champion strong individual rights with less regard for the collective rights of others; or you may favor the rights of the community as a whole as taking precedence over the rights of an individual. You may believe that doctors and the Army shouldn’t ask about guns, despite their concern about whether either of us is a candidate for homicide or suicide; or you might think it a wise idea, one that could save lives and cut the nation’s health care costs. But whatever your perceptions or my perceptions are about these matters, our perceptions should be anchored as solidly as we can anchor them in good research. The sad conclusion of the 2012 7th Circuit Court decision (Moore et al vs. Attorney-General of Illinois) overturning Illinois law and allowing people to carry loaded guns on Chicago streets was that there was not enough solid research to support a limitation to the contrary. I suspect that makes the NRA and those of us with strict libertarian perceptions happy. But is that the best result for the people of Chicago, or our country?

In the landmark 2008 decision, District of Columbia, v. Heller, confirming the 2nd Amendment right of people to carry guns, Justice Scalia concluded:

“[N]othing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”

We owe it to ourselves to make the best decisions, and that will take some additional research, not just into the historic language of the Second Amendment or our “rights,” but into: what makes us tick as humans, our flaws in how we perceive reality, how we deal with our beliefs and perceptions, and what sorts of safeguards could protect us from our own shortcomings that could damage others or ourselves. We have speed limits for our cars. Why not for our guns?

Take a few moments and read Time Magazine’s Your Brain in a Shootout: Guns, Fear and Flawed Instincts. Laws like “Stand Your Ground” are based on the idea that when we face trouble with a gun on our hip we will be cool, rational, and when we “believe” we are in danger we are. I hope that after today’s discussion, we have a better understanding about the flaws in that sort or reasoning, and we will consider the wisdom of Time’s conclusion:

“Winning a gunfight without shooting innocent people typically requires realistic, expensive training and a special kind of person, a fact that has been strangely absent in all the back-and-forth about assault-weapon bans and the Second Amendment.”

As you ponder these issues, and perhaps ask yourself where are our churches on guns, take a look at articles like Churches Offer Concealed Gun Classes to Attract Members.

In the meantime, be careful – don’t cross Jake the Cowboy!


Extra Credits worth pondering:

NRA youth programs.


Archie Bunker: Guns for Everyone

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Charlton Heston “Cold Dead Hands” NRA Speech.

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Lone Ranger  TV Movies – Free


20 Gun Ads, Papa Says it’s Safe.

The Children Defense Fund. Org.: Protect Children, Not Guns: The Truth About Guns.

American Academy of Pediatrics, Fire-Arm Related Injuries Affecting the Pediatric Population.

Journal of American Medical Association, The Medical Cost of Gunshot Injuries in the United States.

Anders, Craig A., Benjamin, Arlin J., Bartholow, Bruce B., Does the Gun Pull the Trigger? Automatic Priming Effects of Weapon Pictures and Weapon Names, 9 Psychological Science 308 (July 1998).

Appel, Markus, A Story about a Stupid Person Can Make You Act Stupid (or Smart): Behavioral Assimilation (and Contrast) as Narrative, 14 Media Psychology 144 (2011).

Lin, Jih-Hsuan, Do video games exert stronger effects on aggression than film? The role of media interactivity and identification on the association of violent content and aggressive outcomes, 29 Computers in Human Behavior 536 (May 2013).

Richardson, Erin G. S.M.; Hemenway, David PhD, Homicide, Suicide, and Unintentional Firearm Fatality: Comparing the United States with Other High-Income Countries, Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery (2011).

Harvard School of Public Health, Homicide.


Blascovich, Jim & Bailson, Jeremy, Infinite Reality, Harper Collins (2011).

Cook, Philip J. & Ludwig, Jens, Gun Violence: The Real Costs (Studies in Crime and Public Policy), Oxford Press (2002).

Rakove, Jack, Original Meanings, Vintage Books (1996).

Wagner, Rachel, Godwired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality, Routledge (2012).

Wellford, Charles F., Pepper, John V., & Petrie, Carol V., editors, Fire Arms and Violence: A Critical Review, National Academies Press (2004).


2012 7th Circuit Court  (Moore et al vs. Attorney-General of Illinois) overturning Illinois law prohibiting carrying loaded guns on Chicago streets.

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10 Responses to “Once Upon a Time I was a Cowboy”

  1. Barry says:

    Dear Jake the Cowboy,

    I forget what a great writer you are. You really are. Your story brought a very real issue into a human condition that anyone on either side could relate with. I have always had a problem with guns in general, beyond their use as a tool. Like a hammer or a saw. And I have seen the tool as a part of the trained officer. Soldier. Survivor. But we live in a society today that has lost its moral compass. Good is bad and bad is good. Fools are leading. Wise men stumble. John Adams said that America can only work for a moral and religious people. My son Eric has gone to the top of the military. He has been training navy seals and now owns a gun shop in Hawaii where he lives with his wife and our three grandchildren. He has a different view. Guns don’t kill people do. Our “rights” were never made for a people such as what we have become.



  2. Debbie Terhune says:

    We went to a very small party before Christmas, maybe 15 people. I know at least 2 of the men were armed, at someone’s home. Professionals in a very nice neighborhood. The gun has replaced the corvette. Innocent bystanders are second class citizens. Today a 3 year old child is dead because they thought the pink gun was a toy.

  3. Suzanne says:

    Great blog Dick. Another really good one. Your efforts are appreciated. Hope you are well and having a wonderful winter.


  4. Martha says:

    THANK YOU!!!!


  5. Sally says:

    Enjoyed it! (and I agree!)


  6. Dennis says:

    Great Blog!


  7. Lois Patton says:

    Wow. When are you going to get a larger platform for your outstanding research and thoughtful writings?

    • richardj91 says:

      Thanks, Lois. We are working on our “The Other Volume” – if we can complete a chapter a month, by the end of the year, we should be ready!


  8. Bob Emery says:

    Great piece, Dick, and I loved the photo. Last night I watched Piers Morgan on CNN. The program was about gun control and he had on guests who were gun proponents who insisted that those who want gun control simply did not understand the “American Culture,” that American’s were supposedly “one with their guns” and the 2nd Amendment proved that since no other country has a 2nd Amendment. The question is how do we counteract this mentality and if and when new laws put into place will they be strictly enforced to the letter of the law? When it comes to guns I fear the mentality in this country has taken one step forward and two steps back.

  9. Julie says:

    Enjoyed the article. I am not sure we will ever reach the “right” solution since humans are innately wired to be self-serving and see themselves and their guns as the exception vs the rule. For those that feel they need a gun for personal protection, they are obviously unaware of the statistics thus far that show the increase in accidental deaths vs protection. They feel these things do not apply to them. And besides, they just want their guns!