FORGET the democratic processes, the judicial system and the talent for organization that have long been the distinctive marks of the U.S. Forget, too, the affluence (vast, if still not general enough) and the fundamental respect for law by most Americans. Remember, instead, the Gun.
That is how much of the world beyond its borders feels about the U.S. today. All too widely, the country is regarded as a blood-drenched, continent-wide shooting range where toddlers blast off with real rifles, housewives pack pearl-handled revolvers, and political assassins stalk their victims at will.
The image, of course, is wildly overblown, but America's own mythmakers are largely to blame. In U.S. folklore, nothing has been more romanticized than guns and the larger-than-life men who wielded them. From the nation's beginnings, in fact and fiction, the gun has been provider and protector. The Pilgrim gained a foothold with his harquebus. A legion of loners won the West with Colt .45 Peacemakers holstered at their hips or Winchester 73 repeaters cradled in their arms.
In Thrall. Often as not, the frontiersman was an antisocial misfit who helped create a climate of barbaric lawlessness. No matter. Daniel Boone and Buffalo Bill, Jesse James and Billy the Kid, hero and villain alike, all were men of the gun and all were idolized. "Have gun, will travel" was more than a catch phrase. It was a way of life. Even after the frontier reached its limits, the myths lingered and the legends multiplied, first in dime novels, later in movies and on TV. Americans flowed into great cities, but still they remained in thrall to the mystique of the gun, that ultimate symbol of both the land's lost innocence and the hardy pioneers who tamed it. They were intrigued by a new species of hero, very different yet somehow similar—the romanticized gangster.
Emulating their mythicized forebears, Americans have turned their country into an arsenal. Today they own somewhere between 50 million and 200 million pistols and revolvers, shotguns and rifles, as well as uncounted machine guns, hand grenades, bazookas, mortars, even antitank guns. At least 3,000,000 more are bought each year, some twothirds through the mails—"as easily," in Lyndon Johnson's words, "as baskets of fruit or cartons of cigarettes." Said Maryland's Democratic Senator Joseph Tydings last week in an appeal for more effective legislation to curb this traffic: "It is just tragic that in all of Western civilization the U.S. is the one country with an insane gun policy."
Ideal for Tanks. Strong words? Consider: a magazine recently advertised replicas of the derringer pistol as the dandy little model that killed "two of our country's Presidents, Abraham Lincoln and William McKinley." Another suggested: SUBMACHINE GUN FOR FATHER'S DAY? Yet another offered, for $99.50, a 20-mm. antitank gun, "ideal for long-range shots at deer and bear or at cars and trucks and even a tank if you happen to see one."