Ross Eliot is a commercial fisherman, roofer, auto mechanic and author of the award winning memoir "Babette: The Many Lives, Two Deaths and Double Kidnapping of Dr. Ellsworth" besides editor of "American Gun Culture Report" from 2005-10 and writes the current weblog "Occupy the 2nd Amendment."
Debating gun politics is never smart while another mass shooting dominates the media. Rational discussions are rarely possible while emotions remain elevated and newsfeeds are awash in trauma. Heated arguments only make productive communication harder later on. There’s nothing wrong with walking away and saving serious conversations for later.
This is always important but even more so when being disrespectful appears callous towards victims. Posturing and snarky comments may feel good in the moment but only solidifies opposition. Consider actually reading articles by anti-gun activists and becoming familiar with their perspectives. Many people have very sincere personal reasons for disliking firearms and should be empathized with, even if their solutions are shortsighted.
Derail any debate about the 2nd Amendment by pointing out it was the most intrusive gun control measure in American history. Like every other freedom in the Bill of Rights, it was intended for whites only and used as justification for mass gun confiscations and disarming Black militias. Learn about the Cruikshank supreme court case which maintained this interpretation well into the 20th century. The 2nd Amendment only holds meaning once occupied and reclaimed as a means to keep all our communities secure.
Raymond Duncan Shoemaker, (1894-1977) hardly fit common stereotypes of a political radical. Yet in 1959, this respected judge accused local police of attempting to run Portland, Oregon like a police state, igniting a public feud sixty years before Black Lives Matter dragged law enforcement accountability into the national conscience. It was no singular outburst, but instead represented one fair minded man’s long time effort to enact social justice from within the legal establishment.
Raised near Glasgow, Montana, Shoemaker never cut an imposing figure, with a slim build and standing only 5’6” tall. Still, he gravitated towards heavy industries, employed on local cattle ranches and the Great Northern Railroad in his youth before traveling to Colorado where he labored in the Durango gold mines. Already curious about different peoples and cultures, he spent time learning Spanish from his co-workers. By 1916, at age 22, Shoemaker returned to his home state and joined the 2nd Helena, Montana contingent of the National Guard shortly before their deployment into Mexico during what became known as the Punitive Expedition.
This came about following many decades of political coercion and military conquest, through which the United States reduced Mexico’s territory by about 50%. Unsurprisingly, economic and social turmoil became common during those years, culminating in the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). Various political factions and figures colored that conflict, but none more famous than the insurgent leader Pancho Villa.
Villa naturally considered the border an illegitimate boundary and didn’t restrict military operations below it. The US government also ignored borders when convenient, most notoriously with its invasion and occupation of Veracruz in 1914. Then in 1916, Villas’s troops raided the town of Columbus, New Mexico, creating mass public outcry for vengeance. Subsequent National Guard mobilization eventually pulled young Ray Shoemaker far from home on a futile chase that drew US soldiers deep into hostile territory.
Shoemaker learned much from the experience. His Spanish fluency proved useful communicating with locals and only furthered a fascination to explore other cultures. He remained in military service through World War I, earning the rank of corporal. All these life experiences made him what people in those times called a Free Thinker.
This loose term encompassed many political stances later considered liberal, such as opposing racism, advocating for women’s rights, supporting organized labor, and deep religious skepticism. He avidly read leftist and anti-fascist literature, including the Little Blue Book series published by the socialist writer E. Haldeman-Julius. Shoemaker made extensive notes in English and Spanish between the margins of particular favorites, from The Lies of Religious Literature to The Ghastly Purpose of the Parables and Volney’s Ruins of Empires.
Shoemaker focused on veteran’s issues, joining the American Legion in 1919, the same year it was founded. However, his concern for comrades-in-arms didn’t equate a militaristic mentality. During the mid 1920s, he dashed off the lines:
How cruel are most of man’s emotions,
How mad are many of his ways,
But the cruelest of all his silly notions is war.
Shoemaker began studying law and was admitted to the Iowa bar in 1923. He married, had four sons and a daughter, then lived in California for a time before moving to Portland. All the while his political consciousness developed, in 1926 writing:
The poverty of the masses in all ages has been the direct and logical result of their slavery = chattel slavery, feudal slavery, wage slavery. [G]iven economic freedom, all men and women can earn and enjoy a good, secure living.”
In another comment that year, he was even more direct, stating:
Man must improve with the times, and the relationship of men to property must change = or the majority must get off the earth, because no food will be allowed them.
While other Americans adopted more drastic left or right-wing politics as the Great Depression spread during the 1930s, Shoemaker remained optimistic social change could occur within existing systems. Then, once the US entered World War Two in 1941, his anti-war ethics were tested. Shoemaker viewed American imperialism skeptically but saw German and Japanese fascism as greater threats to humanity. All of his sons enlisted in the armed forces and, by now too old for combat duty himself, Shoemaker served overseas as a Chief Yeoman with the famed Navy construction battalion, the Seabees.
After the war, Shoemaker took up practicing law once more and by 1951, became notable enough that when a circuit court position opened, Oregon’s governor appointed him. This awarded rare institutional power to a true believer from the old Free Thinker movement. Still, what difference could one judge make? Besides that, Portland’s police department was notorious for right-wing connections, after openly deputizing Klansmen in the 1920s to unofficial “Red Squads” who monitored domestic political activity. Even its first union president in 1942 was a longtime member of the German-American Bund, a Nazi party offshoot who marched with swastika banners and fought anti-fascists in the streets.
Portland also held a reputation for organized crime activity in those years. FBI investigations and even a US Senate Committee probe five years later revealed corruption spreading deeply from the top down. Illegal gambling halls operated semi-openly, with payoffs to beat cops who looked the other way. Any reasonably savvy official in the criminal justice system understood this and Shoemaker was no fool. In 1952 he penned a frustrated editorial titled: “Judges Under Wraps” declaring:
It seems absurd that a judge who holds his position because of his fairness, impartiality and integrity should thus be compelled to sit as a helpless referee, unable to express an opinion or judgment upon fallacious arguments, palpably false stories, or in any way to guide the investigation or help the jury to ascertain and determine the truth.
If anything defined Shoemaker’s early years on the bench, it was great kindness. Local media reported about how on April 22, 1952, he relocated his entire court proceedings to the living room of a housebound woman and later that year showed mercy on a man whose truck operator’s permit was revoked because of epilepsy. Many times he threw out cases against minors possessing alcohol or situations involving expired licenses. Other judges took a harder line with offenders, from levying hefty fines and long sentences to requiring “greasers” shave their distinctive haircuts before appearing in court. When Shoemaker saw crimes as victimless, he typically reduced or waived financial penalties and prison time.
