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Cap Pistols, Gun Control, and Ethics

Gary North - February 08, 2013
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Reality Check

It never ceases to amaze me how many articles that we can find on Wikipedia. Rare is the case when I search for a topic, type in wiki, and the first article that my search engine discovers is not a Wikipedia article on exactly that topic.

I searched for "cap pistol" recently. I got an article "cap gun." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cap_gun)

I was curious about the history of the toy. I grew up in the era of the cap pistol. I can only remember one time when I got a holster and cap pistol combination. I was probably seven years old. I played with it for a long time. As with the few toys of our youth that we actually remember, I wish I had saved the set. It would no doubt be worth a lot of money if it was in good shape.

I had long thought that the government intervened to prohibit shiny steel toy pistols because of the possibility that the toys would be used to commit crimes. According to Wikipedia, I was wrong.

Today, cap guns and other toy guns in the United States must be manufactured with a bright orange, red, or yellow tip placed over the "muzzle" of the cap gun, or with the entire gun made in these or other bright colors. Laws requiring these markings were made because of incidents where civilians - usually children or teenagers - were killed by police officers when the officers thought they saw real guns. While these incidents were rare, lawmakers decided that toy guns must be marked so they cannot be mistaken for real guns.

Here we have a situation in which the government is trying to protect innocent people from the government. I keep wondering: "Who would be so stupid as to pull a toy pistol on a policeman who was pointing a real pistol at him?" Is this sort of thing so common that the anti-gun voting bloc took action to kill toy pistols? I doubt it. But it makes a good excuse. The war against guns is a comprehensive cultural war.

The article said that the era of the toy pistol was from 1945 to 1965. After 1965, the popularity of television Westerns began to decline.

I grew up on TV Westerns. Anyone born after 1900 grew up on movie Westerns. Low-budget B-Westerns were the staple of Saturday matinees. They were popular with kids of all ages. The first dramatic moving picture, The Great Train Robbery, was a Western. But they faded in popularity after 1965. Why was that?


I think the heart of the Western's popularity was this. The classic Western has clearly identifiable moral agents and moral choices. There were good guys and bad guys. We like to say that the good guys wore white hats, and the bad guys wore black hats. That was easy to say when most low-budget Westerns were in black and white. Colored hats all looked black. There were a few good guys who were dressed in black, such as Lash LaRue, but not that many. The most famous good guy who wore all black was Hopalong Cassidy, the white-haired, two-gun geezer. He became the first TV cowboy to create a national mania in the late 1940s. We all wanted to be Hoppy. (As Steve Gillette has said, we never intended to look like him.)

After 1965, entertainment became less and less black and white ethically and more and more gray. The moral choices were not so clearly contrasted. The heroes of the silver screen were bad guys. There had been some of this in the gangster films of the 1930s, but the bad guys always came to a bad end. But there was a major problem with gangster films. Outlaws armed with machine guns could be handled only by government agents: G-men. The state was seen as the ultimate protector. Why? Because the federal government outlawed machine guns. Then only gangsters and G-men had machine guns. The public was caught in the crossfire.

That is what gun control advocates prefer: the public caught in the crossfire.

The kind of moral universe in which I grew up, in which good guys were armed and dangerous, became politically and culturally incorrect after 1965. Maybe good guys carried a badge. Maybe they didn't. But they carried a gun, the preposterous Destry excepted.

I remember talking with James Arness about this change. This was probably sometime around 1983. I was lecturing at a conference, and he was in attendance. He had been the most famous cowboy television personality, because Gunsmoke ran for 20 years, 1955-1975, the longest-running dramatic series of the era. He said that when he first started out, he was allowed to shoot the bad guys. By the end, he said, "I was only allowed to threaten them with my special decoder ring."

The opening scene of Gunsmoke was a shootout.

Although you cannot see his face, the bad guy was actually the actor who also played Sam, the bartender. He had been in over 200 Westerns before he got that role. His name Glenn Strange. Really. He really had been a deputy sheriff in New Mexico. There were other B-western actors who had similar credentials. Roy Barcroft was in 350. Charles "Blackie" King was probably in 350. No one really knows how many some of these regulars were in. There was a steady market for them until the television era.

The moral world in which I grew up began to change with the cultural revolution in the second half of the 1960s. The demise of the Western was part of that change.

Little boys today still play with guns. My grandsons love to play with a pair of wooden toy rifles that I own. They will go out in the backyard and play cowboys. Where little boys learn to love guns, I cannot say. I just know that liberals who have attempted to take away guns from little boys have not been successful in changing their minds. A toy gun does not have to look much like a toy gun in order to function socially and culturally as a gun.

This is why the gun control movement in America really is doomed. Little boys figure out very early in life that it is a great thing to own a gun. Sooner or later, they get an opportunity to shoot a real one. Sooner or later, they want to own a gun. Then they buy one. Then they buy another.


American movies are probably more famous for Westerns than for any other genre. All over the world, Westerns were popular. There were imitators, most notably the spaghetti Westerns of the late 1960s. Sergio Leone made Clint Eastwood. So, it took a while for the Western to die, despite the counterculture. The spaghetti Westerns were mostly about shooting. They were not really about ethics. They were not about good guys and bad guys making ethical decisions. Clint Eastwood's man with no name was a man without ethics. The decline of ethics on screen could not be overcome by splattering blood technologies.

The gun control movement today is convinced that the mere possession of a gun is a mark of mental illness. Ethical depravity is out of favor as an explanation these days, but mental illness is always big in liberal circles. People are sick; that is why they want to own guns.

Gun control advocates argue that the state is the only agency that has a legitimate right to use guns to enforce ethics. The state has a monopoly on ethics, they believe, because private individuals must not be trusted with guns. Decent individuals must be protected against mentally sick individuals, and the only agency suitable to provide this protection is the state. The state therefore gets a monopoly on ethics, because it alone has a monopoly of gun ownership. This is the Party Line.

This always creates a problem for liberals when somebody like Hitler, a major advocate of gun control, comes into power, and then uses the state for evil purposes. That is why liberals do not like to talk about Hitler as a gun controller. They want to bury that aspect of history. They also do not like to talk about the fact that German Jews were disarmed by the state. Of course, they do not like to see people pick on Jews, but the liberals' bottom line is this: better a disarmed Jew who is pushed around than an armed public that is not pushed around. This is why they hate the organization, Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership (www.JPFO.org). It does not reinforce Hollywood Jews' belief in gun control. It is almost as if armed Jews are self-hating Jews for wanting to defend themselves and their families. Jews are supposed to be like the Jews of Hollywood. For an example of this sense of moral outrage, see the article on the Leftist Mother Jones site.


The state is not the final arbiter of ethics. The state is therefore never to be allowed to be the final and sole possessor of guns. Ethics does not begin out of the barrel of a gun. But it is sometimes defended in this way.

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