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What’s the matter with Kansas and guns?

25 April 2014

Americans have a tendency to romanticise the Wild West, says Harriet Baber

ANYONE can get a gun in Kansas, but it takes a full eight hours of training to earn a "concealed carry" licence (a licence to carry a weapon, such as a handgun, in public, in a concealed manner). The purpose of this requirement, however, is not to discourage Kansans from carrying guns: the aim is to promote public safety by maintaining a cadre of trained citizen-shooters, armed with concealed weapons and ready for gunfights with criminals and terrorists.

To this end, the state legislature prohibits cities from banning concealed firearms in libraries, museums, schools, and other public buildings. Public facilities may get exemptions, but only if they install metal detectorsat all entrances, and employ armed security personnel - an expensive proposition - to ensure public safety in the absence of freelance gunmen.

Kansans do not believe that police officers can keep them safe. Like most Americans, they are convinced that government is inefficient and that public employees, including police, are incompetent and corrupt. They are proud that Kansas was once the heart of the Wild West - the home of rugged individualism and self-sufficiency, where posses, vigilante committees, and bounty hunters maintained law and order, without the help of police, and without government interference.

Self-sufficiency is, admittedly, appealing: there are those who like the idea of living in green, unspoiled nature, growing our own food, building our own house, making all we need with our own hands, and defending our territory.

Still, this rugged individualism is inefficient and costly. So long as people lived in small, self-sufficient family groups or bands, producing all they needed by themselves and defending their territory, they could not rise above subsistence, at best. Standards of living improved only when humans got the ideaof specialisation, and economies of scale - when they banded together in tribes, cities, and nations, and developed a division of labour, specialised occupations, and expert-ise.

Things did not get much better until very recently in human history. Before then, we wasted most of our resources in vendettas, brawls, and warfare. Eventually, we realised that tribal clashes and gang warfare were wasteful. If we raped and pillaged during one skirmish, during the next the enemy would rape and pillage and take all our stuff.

We saw that with all the endless back-and-forth, we were both much worse off than we would be if we had minded our own business. Even cowboys got sick of theWild West, and welcomed the women and preachers who brought churches, schools,and civilisation.

It was only after the closing of the western frontier that Wild West shows, and, later, Western movies and TV series, caught on. Safe at home, Americans enjoyed watching dramatised saloon brawls and gunfights, because they had never seen the real thing.

Romanticism is a deficiency of imagination. We made a romance of the Western frontier because we could no longer imagine the danger, violence, and pain - or what a gunfight at high noon would really be like. And contemporary Kansans cannot imagine what a shoot-out at the local school or public library would be like if armed citizens, with eight hours of training, pulled out their concealed weapons in response to a real or imagined threat, and shot their feet off while bystanders screamed, fell to the floor, and filled their pants.

Humans did, eventually, figure it out and get ahead, even if there are local regressions from time to time. It would be a pity, however, if we were so unimaginative that we had to experience a few real gunfights to get the idea.

Dr Baber is Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, California.

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