For Judge Shoemaker, by then divorced, his personal life took a major turn on July 3, 1952 when he married again, this time to Frances Bertram Hine, a woman thirty-one years his junior. Preferring the name Billie, she came from an East coast family and worked as a Spanish teacher and swimming instructor. Their relationship was quite tender, and many intimate letters between them survived. A great purveyor of nicknames, she dubbed him “Fuzzy” and Shoemaker in turn addressed letters to her as querida, Spanish for dearie. Over the years, media accounts treated their bilingualism as a great novelty. On one occasion where the judge conducted a wedding in Spanish, Shoemaker seemed bemused at the sensation this caused, making an apology that his Arabic and Thai were terribly rusty.
Interestingly enough, Billie’s father, Henry Francis Hine, was a prominent clergyman from the Anglican church who delivered a public address in 1940 labeling atheism “the real Fifth Column” before claiming “The only reason our country is still free from enslavement is the church…” It presumably caused quite a shock discovering his new son-in-law was an atheist. Despite this glaring difference, the two men developed quite a warm friendship, attested throughout personal notes and family photographs.
Over the next several years, Judge Shoemaker grew less wary of controversy. In September of 1956 he infuriated the Oregon Temperance League after returning alcohol to an underage married man, explaining to news outlets, “It is my opinion… that any man with a family and a job who is supporting his family, doesn’t come within the spirit of the law prohibiting minors under 21 from having liquor in their possession.”
That same month police officers raided an establishment connected with gambling in North Portland. The four arrested men were Black and given well known corruption in that industry, it wasn’t surprising initial evidence connected two white city officials, who denied involvement and were apparently not investigated further. This bust drew much sensational press coverage so it made quite a splash when Shoemaker released the men with only minor fines and even returned cash that police seized, but never connected with illegal activity. One irate local minister even delivered a sermon fiercely condemning the judge.
In Shoemaker’s next published letter, during September of 1957, he called white crowds protesting Black children attending an integrated school during the Little Rock Nine affair “beasts.” His anger came across so strongly that a reporter pressed him some days later, apparently seeking a more conciliatory spin. Shoemaker responded with a personal example, citing one recent case where an all white jury found two Black defendants innocent, despite the aggrieved party being a “good-looking, well-dressed white woman…”
Also in 1957, Shoemaker revisited a favorite subject, advocating more understanding for young people, pointing out in an editorial: “I have heard many respectable adults brag a little about their own youthful exploits beyond the law” He urged less public funds be spent incarcerating minors and instead direct resources toward improving schools and better mental health treatment for “disturbed” individuals. By now, it was apparent the judge posed a regional political influence. Newspapers reported Shoemaker’s opinions on most any matter and even kept readers regularly informed about construction progress of a swimming pool at his house.
More importantly, 1957 was the year of accountability for many prominent officials involved with organized crime, including the police chief, indicted for “incompetence, delinquency and malfeasance in office.” So Portland’s Free Thinking judge grew even bolder. In April of 1958 he wrote an article condemning fascism, as recent surveys indicated many Americans believed “some super-authority should decide what is best for the people. . . that freedom of the press should be abolished. . . . [and] that some people should be denied free speech.” He particularly warned against increasing police powers to search individuals and advocated a more communal mindset among youths “whose duty it is to preserve the freedom we can so easily lose.”
An example of the policing powers Shoemaker feared soon arrived. Around late March of 1959, a radio personality named Alfred Alexander spied an intoxicated man prowling near his neighbors’ house. He confronted this individual who reacted belligerently. The encounter turned violent, with both men trading blows until the interloper revealed himself as Officer Wade Chatfield before placing Alexander under arrest for assault. The station deputy who booked Alexander reported Chatfield had been drinking, was off duty, and wearing plainclothes while apparently earning extra cash as a process server which explained his snooping.
Shoemaker summarily dismissed all charges against Alexander. The radio host then filed a lawsuit of false arrest, which also named Multnomah County Sheriff Francis Lambert. Unfortunately for Alexander, a less sympathetic judge deemed his complaint groundless and Chatfield received no further known consequences, though Lambert eventually forbade his deputies from “moonlighting.”
The police saw Shoemaker’s intervention against one of their own as a declaration of war. Sheriff Lambert certainly felt threatened, yet hesitated before taking action personally. Officer Chatfield’s drunken escapade made law enforcement look bad and further scrutiny might increase demands for civilian oversight. So Lambert waited until a better excuse came along. Street level cops, however, were far less cautious. They launched an unofficial strike against Judge Shoemaker beginning May 1st which almost immediately dropped his traffic offense caseload by 75%.
Then, after turning a blind eye or possibly encouraging their conduct for several weeks, Sheriff Lambert announced a formal police boycott on Shoemaker’s court on May 28, 1959, which he termed too “lenient,” declaring “all traffic and misdemeanor arrests” would be rerouted to Gresham. When questioned for specifics, Lambert claimed two of his officers were poorly treated when they visited Shoemaker to dispute his handling of a “motorist charged with reckless driving and resisting arrest.”
Shoemaker acknowledged the encounter and pointed out “it is the job of deputies to arrest a man, and not judge the case in court.” The judge sharply added he considered attempting “to discuss a case after it has been disposed of” to be “contempt of court.” He declared Lambert’s boycott unconstitutional, pointing out: “The law requires that the arrested person be taken to the closest and most convenient magistrate.”
Officers began making anonymous complaints about Shoemaker, echoing Lambert’s criticism and adding: “He makes a fool out of you in court and makes accusations against you so that it seems you’re the one on trial instead of the accused person.” Shoemaker fired back, stating: “A judge has a duty to stand between the public and some of these deputies who want to make a police state out of this country.” Amidst all this, one State Representative stepped forward in support, claiming Lambert’s actions “smacked of [an] attempt to intimidate the judge.”
News reports claimed officers who supported this boycott were “in the majority.” Still, it’s unclear how Lambert expected a police mutiny would play out long term and his resolve quickly faltered. Within twenty-four hours, Lambert called off the boycott following a “peace parley” arranged by the local district attorney. It concluded in victory for Judge Shoemaker who denied any wrongdoing and made no promise to run his court more harshly. When questioned, Sheriff Lambert “declined comment on the settlement.”
Their feud ignited again in October 1960 after officers chased a man for speeding who became verbally abusive once pulled over. They towed his vehicle, which was apparently not typical. When Shoemaker heard the case, he bristled, interpreting this as petty abuse of authority and struck the impound fee off a $25 traffic fine (around $222 today). The cops argued, with predictable results from Shoemaker, so they next brought their complaint to Sheriff Lambert.
Lambert assailed Shoemaker publicly, this time threatening to file an affidavit of prejudice, adding that he wanted “to get along . . . . but it is apparent that the public interest is not being served.” Shoemaker responded, framing the incident as an unjust confiscation of private property, saying officers did not have “the right to tow the car just because the man gave them a little lip.” He wondered why Lambert lacked enough “grace” to simply discuss their disagreements before “issuing press releases” because“it is up to the courts to protect the rights of individuals and the sheriff is not going to tell me how to run my court.” Once more, Lambert backed down, earning the sensational newspaper headline: “Sheriff Drops Plans to Attack Judge Here.” In 1962 he chose against seeking election again.
