Can Destry ride again? An essay on gun control

The 1939 George Marshall, Jimmy Stewart, Marlene Dietrich movie “Destry Rides Again” says nearly all that needs to be said on subject of gun violence. In sum, the movie’s moral is: if you want to live in a civilized society, where everyone still has the right to occasionally be drunk, reckless, quarrelsome, a loudmouth, or stupid – you have to check your guns when you enter town.

The narrative and direction of Destry are surprisingly unstereotypical in the manner of many westerns. A town is drowning in lawlessness. Its corruption is costing innocent lives, promoting cowardice and crime, ruining families, and threatening children. The corrupt forces are so contemptuous of the townspeople that they appoint a drunk they treat as a joke to be sheriff. The drunk, however, sobers up and calls for help.

Tom Destry, Jr, son of a famous shoot-em-up lawman who was himself killed by a backshooter, becomes the new deputy sheriff. He arrives unarmed. He wins over a decisive majority of the townspeople with his peaceable and what we would call today conflict-resolution approach to disputes. Of course this only enrages the corrupt forces as they become isolated. In the end, a showdown of force – it turns out the son of Destry can shoot – must take place to put the corrupt forces down. Contrary to many Western and modern thriller scripts, Destry does not win by becoming a bullet-proof virtual superman.

Instead he mobilizes the entire town to crush the corrupt forces, establish law and order, and disarm the lawless. The outlaws’monopoly on arms and violence is surrendered to town law enforcement. And, once the bad guys stop shooting, Destry lays down his weapons too.

Of course, reducing gun violence in modern America, is not as simple as in Destry (although Destry was not that simple). But neither is it a lot more complicated!

The main difference today is that the modern, corrupt, parasitical, one percent elites, especially those tied to energy, defense, agribusiness, big real estate, pharmaceutical, and most finance corporations,  are much worse than the hooligans of yesteryear and have access to a whole lot more weapons than the crowd defeated by Destry. More, they appear to have captured enough of the U.S. Congress and Supreme court to effectively nullify government action, even when the public polls nine to one in the opposite direction.

As if the fecklessness of government action and the propaganda of violence and criminality that saturates nearly all mass media were not enough provocation, the still-deepening chasms of inequality across this land and the class war assaults of the ultra rich on the 99 percent  are spreading a paranoia and fear not seen since Vietnam. Maybe it’s even worse than that. The negotiated social contract under Roosevelt that made it possible for the nation to defeat Depression and and win the war against fascism, and later to pass civil rights legislation — that contract has been steadily shredded since Reagan and his followers seized power for most of the past 35 years.

The number of gun-owners is declining. But gun sales are through the roof. Arms caching is the only math that adds up. One feels the palpable weight of loss here. Not only did  Senate Republicans and four Democrats defeat even the most modest of gun registration restrictions, shamefully refusing to allow even a vote in front of the families of Newtown, Virginia Tech, and other slaughtered youth. But, despite unctuous sputterings of  “concern” about mental illness (which Republicans typically vote to under-fund), what did they propose as an alternative? Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

Maybe its not possible to disarm in such an environment. Maybe the blood must flow in rivers, before the light emerges through seas of tears. Maybe we are standing before a flood of corruption equal to the Confederacy, or the British imperial monarchy, and no less doomed to tear the country apart.

I would much prefer a Destry like solution. I stand virtually naked. I don’t own a gun. I have only Dr. King’s potential weapons of mass organized disobedience to the vast corruption spreading like a pandemic. “If there must be blood, let it be ours.” proving with his own life the power of that slogan. Obama exerted all his persuasive power to overcome the NRA lobbying to block ANY restraint on gun violence. I believe him.  But so did Salvador Allende of Chile strive to protect democracy against military dictatorship, and Abraham Lincoln to preserve the Union in the face of slavery and armed rebellion from the Confederacy. Will rising fears, and deeply anti-democratic forces conspicuously arming themselves, conspire to nullify our peace, our safety, and our democracy? Is that where we are?

Photo: Flickr (CC)


John Case
John Case

John Case is a former electronics worker and union organizer with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE), also formerly a software developer, now host of the WSHC "Winners and Losers" radio program in Shepherdstown, W.Va.