Of late, I’ve been revisiting some of my favorite songs from my childhood. Though not a big Country Western fan, the exception was Marty Robbins, who I could listen to all day. Although his signature song was the immortal “El Paso,”my favorite was another ballad called “Big Iron.” The ballad deals with a small South Western town which is visited by a tall handsome stranger with a “Big Iron” on his hip. At first the town’s people think he is an outlaw come to do them harm, but he explains that he is in fact an Arizona ranger who has come to bring a vicious young gunslinger named Texas Red to justice- dead or alive. Texas Red has twenty notches on his gun, and he is so fast on the draw the town’s people assume the ranger will surely be twenty one. They meet the next morning:
“There was 40 feet between them when they stopped to make their play, and the swiftness of the ranger is still talked about today. Texas Red had not cleared leather ‘fore a bullet fairly ripped, and the ranger’s aim was deadly with the Big Iron on his hip.”
And there, for an innocent young boy, was embedded the myth of the good guy with a gun taking out the bad guy with a gun.
I’ve been down this road before, and I try not to be redundant, but when horrific things keep happening, over and over, perhaps redundancy is forgivable.
I’ve said it before. Part of the horror is a gradual erosion of the collective memory. The places, names, body count and parents driven mad by grief begin to blend. Newtown, Buffalo, Parkland, El Paso, Uvalde. Can we match the killer with the proper location, motive, (if any) degree of carnage, law enforcement response? Did I say law enforcement response?
It was after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, in Newtown Connecticut, where Adam Lanza slaughtered 20 children and 6 adults, that the NRA’s spokesman Wayne LaPierre indirectly invoked the “Man With A Big Iron On His Hip.”How do you stop a bad guy with a gun? With a good guy with a gun. The NRA’s new mantra. Then came the avalanche of absurd stupidities. Arm the teachers. Aren’t teachers good guys? Imagine the image of arithmetic teachers or librarians, moms and grandmas, who bake and grow Tulips on the weekend (yes, I’m stereotyping, thank you) taking on a homicidal psychopath with an Ar-15, wearing full body armor. (Note: in no way am I trying to malign moms, grandmas, librarians, arithmetic teachers or nurturers of tulips.) I would venture with confidence that the chance of a teacher going off her nut and gunning down her students, (a favorite fantasy of teachers, I’ve been told) or a lunatic student disarming the teacher and shooting both teacher and fellow students is far greater than the psycho shooter breaching the school and slaughtering everyone in sight.
And how about those real life good guys with a gun? The kids at Rob Elementary in Uvalde Texas were surrounded by good guys with guns. Highly trained, body armored, with weapons at least as effective as the shooter’s. When they finally arrived at the school, they immediately committed their own crime- loitering. For 73 minutes, as children were being murdered, they loitered in the hall, looking frightened and confused. One of them was videoed applying hand sanitizer from a wall dispenser. Why? Was this a homage to Pontius Pilate, washing his hands of the whole sordid debacle? Or, perhaps if one is loitering in the hall with one’s member in one’s hand as feet away screaming children are being ripped beyond recognition, a display of hygiene in lieu of courage is, well, better than nothing. Or how about Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida? The security cop there was a good guy who went into hiding for 45 minutes instead of confronting the shooter who murdered 17. He was later arrested and charged with 11 criminal violations, including child endangerment. It didn’t work in the grocery store in Buffalo, where the shoppers were mostly Black. When an armed, experienced security guard who was also a retired police officer did have the guts to confront the racist shooter, he was no match with his side arm against the body armored AR-15 toting shooter. 10 people dead, including the heroic security guard.
There is a way in which the almost weekly carnage can at least be diminished. I probably said this not long ago in a previous piece. Bump up the age at which AR-15 style rifles can be purchased to 21; require a safety and proficiency test as is done for car license acquisition; require a written test and some type of psychiatric vetting. The Founding Fathers could live with that, although they were thinking of muzzle loaders when the 2nd amendment was forged.
And to all of you good guys out there, I salute you. Alas, sometimes being good isn’t enough.