Judge Shoemaker continued conducting court as he saw fit and in 1964 was reelected with a popular landslide. Then, life took an unusual twist. Around the mid-1960s, his wife Billie began an affair with Dr. Babette Ellsworth, a prominent university professor. In those days Ellsworth was known for regional geology and history expertise but later gained fame as a transgender pioneer. The two carried on a romantic relationship, eventually gaining Shoemaker’s knowledge and consent. By 1969 the judge retired and in 1971, Dr. Ellsworth moved into his and Billie’s home.
Years later Ellsworth recounted how this dynamic unfolded: “Shoemaker took me into his office privately. He explained his wife loved me and as a wilful individual, would certainly leave him if forbidden to see me… He feared solitude and proposed a solution. I could reside in his house and we would all make the best of things.”
Over the next several years Dr. Ellsworth and Billie took care of the former judge as his health declined. It’s unclear how their relationship avoided scandal, as in times past, even Shoemaker family Thanksgiving plans made the papers. This shift was simply mentioned without comment, as seen in a 1973 article where Dr. Ellsworth and Billie were photographed grinning widely as they pedaled together down a country road. A reporter noted the pair “ride their old bicycles together on Sauvie Island most weekends.”
In 1974 all three took a road trip through Montana, stopping in Glasgow where local media honored Shoemaker’s return with some fanfare. He toured the town, pointing out changes in scenery and reminiscing about the old days. Then on April 30, 1977, Ray Shoemaker went for an afternoon walk around their neighborhood and immediately suffered a fatal heart attack upon returning home. One of the last Free Thinkers would never again infuriate Portland’s police department or dispense courtroom mercy to those in need. A man who told the newspapers upon retirement: “I’ve always felt a just judge has to have a kind and understanding heart.”
In retrospect, it’s worth examining how he got away with everything. After all, Shoemaker was a former Colorado miner whose fellow workers were machine-gunned by private militias and the US military some few hundred miles away during the Ludlow Massacre of 1914. He was a leftist who made powerful enemies among law enforcement during the “Red Scare” when many other careers were destroyed over hints of so-called “Un-American activities.” The answer draws largely from deep reservoirs of goodwill he spent decades cultivating and deep roots in respectable civic groups.
Shoemaker was a devoted member of many fraternal organizations, particularly those with patriotic appeal, from various Masonic groups to the Elks and Eagles. He regularly performed community services, such as visiting high school classrooms to explain the criminal justice system and participating in free legal forums. Simply declaring police officers should operate by the same accountability standards as everyone else and running for election as a “sympathetic, just, [and] understanding” candidate won him great popularity.
Despite his wife’s lover, Dr. Ellsworth, being the subject of various FBI investigations from 1950 until at least 1978, a Freedom of Information Act request indicated no such file existed on Shoemaker. It’s difficult imagining no attempt occurred, given his high profile controversies. In the case of Ellsworth, agents extensively questioned her friends, colleagues and neighbors for information about potentially subversive political views. Though a notable academic figure, Dr. Ellsworth counted on few friends in high places, spoke with a thick French accent, and struck many people as odd, even if her transgender status remained unknown.
By contrast, the judge boasted numerous influential allies, besides serving as a longtime American Legion commander. If suspicious officials ever visited his Montavilla Post #163 to pose insinuating questions, they likely found an unreceptive, if not hostile audience. Shoemaker also avoided making systemic criticisms. Even many of his most incendiary comments were phrased in calculated ways. It’s important to recognize that as an American who came of age when consequences for unpopular political speech might be prison or worse, he recognized limits and carefully avoided crossing them.
This may seem like naked self interest…after all, Shoemaker lived a long life, surrounded by comfort in his later years and the companionship of an unorthodox love triangle. Yet at least for those who experienced justice in his court, this judge made a difference, one that still resonates whenever Portlanders stand up for police accountability and insist all citizens be treated equally under the law.
All citations, references and quotes not from Ray Shoemaker’s personal papers or my own book Babette: The Many Lives, Two Deaths and Double Kidnapping of Dr. Ellsworth are from the The Portland Journal,The Oregonian and The Star newspapers.
Q: Why should I care about the Russian invasion when countries do this all the time? Maybe it sucks for Ukraine but that’s their problem.
A: This is the largest scale war between major European nations since WWII. Conflicts on that continent have spiraled into global catastrophes multiple times so the amount of media attention may seem unfair compared to current events in Yemen, South Sudan or Nigeria where conflicts historically remain more local.
Q: Isn’t this just a typical case of Westerners just feeling sorry whenever bad things happen to white people?
A: Yes. We absolutely see racism reflected in many parts of the conflict. It’s heartbreaking that refugees from Syria or other conflict zones have so often been turned away or refused assistance but when Slavic communities who fit the modern Western criteria of whiteness are routed, they receive welcome. That isn’t right, yet doesn’t lessen the significance of this event.
Q: I heard the Ukrainians military is full of Nazis? Shouldn’t we always side against fascism?
A: If you look hard enough at any conflict, you’ll find something to dislike. George Orwell might have refused to fight Franco in Spain because the anti-fascist forces included communist authoritarians, but joined anyway. The mostly white American soldiers who liberated Buchenwald returned home to perpetuate more decades of state sanctioned terror against communities of color at home. That’s important to recognize, but not use as an excuse. There have been white nationalist elements in Ukrainian militias, just like among Russian forces and the US military also.
Q: How can you back US militarism? Isn’t this against everything you’ve ever stood for?
A: The US military sided with various Kurdish forces against Daesh (ISIS) and I still supported their resistance struggles. The world isn’t black and white.
Q: Aren’t people who suddenly care about Ukraine infuriating? If I see another damn blue and yellow virtue signal from someone who never cared about world events before, my head will seriously explode.
A: Yes. Me too.
Q: What about all the anti-Russians crap I’m seeing?
A: It’s one thing to boycott Russian products and wield economic pressure but awful if that translates into bigotry against immigrant communities. Consider patronizing your local Slavic grocery store to show support.
Q: Isn’t this whole thing just corrupt elites distracting us from how the 1% are still in charge and the middle class is disintegrating?
A: Yes, but pretty much everything distracts from that. I oppose the invasion of Ukraine for the same reasons I spent years choking on tear gas while fighting against every US war since Afghanistan and every president from Clinton to Trump. Putin and the oligarchs represent a murderous regime and should be opposed just as surely as the Czars. There’s ample reason he was a favorite of Trump’s along with other fascist autocrats like Bolsonaro and Duterte. I stand against them and any other authoritarians at home and abroad.
A: The only thing more hypocritical is American anti-gun liberals and Democrats applauding them for defending their communities with AK-47s!
Q: Sanctions and economic pressure will hurt ordinary Russians! Isn’t harming civilian populations for political ends wrong?
