Gold, guns, and suckers born every minute

With the right kind of marketing any unsound idea can flourish in the West.


I was sitting in the Elk's Club bar in Central City, Colo., when a young prospector pulled out a number of documents about how to open old gold mines. Included was a summary of Peter McFarlane's book from the 1920s, Grown Gold, now out of print. I warned him about a woman I know well who was badly injured recently while trying to re-open a gold mine. She'd read some of this same stuff. The book’s hypothesis was a lot more popular almost 100 years ago, but its notion remains attractive.

Gold mines have often been closed down and then re-opened after a couple of decades. But McFarlane had noticed that some mines that had been closed for 20 or 30 years held “blossom rock” on outcrops or ledges, sitting right out there in plain sight, and that some of that rock held small amounts of gold. McFarlane was in the gold-mining business all his life and knew his stuff. He was also a solid citizen credited with saving the Central City opera house and designing a top-notch gold stamp mill among other accomplishments. No fly-by-night boomer, he.

McFarlane simply could not imagine how any miners would miss such obvious gold in plain sight as they closed up a mine. So his hypothesis was that oxygen, once introduced into galleries closed for millennia, plus some mineralized water, allowed for the actual growth of gold. Of course there's no scientific proof for his hypothesis that the gold grows back, but that never stopped anybody from believing it -- or selling claims based on it. And sometimes he found enough gold in an old mine to make the idea of buying a “played out” claim seem a lot less silly to the people who bought his book. Gullibility is quite a part of our Western mine heritage.

Gullibility is part of the Western heritage in other ways, too. For example, it is widely believed that universal background checks do nothing to halt gun violence. That idea is drummed into the Western consciousness regularly by pro-gun groups like the National Rifle Association. If you take a look at any of the gun-rights websites, you will be amazed at the vitriol directed at the idea of universal background checks.

Yet, any county sheriff will tell you of cases where a background check stopped a gun sale and probably saved a life. One case I know about concerns a man who tended to beat up his wife. She got a restraining order, and he made all kinds of threats about coming to get her. The day he tried to buy a handgun and got turned down he was furious. He then discovered who his friends were around town: Turned out he didn’t have any. No one would loan him a handgun and he moved away disappointed about not getting to shoot her.

“Gun rights” websites will tell you that only an armed citizenry can stand up to the government. That's why the government (whatever that is) wants to take away our guns.  Often, the United Nations is blamed for being in on the action. The idea that government wants my guns sounds paranoid to me, but it works to support the NRA and other groups, and it's being skillfully marketed.

In Colorado, two state legislators were recently recalled because they voted for gun-control bills that Gov. John Hickenlooper signed into law. Their successful recall is a first in the history of the state.

One of the strangest gun websites I found warns that the minds of legislators are being taken over by lizard people. This is the theory of David Icke, a British science writer and workshop leader. He's found evidence that primitive reptile beings lead happy lives deep in the earth and are quite sophisticated at the art of mind control. Only armed citizens, he says, can stop them. Some 12 million Americans subscribe to Icke's lizard-people hypothesis.  It says so right there on his website.

With the right kind of marketing any unsound idea can flourish in the West. It's always been that way. So those of us who can still think past the marketing of dubious ideas have a duty. There are legislators who deserve our support. They're the ones the lizard people haven't gotten to yet.

Forrest Whitman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He lives in an old caboose in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado not too far from Denver.

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