Since the tragedy in Newtown, many of my friends in criminal justice have been obsessed with following the debate on gun reform legislation. Rather than fixate on the politics of the moment, I have been looking backwards instead with the help of Gunfighter Nation, Richard Slotkin's 1992 book that looks at the centrality of violence to the stories that America tells about itself both through cultural products (novels, plays, movies) and through politics. I've written about Slotkin once before -- he was one of the professors at Wesleyan who made a lasting impression on me. Anybody who likes movies should listen to the series of lectures that Wesleyan posted from his class Western Movies: Myth, Ideology and Genre.
I'm only partially through the book, which is long (more than 600 pages) and fairly academic, but it feels like an important and illuminating piece of work. It goes back to 1880 to examine the myth of the frontier in America. Slotkin is at his best when he is closely examining specific works of art (from Buffalo Bill's Wild West spectacles to The Wild Bunch film) and showing how they use the language of the West to wrestle with contemporary conflicts. Gunfighter Nation doesn't have the answer to our current debate on gun reform, but it does help explain some of the passions and rhetoric on both sides of the issue.