A: I would have 100% supported international sanctions against the United States to halt our immoral wars that in twenty years likely caused over a million dead and destabilized entire regions of the globe. Unfortunately there wasn’t international will to bring that about. Sometimes ordinary people pay a heavy price for the choices their leaders make. I can feel badly for the Russian people but also recognize it sometimes requires dreadful acts to stop worse dreadful acts.
Q: Don’t you see that this is all a vile scheme by NATO member states to encircle Russia and keep the country unfairly contained?
A: Understand that Russian containment existed long before NATO. Queen Victoria would have gleefully sent arms to an independent Ukraine in furtherance of her own empire. It’s only unfair assuming someone takes the position that nations have an unlimited right to dominate. Putin openly intends reestablishing the old time Russian empire which exercised brutal rule over countless subject peoples. I oppose that just as I have always opposed American interventions installing fascist governments across the globe.
Q: Russia lost around 3 million people in WWI and another 27 million during WWII. Don’t you understand that after such devastation, Russia needs a demilitarized buffer zone protecting it from Western armies? What would America do if that was your situation?
A: If the US had undergone anything so culturally traumatic in the 20th century, say, by invasion through the north, virtually every American you hear currently praising Ukrainian resistance would support turning Canada into a defanged vassal state run by a puppet in Ottawa. I simply don’t accept that as an excuse. Just because national trauma isn’t equitably distributed doesn’t mean Ukraine should be put under the thumb of Putin’s oligarchs while outsiders weep for the sacrifice their grandparents’ generation made.
Since 2004 I’ve written about gun politics and conducted defensive small arms training among threatened communities. This background provided much perspective on the escalation following Donald Trump’s election which energized domestic fascist movements and set loose waves of assaults against immigrants, minorities and others along the left political spectrum. Everyone knows how this newly respectable xenophobia amplified right wing violence. Mass shootings, vehicle attacks and death threats against groups organizing to protect themselves.
Previously, most conservatives I encountered appreciated my efforts expanding gun culture outside it’s unfairly stereotyped niche of Republicans, rednecks and hillbillies. Now even mentioning that I do such work often draws comments that I should be killed. It’s a real shift. Over recent years protecting groups marching against state sanctioned terror, I’ve lost count of the times big trucks adorned with American flags and Trump banners revved their engines and raced toward pedestrians, only swerving away at the last minute.
The many victims at Charlottesville, El Paso, Charleston, Pittsburgh and the Portland MAX attack, to name only a few, were less fortunate. I know others beaten by fascists or severely injured from crowd control munitions during anti-Trump or Black Lives Matter protests, but always returned home safe myself. Most people close to me also came away relatively unharmed.
That grace period ended last weekend when a Portland man opened fire on activists peacefully demanding police accountability in a local park. He murdered a sixty year old disabled woman and wounded four others, several critically. One of the survivors is a dear friend of mine. She is likely only alive today because a nearby security volunteer shot back and disabled the man before his rampage continued.
Details are still emerging about this individual, but some things are clear. He was a fan of right wing figures and groups, from Alex Jones and Andy Ngo to the Proud Boys, plus idolized Kyle Rittenhouse, another armed man who went out looking to fight anti-fascists. His own longtime roommate has since spoken out, describing a trajectory of increased racism and misogyny that made her fearful, stating she believed the person who shot him “saved my life.”
Most who nurture imagined grievances, like the presidential election being stolen or Covid vaccines containing microchips, or that organized pedophiles are responsible for their woes, don’t engage in physical violence, yet still enable a toxic conspiracy culture. It took purely insidious motivation to convince someone that a sixty year old walking with a cane presented some threat requiring gunfire to solve.
I have much more to say about that, but at least there is one concrete thing we can do. The survivors here in Portland need financial assistance and if anyone can spare some dollars, I’ve verified that their GoFundMe account is active and going directly to help those affected. Thanks to everyone who can pitch in and help.
I’ve written before about the old time radio program Dr. Sixgun, which stands out as remarkable amidst the Western genre for its compassionate depiction of typically disparaged groups, such as immigrants and Indians. Instead of sanitized history, the story lines unflinchingly portray cruelty by American settlers and the human cost of colonization is on full display.
Because Dr. Sixgun presents such a contrary narrative among stereotypical Westerns and doesn’t shirk from social issues, it wasn’t surprising that the episode No Guns Ordinance touched on gun control. This one began with Dr. Grey Matson, the famed Dr. Sixgun himself, entering a town called Rail End. He became surprised upon discovering open carry was recently banned by order of the local sheriff, Marshall Anders. Despite his proficient reputation with a revolver, Dr. Matson remained a thoughtful physician who frequently treated shooting victims. He checked his six-gun without argument and then sought out Anders, curious to learn more about this experiment.
The marshall explained: “I can tell ya, if I had my choice, once I get hold of a crazy drunk on the way to the pokey on a Saturday night, I’d just as soon I was the only one totin’ a gun.” He elaborated as having been inspired by the iconic lawman Wyatt Earp. With this reference, Dr. Sixgun writers knew their history. Back in the day, even such classic frontier locations as Deadwood and Dodge City were known for strict gun control ordinances. In fact, Wyatt Earp’s famous shootout at the O.K. Coral involved his opponents violating firearms regulations in Tombstone, Arizona.
It’s no exaggeration that modern Arizona gun control laws are far more permissive than during Dr. Sixgun’s era. For example, I personally possess an out-of-state permit issued by Arizona which lets me carry concealed firearms there, plus several other states, despite my residence in Oregon. Highlighting this is important, as so much right-wing propaganda builds upon skewed pictures of the past, falsely mythologizing the Old West as a place where Americans lived more freely and that some slow decline in liberty has progressed since then. It’s all complete lies, of course. Frontier times were far more restrictive on individual lives than any conservative today would admit tolerating.
As the story continued, Marshall Anders boasted his policy had successfully reduced murders and Dr. Matson left the town feeling quite inspired, remarking: “That ordinance, that must be the answer . . . . .take the guns away and they won’t be so quick to fight…. I get awful tired of probing for bullets and sewing up wounds. I got more important things to do.”
Dr. Matson subsequently attempted persuading others that gun control could work yet only met with derision from others in the territory. Ranchers and bartenders and even his own local sheriff showed complete disinterest or open contempt for such a scheme, several calling it “against nature.” Faced with overwhelming opposition, he finally gave up promoting the idea. Some time later, Matson’s travels led him back to Rail End where he turned over his revolver to a new sheriff named Marshall Benson. It soon became apparent things were not well, despite surface tranquility. Sinister armed men lurked about, closely monitoring conversations between citizens and keeping tabs on everyone. Each wore an official lawman’s badge
It turned out months before, Benson and a gang of corrupt deputies had pushed Marshall Anders out of power and began running the place as their own personal fiefdom. With everyone else disarmed, no one could oppose them. Whereas most episodes of Dr. Sixgun resolve conflicts, this one concluded on a tragic note. Fearing for his life, Dr. Matson fled the town which remained in the grip of unaccountable cops, maintained through fear, and of course, a firearms monopoly.
