We have heard far too much about guns this week and the discussions are likely to continue. The question of who should have guns and where and when they should be allowed will continue because it is of vital importance to all of us. But not everyone realizes how unusual the American attitude toward guns is compared with attitudes in most other countries.
Early guns were designed for armies fighting to support kings and nobles. Their use was limited to wars. As handguns became easier to use and more available, they were often purchased by wealthy men who used them for hunting, and for protecting themselves and their property against burglars and assassins.
America was different. During the 19th century as Americans pushed westward, guns became the property of many ordinary farmers and hunters. Guns no longer belonged to the aristocracy, but to everyman. Of course it was definitely man—not woman. Guns have always been associated with men, but in the late 19th century the image was shattered by a 15-year-old girl.
The woman we know as Annie Oakley was born Phoebe Ann Mosey on August 13, 1860. She grew up in poverty in Ohio and learned to shoot while she was very young. By the time she was nine or ten years old she was shooting game and selling it to hotels and restaurants in Cleveland and Cincinnati, Ohio. She made enough money with her sales that she was able to pay off her widowed mother’s mortgage.
As Annie’s shooting skills became more famous, a man who owned a Cincinnati hotel invited her to participate in a shooting contest with a local performer named Frank Butler. At the age of 15, and standing only five feet tall, Annie Oakley was able to win the contest with the well-known marksman. Butler was so impressed by her performance that he began courting her and the couple was married in 1876.
From then on, Annie’s life was in show business. She was a star of the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and became the highest paid entertainer in the country. Butler was content to take second billing and to manage her career. The couple travelled throughout the country and to Europe where Annie performed for Queen Victoria.
One of Annie’s greatest interests was in persuading other women to learn to shoot. Almost alone at that time, she believed women should be able to serve in combat for the American army. She wrote a letter to President William McKinley on April 5, 1898, “offering the government the services of a company of 50 ‘lady sharpshooters’ who would provide their own arms and ammunition should the U.S. go to war with Spain”. Her offer was turned down and women did not serve in either the Spanish-American War or World War I.
Annie Oakley died in 1926, so she did not live to see women serving in combat. That was left for later generations. Today thousands of women learn to handle guns and to shoot, although even now guns are far more often associated with men than with women.
None of the shooting sprees that have led to mass killings in the United States were carried out by women. Why is that? Despite the importance of understanding why some people use guns in violent attacks, most researchers are forbidden to investigate the issue. In 1996, Congress passed an amendment to a spending bill that forbade the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using money to “advocate or promote gun control.” That action has meant that researchers find it almost impossible to get grants for research.
Annie Oakley believed in guns as a force for good in the country, not for evil. She would be ashamed to discover that we have become too timid to even try to find out how people use the weapon that she mastered so well.