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The American culture of gun violence in Westerns and the law
Author: Justin A. Joyce

Gunslinging justice explores American Westerns in a variety of media alongside the historical development of the American legal system to argue that Western shootouts are less overtly ‘anti-law’ than has been previously assumed. While the genre’s climactic shootouts may look like a putatively masculine opposition to the codified and mediated American legal system, this gun violence is actually enshrined in the development of American laws regulating self-defense and gun possession. The climactic gun violence and stylized revenge drama of seminal Western texts then, seeks not to oppose ‘the law,’ but rather to expand its scope. The book’s interdisciplinary approach, which seeks to historicize and contextualize the iconographic tropes of the genre and its associated discourses across varied cultural and social forms, breaks from psychoanalytic perspectives which have long dominated studies of film and legal discourse and occluded historical contingencies integral to the work cultural forms do in the world. From nineteenth-century texts like Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1826) and Reconstruction-era dime novels, through early twentieth-century works like The Virginian, to classic Westerns and more recent films like Unforgiven (1992), this book looks to the intersections between American law and various media that have enabled a cultural, social, and political acceptance of defensive gun violence that is still with us today.

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The warp, woof, and weave of American gun violence
Justin A. Joyce

This introductory chapter lays down the theoretical framework for the foregoing analyses, taking many cues from legal studies, US Supreme Court cases and Foucauldian theory. In the world of the Western, the procedural focus of American law gets in the way of justice. The genre embraces justice by gun violence rather than by trial, and has therefore often been read as ‘anti-law.’ From the early dime-novel fascination with such outlaws and renegades as Billy the Kid and Jesse James, through depictions of lynching in Owen Wister’s 1902 novel, The Virginian, and the film The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), to the guns-blazing heroics of films such as Rio Bravo (1959), High Noon (1952), and Shane (1953), through the darker critiques of The Gunfighter (1950), The Wild Bunch (1969), and Unforgiven (1992), to the postmodern pastiche of Django Unchained (2012), the Western has nourished a vision of social organization and a means for delivering justice that operates outside the official parameters of American law, relying on a gunslinging hero to uphold order. This chapter argues, in fact, that this opposition is progressively undone in the genre’s formulaic shootouts. The cherished antipathy between ‘the law’ and the Western’s ‘law of the gun’ is, in short, unfounded.

in Gunslinging justice
Revenge and constitutional commentary in the Western
Justin A. Joyce

This chapter engages with interdisciplinary scholarship on legal systems and revenge in order to argue that the Western, like other genres which seek to provide justifications for violence, has informed and been influenced by paradigmatic shifts in the American legal system. A fuller investigation into the style of the gunslinger’s vengeance, this chapter argues, suggests a rather different relationship between cultural products and legal apparatuses than that suggested by critics who portray the Western revenger as a reactionary figure. The Western gunslinger is presented here instead as a progressive figure by reading the cultural work of the Western genre as a rhetorical thinking through of a set of interconnected conflicts and inconsistencies in American legal paradigms related to justifiable homicide and gun possession.

in Gunslinging justice
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American self-defense doctrine
Justin A. Joyce

This chapter outlines shifts in the American legal system related to justifiable gun violence. A crucial juridical shift, the transition wrought by American self-defense doctrine from the English requirement to ‘retreat to the wall’ to the American freedom to ‘stand one’s ground’ and repel force with force is covered here.

in Gunslinging justice
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From national defense to self-defense
Justin A. Joyce

Equally important to the development of American law, as well as the Western’s imagination of gunslinging heroics, is the constitutional guarantee of gun possession, a guarantee explored in this chapter by examining key Supreme Court cases. This chapter argues that the modified conception of defense, from a collective duty to an individual right, enforces a rhetorical shift to normativity concomitant with the rise of modernity and the formation of dispersed, interrelated networks of power that create individuated subjects, what Michel Foucault has termed ‘biopower.’

in Gunslinging justice
Firearm iconography in Western literature and film
Justin A. Joyce

This chapter traces the changing iconography of guns within an array of literary texts from the nineteenth century and cinematic texts of the twentieth century. This chapter outlines the shifting emphases within the Western; for though the gun has always been important to the Western, the genre’s representations of gun violence have varied through its history. This chapter argues that the Western’s changing iconographic emphases, from aim to speed, codes violence morally upright and justifiable at different moments within the genre’s long history.

in Gunslinging justice
Normative masculinity and disciplined gun violence
Justin A. Joyce

This chapter explores the language of normativity and its interaction with the Western and the discourse of law. Through close readings of cinematic texts like Shane (1952), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), and The Shootist (1976), the Western genre is read here to represent what Barbara Cruickshank has called a ‘technology of citizenship.’ This chapter argues that the Western gunslinger’s masculinity works to discipline, to tame, the potential for radically disruptive personal violence inherent in the liberties of American self-defense doctrine.

in Gunslinging justice
Property, process, and justice in Unforgiven
Justin A. Joyce

This chapter presents a reading of Unforgiven (1992), situating this film within a paradigmatic shift in the extension of due process protections for minorities, and the transformation of American self-defense doctrine brought about through a focus on battered women.

in Gunslinging justice
Race and justifiable homicide in neoliberalism’s Western imagination
Justin A. Joyce

This concluding chapter examines the relationship between the increasing codification of aggressive ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws since 2005 and the continued relevance of the Western as a popular genre. This final chapter presents a reading of two contemporary Westerns, the television series Justified (2010–2015) and Quentin Tarantino’s film, Django Unchained (2012), arguing that the film epitomizes the challenge of gun possession and self-defense within a neoliberal state.

in Gunslinging justice
Justin A. Joyce

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James Baldwin Review