Appropriately, the first scene Dr. Matson encountered after leaving Rail End, with its chilling calm, was a boisterous crowd of drunken cowboys waving revolvers and firing off shots willy-nilly. He regretfully acknowledged this as a preferable trade off against the police state tyranny so recently experienced. Wrap up narration dismally recounted that Rail End residents eventually placed hope in electing a new sheriff, though Benson’s leading opponent was murdered before this could take place.
It sounds reasonable at first, yet Matson’s observation presents a false choice. Banning firearms simply isn’t required for an oppressive government to exist, as examples from the Colfax Massacre to Black Wall Street demonstrate. In more recent times, Black citizens of Ferguson, Missouri were no less armed than other Americans, yet knew shooting back against police terror, as their ancestors sometimes had, would be futile. Just as it’s foolish to imagine eliminating firearms automatically creates peace, the reverse is also true. Well armed societies are often rampant with injustice. Gun control might be one factor in maintaining systems of tyranny, but not necessarily constitute the main ingredient.
Old time militias enforcing government sanctioned gun control? That’s certainly an image contrary to the one cultivated by many 2nd Amendment supporters. But while some harken back to a selective version of America’s past, in her recent book The Second, historian Carol Anderson carefully examines what purpose that amendment actually signified in practice. It’s a far cry from what modern day patriotic propaganda would have people believe.
Anderson’s work parallels one of the most exciting genres in American historical scholarship, which has seen increasing numbers of academics researching Black resistance movements that mobilized against post-Civil War Reconstruction and Jim Crow era persecution. While most white-washed histories of the Civil Rights struggle spin redemptive tales about noble suffering and non-violent tactics winning victories toward greater social equality, these new explorations grasp gut level human realities, often less appealing than earlier sanitized versions.
In just one sensational example, the historian Akinyele Umoja looked at a Mississippi region where KKK influence waned in the early 1960s, allowing establishment of successful voter registration drives. Yet digging deeper, he discovered this power vacuum only developed after Black militia members successfully repelled invading nightriders, before posting the decapitated head of one fallen Klansman on a bridge as warning. This act so horrified nearby white militants that they simply gave up control of the area. (1)
Anderson wrestles with issues no less intense, but from a different angle. She begins scrutinizing how gun control affected Black populations in the Americas under various colonial powers. During British rule, each of the original thirteen colonies enacted stringent laws forbidding enslaved population’s arms, plus highly regulating their ownership by any free people of color. (2) But even these small privileges were curtailed once the War of Independence began. North Carolina offered rewards to those who successfully confiscated guns from Black communities and other states clamped down harder as well. (3) No wonder they were fearful. Martha Washington was perhaps the first to use the phrase “contagion of liberty” (4) describing the terror herself and others whose wealth originated in human bondage felt after realizing so much lofty talk about Liberty, Inalienable Rights, and All Men Being Created Equal might spark similar aspirations among African-Americans, free or enslaved.
Indeed, many people of color were thrilled hearing these values so openly praised, yet in most states, militia membership and firearms had long been exclusively for whites only. Only after US forces suffered repeated defeats did several states begin recruiting Black men, including Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Virginia. Then, when British forces began moving against South Carolina, US military officers begged state officials to let Black soldiers serve and bolster the ranks of exhausted militias. Incredibly, this American legislature deliberated and finally decided they preferred surrender to the British than allow non-whites arms. (5)
Still, some free Black militias had existed for decades who trained with their own rifles and earned exceptionally brave reputations. This was not under United States law however, but allowed by Spanish and French colonial administrations, especially in Louisiana. As soon as these areas fell under American annexation, the 2nd Amendment provided no protection and gun control laws enforced by white militias disarmed these populations as well. (6) It actually became an embarrassing point during the War of 1812 after British regular soldiers smashed through ineffective militia forces and captured the US capitol. Their next target was New Orleans, where the governor of Louisiana recognized state militia troops were greatly insufficient. Faced with dire circumstances, he offered rifles to Black militia veterans and begged for help. Six-hundred volunteered and joined with a multi-racial force that contributed one of America’s few military victories in the entire war. General Andrew Jackson (of all people) even commended them for special valor. Yet instead of medals, these courageous men were afterward awarded heavy labor details in swamps and the Black militias forcibly disbanded once more. (7)
Anderson’s study exposes a familiar repetition marching forward. While it’s not uncommon for modern pro-2nd Amendment advocates to reference what became known as Black Codes, when denouncing firearms regulations as racist, more rarely do they acknowledge the enforcement role militias played. In the case of Georgia, white men were required to own guns, but specifically in legal reference to the militia’s need for self protection while searching the homes of Black families for weapons. (8) Moving deeper into the nineteenth-century, numerous other states passed strict laws, from Virginia, where free Black people found with firearms received thirty-nine lashes, to Florida, where white militias could search the homes of Black families for arms whenever they pleased, and the more lenient North Carolina, which allowed free Black people to apply for yearly permits before owning anything from shotguns to knives. (9)
The list of draconian gun control measures considered legal under the 2nd Amendment, even long after slavery was abolished, stretches on. Time and again, it provided no protection for Black communities who defended themselves against organized violent attacks, from the Colfax Massacre of 1873, to the Hamburg Massacre of 1876, and the destruction of Black Wall Street in 1921. Courts and judges routinely dismissed the Constitution, Bill of Rights and 2nd Amendment included, as legal grounds for non-whites to enjoy their full human existence as Americans.
This should be a sharp wake up call to anyone still viewing the 2nd Amendment as some wise, holy governance handed down through time. It’s own authors supported the most invasive firearms confiscations in US history. Like the title of my weblog has long declared, the 2nd Amendment must be occupied and reformed… into a tool for seizing gun culture back from what the founders originally intended. Simply another way for maintaining white supremacy and upper class dominion. Liberty may be a contagion… and Martha Washington meant that as an insult- but we can still take pride spreading it far and wide.
Akinyele Omowale Umoja. We Will Shoot Back. New York University Press, New York. 2013. 58-9.
Carol Anderson. The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America. Bloomsbury Publishing, New York. 2021. 18.
I currently work for a low-income housing non profit. While being part of an industry that helps people in our community is rewarding, this regularly puts myself and my co-workers in contact with individuals experiencing crisis, whether mental health or substance abuse related. Despite occasional tense moments, we do our best de-escalating confrontations and negotiating solutions as best we can. Very rarely does anyone get hurt.
One exception took place several years ago at an apartment complex in our portfolio. A male resident barged into the leasing office with a baseball bat and struck the building manager over the head, knocking her unconscious. He then ran out and began assaulting other people nearby. Amidst this chaos, the manager recovered enough to retrieve a can of mace from her purse. She bravely intercepted the assailant and sprayed him down, incapacitating the man until police arrived.
