Cap Pistols, Gun Control, and Ethics

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It never ceases to amaze me how many articles that we can find on Wikipedia. Rare is the case when I search for a topic, type in wiki, and the first article that my search engine discovers is not a Wikipedia article on exactly that topic.

I searched for “cap pistol” recently. I got an article “cap gun.”

I was curious about the history of the toy. I grew up in the era of the cap pistol. I can only remember one time when I got a holster and cap pistol combination. I was probably seven years old. I played with it for a long time. As with the few toys of our youth that we actually remember, I wish I had saved the set. It would no doubt be worth a lot of money if it was in good shape.

I had long thought that the government intervened to prohibit shiny steel toy pistols because of the possibility that the toys would be used to commit crimes. According to Wikipedia, I was wrong.

Today, cap guns and other toy guns in the United States must be manufactured with a bright orange, red, or yellow tip placed over the “muzzle” of the cap gun, or with the entire gun made in these or other bright colors. Laws requiring these markings were made because of incidents where civilians – usually children or teenagers – were killed by police officers when the officers thought they saw real guns. While these incidents were rare, lawmakers decided that toy guns must be marked so they cannot be mistaken for real guns.

Here we have a situation in which the government is trying to protect innocent people from the government. I keep wondering: “Who would be so stupid as to pull a toy pistol on a policeman who was pointing a real pistol at him?” Is this sort of thing so common that the anti-gun voting bloc took action to kill toy pistols? I doubt it. But it makes a good excuse. The war against guns is a comprehensive cultural war.

The article said that the era of the toy pistol was from 1945 to 1965. After 1965, the popularity of television Westerns began to decline.

I grew up on TV Westerns. Anyone born after 1900 grew up on movie Westerns. Low-budget B-Westerns were the staple of Saturday matinees. They were popular with kids of all ages. The first dramatic moving picture, The Great Train Robbery, was a Western. But they faded in popularity after 1965. Why was that?


I think the heart of the Western’s popularity was this. The classic Western has clearly identifiable moral agents and moral choices. There were good guys and bad guys. We like to say that the good guys wore white hats, and the bad guys wore black hats. That was easy to say when most low-budget Westerns were in black and white. Colored hats all looked black. There were a few good guys who were dressed in black, such as Lash LaRue, but not that many. The most famous good guy who wore all black was Hopalong Cassidy, the white-haired, two-gun geezer. He became the first TV cowboy to create a national mania in the late 1940s. We all wanted to be Hoppy. (As Steve Gillette has said, we never intended to look like him.)

After 1965, entertainment became less and less black and white ethically and more and more gray. The moral choices were not so clearly contrasted. The heroes of the silver screen were bad guys. There had been some of this in the gangster films of the 1930s, but the bad guys always came to a bad end. But there was a major problem with gangster films. Outlaws armed with machine guns could be handled only by government agents: G-men. The state was seen as the ultimate protector. Why? Because the federal government outlawed machine guns. Then only gangsters and G-men had machine guns. The public was caught in the crossfire.

That is what gun control advocates prefer: the public caught in the crossfire.

The kind of moral universe in which I grew up, in which good guys were armed and dangerous, became politically and culturally incorrect after 1965. Maybe good guys carried a badge. Maybe they didn’t. But they carried a gun, the preposterous Destry excepted.

I remember talking with James Arness about this change. This was probably sometime around 1983. I was lecturing at a conference, and he was in attendance. He had been the most famous cowboy television personality, because Gunsmoke ran for 20 years, 1955-1975, the longest-running dramatic series of the era. He said that when he first started out, he was allowed to shoot the bad guys. By the end, he said, “I was only allowed to threaten them with my special decoder ring.”

The opening scene of Gunsmoke was a shootout.

Although you cannot see his face, the bad guy was actually the actor who also played Sam, the bartender. He had been in over 200 Westerns before he got that role. His name Glenn Strange. Really. He really had been a deputy sheriff in New Mexico. There were other B-western actors who had similar credentials. Roy Barcroft was in 350. Charles “Blackie” King was probably in 350. No one really knows how many some of these regulars were in. There was a steady market for them until the television era.

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February 9, 2013

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit He is also the author of a free 31-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

Copyright © 2013 Gary North