Once she returned from a brief hospital stay, co-workers and residents congratulated this woman for quick thinking and resourcefulness that certainly prevented more serious injuries. Yet, our official corporate response was more subdued. An all-staff email reminded everyone that our employee agreement prohibited self defense instruments on company property. As one might imagine, this included firearms, but also pepper spray and electric tasers.
At the time, this sparked consternation, with several building managers openly declaring they would rather be fired than leave themselves defenseless. They pointed out how violent abusers stalk victims in many locations, workplaces included. Some women mentioned personally surviving domestic assault and how keeping a taser or pepper spray nearby was simply how they lived their lives now. Leaving self defense tools at home would create huge gaps in their personal safety… not just on site, but during commutes, plus any side trips or appointments along the way.
A damage control email quickly made the rounds, promising all field offices would soon have panic buttons installed under the desks. Some employees grumbled, pointing out any response would still be delayed, but in general, this declaration calmed things. After a couple months, I checked in with some managers, asking if their offices were set up yet. They grimly reported no. Perplexed, I questioned the head of maintenance, inquiring about progress. He responded vaguely, reporting that details were still being ironed out and assured me I’d be kept in the loop. More months went by…then years, and that was the last anyone heard about panic buttons as far as I’m aware.
So, what does this have to do with gun politics? Well, laws ostensibly regulating firearms sometimes reach much further than expected, just like workplace rules. Oregon Senate Bill 554, recently passed by the legislature reads:
166.370. (1)(a) Any person who intentionally possesses a loaded or unloaded firearm or any other instrument used as a dangerous weapon, while in or on a public building, shall upon conviction be guilty of a Class C felony.
The term “weapon” is defined by listing an array of objects including:
(c) Mace, tear gas, pepper mace or any similar deleterious agent as defined in ORS 163.211; (d) An electrical stun gun or any similar instrument;
Now, as everyone should be well aware, laws are not enforced equally. Regarding my earlier example, during an all-staff meeting following that incident, the head of HR reminded everyone about our policy against self defense items. I glanced over at one of the building managers who earlier voiced disagreement and sure enough, sitting on the table in front of her glinted a can of pepper spray clipped onto her key ring. Nobody said a damn thing.
It seemed moderately hilarious at the time, but looking back, highlights how privilege and bias play out. This building manager was a white woman, well regarded at our nonprofit after years of service, and clearly felt little concern over breaking a major company regulation while preserving her own sense of security. I absolutely support her in doing so, but also wonder about my other co-workers, Black and Brown women with similar safety concerns, yet less confident in their employment, who make personal risk equations every day. Which is more endangered right now? Their life or their job?
Likewise, as more locations adopt policies prohibiting many people’s self defense options, already marginalized populations necessarily feel the pressure more. Several years ago I received a tearful phone call from a friend in another city. She was sheltering in a public library after running from a man who had sexually assaulted her nearby. It seemed like an easy decision, but what if she had a mace canister buried in her backpack? Under SB 554, instead of finding sanctuary, she could now be a felon for violating laws promoted to the public as reducing gun violence. While my white co-worker might feel secure in authorities giving her a pass on that, in this case my friend hiding from her assailant was a Black woman, too afraid of the police to call 911.
None of these complications are discussed in major media accounts of SB 554. Instead it’s described only as a bill to mandate safe storage of firearms and allow greater restrictions on where guns can be carried. It’s understandable why people are concerned about these issues. Firearms remain a hot commodity for theft, and while hindering access in emergency situations is problematic, greater numbers locked up securely will hopefully reduce unauthorized access. Likewise, as someone who has faced down armed fascist groups on the streets many times, I understand more than most the knee-jerk impulse to ban firearms from public places.
Being a butch white man, personal safety is rarely a concern for me. Potential predators detect a hard target and cops see a buddy they’d probably enjoy some beers with. Yet among many women- or any less physically intimidating individuals, daily life often resembles an anxiety ridden obstacle course… taking inconvenient routes around dark streets, staying alert for signs an abusive ex is back in town or checking in with friends during dates. Large numbers of people I know habitually carry self defense spray. It’s unlikely anyone would support limiting their ability in doing so, yet SB 554 has done this with virtually no discussion. We can argue about gun control… but when the safety of our most vulnerable neighbors is compromised as a byproduct, only dangerous abusers benefit.
-Nicholas Kristof, New York Times editorial headline, January 12, 2011
“In the US we have more federal regulations over toy guns than real ones”
-Senator Cory Booker, tweeted May 7, 2019
“Everyone knows that teddy bears aren’t as dangerous as firearms. But these classic toys have to satisfy a wide range of safety standards before they make their way into a store, much less a child’s hands. Guns, on the other hand, face few such requirements.”
-Patrick Coffee, Adweek, March 31, 2017
Too many such false generalizations and emotional platitudes dominate firearm debates. It’s absurd, of course, as guns in the US are highly controlled, far beyond most consumer products. Particularly frustrating is how capricious and arbitrary many gun regulations are. For one, the difference between a rifle and pistol is defined by barrel length. Anything over sixteen inches is a rifle. Anything under that is technically a pistol, unless it has a stock for shouldering which makes it a short barreled rifle (SBR). An SBR requires registration, more background checks and additional taxation. This becomes more bizarre upon observing that barrels on US military standard issue M4 carbines are 14.5 inches, making semi-auto civilian versions without stocks technically handguns.
Even more obtuse is that SBRs are supposedly regulated out of fear that short rifles represent a special hazard as concealable for use in crime. This dates from the National Firearms Act of 1934, a legislative backlash against prohibition fueled violence during the ‘20s, sensationalized by gangsters wielding legal, full-auto Tommy guns. But much changed between then and now. Rifles with folding stocks or bullpup designs were unusual in the early 20th century, but later became much more common. Yet as long as their barrel remained over 16 inches, or entire length over 26 inches, no NFA violation occurred.
Such rifles were untypical among criminals, therefore, no reason was seen to close any alleged “bullpup or folding stock loophole” in the NFA. Gun violence in the US is essentially handgun violence. Pistols are small, easily concealed or disposed if needed, and because most armed exchanges involve only a few shots at very close range, best suited for most illegal endeavors.*
Now, the particular design of an M4, just like its more famous relations, the AR-15/M-16, involves a buffer tube that extends behind the hand grip, much like a rudimentary stock itself. Many shooters over the years saved time and money by simply buying short barreled AR pistols and bracing against the buffer tubes for steadiness while firing. Others used slings for the same purpose with stockless AK or other large pistol variations.
Eventually, a creative Iraq war veteran noticed some disabled vets, who formerly enjoyed sport shooting, might continue if a way existed to strap pistol carbine variants around their forearms. He began modifying the AR platform, which most obviously lent itself toward the effort, as it’s buffer tube already formed an anchor point. In 2013, a company named SB Tactical began producing arm braces for this purpose, with a letter from the ATF certifying them as legal pistol attachments. These became very popular, not only among disabled persons, but anyone who appreciated better controlability. Beside the benefit created using these braces as advertised, it soon became obvious they made shouldering possible. Internet gun culture quickly filled up with articles and videos discussing the potential legality of this practice, and cautioning against posting photos with pistols unstrapped and shouldered, lest regulators find an excuse to ban the devices.
For a couple years, braced pistols flew under the mainstream radar. I regularly read anti-gun newsletters and only once or twice saw brief mention. The apparent absence of these pistols (or even proper SBRs with stocks) among violent incidents weakened arguments for greater restriction, so in an odd unspoken truce, both gun control groups and shooting enthusiasts largely kept silent about braces, though for quite different reasons.
Eventually, as more manufacturers began selling braces, the original intent became muddied. From any observers standpoint, it was obvious SB Tactical’s brace was built to be strapped around the users forearm. By contrast, the later Shockwave brace looked more like an actual stock and didn’t even come with straps, though featuring slots they could fit through. The question of what made stocks and braces different revolved more around length of pull than anything else. This refers to the measure between a trigger and the end of a rifle stock, under the idea that a short brace is uncomfortable to shoulder, clearly making it a byproduct of design, not the primary intent. However, every person is different and while someone with long arms might find shouldering a brace problematic, smaller framed individuals could do so with ease.
As more braces became available, the ATF received increased queries for clarification. It’s understandable why companies desired individual affirmation, as nobody wants a product that is legal one day and a felony the next. In 2015, what many gun owners feared finally happened. A new ruling came out stating that shouldering braces transformed them into an unauthorized SBR. For two years, this firearms accessory actually made people criminals the instant they assumed a particular stance holding it. Then, in 2017 a reversal was issued maintaining braces were legal, no matter how an individual used them.
It took until 2019 before any notable crime involved a braced pistol, the Dayton, Ohio mass shooting which killed nine victims. This tragedy illustrates why cracking down on pistol braces makes little sense. The supposed reason SBRs were originally so heavily regulated is that smaller rifles are somewhat concealable. However, as decades of criminal activity demonstrate, rifles simply aren’t part of most gun violence, no matter their size. In this instance, concealment wasn’t even attempted. The perpetrator suited up with tactical gear from his vehicle before rushing across a parking lot and opening fire on a crowd. While the brace made his 10.5 inch barrel AR style pistol easier to handle, the increased velocity provided by a 16 inch rifle barrel would have actually been deadlier and a proper stock made it even more controllable. It’s obviously small consolation to survivors, but the fact a braced pistol was used likely prevented increased casualties.
This horrifying event was almost precisely replicated in March of 2021 during the Boulder, Colorado shooting which took ten lives. Again, a 10.5 inch AR style pistol wasn’t concealed by the shooter who wore blatant tactical gear and opened fire across a parking lot. Just as before, a more orthodox rifle would have only raised the body count. However, this took place following the 2020 elections which put Democrats in political majorities and after four years of Trump’s cozy relationship with the NRA, anti-gun supporters were hungry for anything, no matter how symbolic.
Therefore, the fact pistol braces wafted for years amidst a regulatory grey area suddenly became brandished as if they formed significant aspects of mass shootings. Just as Trump banned bump stocks with a simple executive action, President Biden could do the same, and while courts might eventually strike it down, a short term win would be achieved. That’s why anti-gun activists rejoiced when Biden asked the ATF to once more clarify if pistol braces create SBR rifles, with a statement that they “can make a firearm more stable and accurate, while still being concealable.” All this despite the estimated 3-4 million braced pistols already sold, yet which appear in few crimes and none known where concealability played a role.
What’s truly heartbreaking is America actually suffers from significant social violence. Structural racism. The failed war on drugs. Domestic assaults. Rising fascist movements with alarming support inside the police and military. Even within firearm related statistics, the overwhelming majority of deaths are suicides. None of these issues even slightly involve the the tedious minutia regarding how many quarter inches differentiate a brace from a stock.
Banning braces simply means widespread illegal materials abruptly in circulation, more opportunity for biased law enforcement ruining lives, and while many urban liberals likely envision White rural rednecks being persecuted, the reality is always more prisoners of color locked away. Democrats still have time to veer away from squandering political capital in a post-Trump era where real change is possible, not on pointless distraction from real problems.
*The actual number of shots fired during armed encounters is very difficult to determine. Police reports are typically unhelpful and so most estimations are based on anecdotal evidence. However, these tend to agree on the basic elements: that such exchanges are brief, close and with only a few shots fired. In my own experience of interviewing many persons who used firearms for self defense over the years, this bears up, except that in every time related, the mere presence of a gun was sufficient to defuse situations nonviolently.
“You’re family men, decent enough people. But you’ve got a lot of frustration and hate in you, so you get together and do things that make you feel big and brave, only they aren’t so big and they aren’t so brave when you stop to think about it . . . you’re all sort of ashamed and nobody looks much like a brave hero . . . You men are guilty of murdering your own souls… what’s decent and good in you!”
-Grey Matson aka Doctor Sixgun, addressing a mob of nightriders
One doesn’t usually think of old time Western radio dramas as a resource for positive social awareness. These epics were traditionally tailored as nationalist mythology to assuage White guilt over genocide against native populations during the bloody conquest of North America. So it’s particularly interesting a vein of the genre, known as “adult Westerns” took a highly complex approach that stood apart from the more common “black hat / white hat” cowboy narratives that portrayed settlers and European colonialism optimistically, while glossing over their human cost.
The most successful of these was surely Gunsmoke, which aired on radio stations from 1952-62 and also in a popular television version until 1975. Yet another lesser known drama from that era remains well worth examining. This show, called Doctor Sixgun, lasted only a single season from 1954-55 and informed listeners through an intro that it’s protagonist was a “symbol of justice and mercy” perhaps warning away Western fans who preferred more macho gunplay and less introspection.
It followed the exploits of a frontier physician named Grey Matson (played by Karl Weber) known to locals as Doctor Sixgun, yet famed for solving problems through wit and compassion more often than his revolver. While falling for occasional problematic ethnic stereotypes, it’s remarkable how well the storylines hold up. Throughout multiple episodes, Dr. Matson presents sympathetic perspectives regarding nearby Indian tribes without sugarcoating the actions of White townspeople and military officers attempting to exploit or murder them.
During one especially wrenching episode, ”Atonement for Cowardice” (November 7, 1954) Dr. Matson intervened after an elderly alcoholic continually degraded himself in public for liquor. However, the man refused any assistance, choosing instead to wear a dog collar and entertain local roughnecks who kept whisky flowing in return. It concluded with the man’s death, but not before letting him share the tragic story he claims caused his condition, lending a final tone of dignity instead of mockery.
Most notable in today’s political environment is “The Immigrant Settler” (October 21, 1954). It began with an introduction from Dr. Matson’s frequent companion, a Romani peddler named Pablo, who declared: “There was the time when my good friend, Doctor Sixgun, had to cure an epidemic, a strange disease which infects men whose heart is filled with hatred.”
The first indication of this epidemic came when a crowd of masked men called “nightriders” assaulted the homestead of an immigrant family, in obvious allusion to the Ku Klux Klan, who were often known by the same term. Significantly, earlier in 1954, Brown v. Board of Education struck down school segregation and brought about a major moment in the American Civil Rights struggle, alongside escalating Klan related political violence against it. Most Doctor Sixgun radio listeners would have immediately made the association with current events.
It’s important to note, while the KKK has since become synonymous with racist lynchings, bombings and other brutalities, this episode aired long before some of their most notorious acts. The 16th St. Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, for example, wasn’t until 1963. It’s possible many White people tuning in would have only associated the KKK with it’s much more socially acceptable incarnation earlier in the 20th century when politicians openly posed for photo ops with hooded Klansmen and President Wilson lauded D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, which celebrated them. In other words, painting the KKK as villains in a popular radio script that year was hardly easy virtue signaling.
What’s also interesting is the attacked family were Norwegian immigrants. Many today forget that the concept of White supremacy only recently evolved into an idealization of pan-European culture, often fixated upon Nordic peoples as pinnacles of racial purity. Years before, a strict hierarchy existed in the pseudo-science, which regarded Southern and Eastern Europeans as quite inferior, including the Irish and other western Celts. Scandinavians were sometimes singled out for persecution in America because so many of them became involved with union organizing.
Once Dr. Matson discovered members of his community were being terrorized, he approached the local sheriff, who suddenly showed little enthusiasm for law enforcement, stating: “I’m against this night ridin’ as much as any man, but it’s a thing you can’t fight! For one thing they wear pillowcases… you can’t identify them! . . . the boys are just gettin’ rid of a little steam!”
The reluctant sheriff only agreed he would take action if Dr. Matson could round up a posse of ten or fifteen men. Unfortunately, this attempt at playing Abraham to save the city of Sodom failed. Everyone Matson attempted recruiting either feared the vigilantes, or secretly counted among their ranks. However, his investigation did turn up one woman who informed on her deceitful husband and revealed their next target was Pablo.
Together, Dr. Matson and Pablo concocted a scheme that caught nine of the nightriders, including their ringleader, a leading sheriff’s deputy who immediately fled town. The remaining men were subjected to a tongue lashing from Matson who passionately decried their inhumanity, leaving them publicly unmasked and ashamed. Pablo then generously declined pressing charges, observing: “…they have harmed themselves enough.”
The whole story, despite being set one-hundred and fifty years in the past and broadcast almost seventy years ago, resonates deeply today. Waves of recent xenophobia would have saddened, but not shocked Doctor Sixgun. He spotlighted how common prejudices among ordinary people can be mobilized into violence, especially when law enforcement is actively complicit, like the guilty deputy- or simply looks away as the weak-willed sheriff preferred. There remains no simple vaccine against this epidemic, which still runs strong, turning infected hearts toward hatred and making immigrants targets. We can learn much from a well-intentioned physician who countered its spread, at least in his part of the West on old time radio waves.
Most political observers would agree that the relationship between American presidents and the truth is often a tenuous bond. Now ex-president Trump carried on that inglorious tradition, but remains remarkable in that his lies were obvious, habitual and frequently tied with discredited conspiracy theories. Now that his term as chief-executive against facts has concluded, the conditions which made it possible— still only faint scribbles against the zeitgeist bathroom wall, deserves deeper scrutiny. A more substantive research effort would surely uncover deeper roots, yet in my own life, one particular happening stuck out.
As someone who came of age politically during the mid ‘90s anti-globalization movement, political divisions seemed fairly clear cut. Leftists demanded corporate accountability and called for regulations on international business alignments. Conservatives advocated free trade and less oversight of companies, plus strongly supported government crackdowns against protesters. This continued through the early 2000s as pro vs. anti-war factions split predictably as well.
It wasn’t until early 2010 that I noticed a shift. The first glimpse took place around mid February that year when a fellow named Phil Schrader in New York contacted me regarding my old ‘zine American Gun Culture Report. We talked on the phone for almost an hour and he described having recently inherited some money and subsequently founded a newspaper called The Sovereign. Phil described it broadly as influenced by anti-authoritarian subculture, yet his political analysis wasn’t the most sophisticated. He came across like a lot of older punk rockers who loved Dead Kennedys and Black Flag back in the day but now get cranky if a friend’s gender pronoun changes.
Still, Phil talked excitedly about using his paper to rally Americans against neo-conservatism and foreign wars and I came away from our conversation feeling like his heart was in the right place. I agreed to write an article for The Sovereign plus trade him ad space. Nothing particularly unusual, as I often made similar exchanges between others in the ‘zine community.
I promptly composed a piece called “The Good News About Self Defense” and sent it off. Some time later, my first copy arrived in the mail. It took several moments to fully grasp the absurdity. Instead of pithy, punk inspired political rants, The Sovereign presented Trump-era conspiracy culture six years early. The cover bore an illustration of then-President Obama transforming into a reptilian creature and every article warned against military-nanobots, chemtrails or sinister plans to devalue the dollar. They nearly all bore bylines from sci-fi movie characters, clearly dashed off by a single author, perhaps Phil himself. Randomly interspersed between paragraphs were underground record album covers. I came away from the whole experience alternately cringing and chortling.
Over the next several months, more issues showed up, all containing the same peculiar blend of articles and cartoons juxtaposing sexual imagery and profanity against appeals for Christian values. Warnings about “Liberalism” meshed with condemnations of the banking industry. Advertisements pitched natural health remedies or resources toward becoming a sovereign citizen. One recurring blurb promoted an openly fascist group seeking members. My PO box soon filled up with letters from prisoners, who apparently formed a significant readership, requesting free copies of AGCR after noticing my article and ads.
I soon lost track of this odd project but now, looking back via internet trails, it went out of business in 2017, then under a new publisher named Donald Meserlian who died later that same year. The Sovereign’s official Facebook page claimed he owed people thousands of dollars and had violated contributors copyright agreements. It’s unclear if Phil Schrader was even involved by that point. Appropriately enough, Meserlian came from the 9/11 truther movement and once made news after being taken to court for threatening New Jersey police officers who wouldn’t launch an investigation into the World Trade Towers collapsing.
Back in 2010, characters like Schrader and Meserlian who sold fringe conspiracy theories seemed laughable, even harmless entertainers. But in retrospect, The Sovereign represented a warning of things to come. Seven years later, Q-anon hysterics, anti-vaxxers and COVID deniers have accumulated a body count and people who profited off such delusions are more complicit than the rest. Trump may be out of power, but injecting presidential endorsement into an industry spreading toxic delusions bore a cost we will all be paying back for a long time.