Monday, October 28, 2013

Happiness Is a Warm Gun

I've been trying to understand America's gun culture, and the rhetoric pathologically focused on surrounding guns and the use of guns in American discourse. I'm not sure I've come up with any real answers: to a large extent I just don't get it. Simply put, there's a lot of really shrill, quasi-hysterical discourse about guns going on -- and of course you thought I was talking about the other side (whatever that might be for you).

I don't claim to know who should own guns, who shouldn't own guns, or what kind of guns they should or shouldn't own. My liberal friends will point to numerous countries that have stricter gun laws and a lower rate of violent crime. My conservative friends will point to Chicago, which has strict gun laws and a high incidence of violent crime, and/or to some mythical town in Florida (or was it Texas -- isn't it always Texas?) in which everyone is armed and thus afraid to do anything to anyone else. Mutual Assured Destruction on the local scale.

Not to put off the liberals, but I'm concerned that calls for greater restriction fail to take into account differences in culture as well as the sheer number of guns already in circulation in the United States. It's possible that countries in which a correlation between strict gun laws and low gun violence obtains are different enough to make apples to apples comparisons problematic. Gun restrictions that failed to yield a decrease in gun violence would only serve as ammunition [see what I did there?] for the gun lobby. I'm not sure they need encouragement.

And not put off my conservative friends, but let me say this: I have no particular reverence for the Second Amendment or even the Constitution itself, though I recognize these as the law of the land and pay heed to their capitalization as proper nouns. If there are reasons to affirm sensible gun ownership, there are better ones than religiously repeating the musings of disaffected 17th-century colonists high on the aftermath of armed insurrection.

[Oh, the anarchy!]

But relax, conservatives. I have no agenda for regulating gun ownership and no means to enforce one if I did. To be clear: I don't want your guns. I don't want to take away your guns. I'm not lobbying the government to take away your guns. I don't give a crap about your guns. In fact, I'm starting to think all this gun-talk is some kind of overcompensation. It seems more than a little fetishistic to me.

Despite my caveat above, I'm fairly comfortable suggesting that sensible gun laws fall somewhere between a mandatory arming of the citizenry (which I've heard suggested) and their unilateral disarmament (which seems to be unrealistically feared). The rest is just details. But both sides really do seem focused on the guns themselves in a bizarre way. 

This is perhaps not surprising given the attention guns get in popular media. Guns in television and film seem uniquely, even uncannily, useful tools -- for persuasion, for opening locks, for shooting bits of rope or chain that are holding up heavy things, for dispatching bad guys (often with single shots) and other unrealistic things. We see people grappling fatefully for guns that have fallen to the ground, and we wince when the protagonist's gun gets knocked away. The Gun looms large in the American imagination.

It seems almost banal to point that the gun is also curiously impersonal compared to hand-to-hand combat or swordplay. It is effective at a distance. I don't have to be close to you or touch you for the gun to work. I can attack without being (quite as) vulnerable or open. Moreover, guns do seem to be uniquely lethal, with more potential for collateral damage -- all of which is to say that the fixation on guns, characteristic of both sides, does seem explicable in some ways, if not entirely justified. 

Surely there's also, at the risk of being crude, some kind of phallic dynamic here as well: the barrel, the explosive discharge, the desire for penetration (without which the gun is not effective). The sheer, well, potency of the gun and what it is expected to do. I'm collapsing a lot here, but I'm wondering if there isn't a good bit of the rest of the culture war between left and right in America that gets projected onto the gun debate.

There's a danger to the rhetoric I'm using by referring to both sides in third person, a danger of appearing to be above the fray, of discursively situating myself on some higher moral, ethical, or political ground. I make no such claim. I am not in possession of some third perspective, and the deconstructive move of identifying both sides as fixated on guns qua guns is a mild one at best. 

The truth is I don't know how to get my bearings in the conversation. I don't know how to run a country and I'm skeptical of the entire enterprise. I have no investment in gun culture, and find it perplexing. I don't see the problem with sensible gun ownership, and I don't see how restricting certain kinds of guns is an egregious abrogation of rights, whether it turns out to be all that helpful or not.

What I really find interesting, however, as well as a bit troubling, is the subtext of what I sometimes hear from my gun-totin' conservative friends, which is this: they seem to be anticipating some decisive moment when they'll need their guns. It's like a kind of eschatological fantasy that ties into the rest of their politics. Obama is some uniquely dictatorial martinet hell-bent on bringing about an apocalyptic scenario in which the Good Guys will be the ones with gun racks on their pickups and country music on their radios. The Confederate flags, I'm guessing, will be optional.

I'm not just poking fun; they're serious about this. And if it's not Obama, it will be Hillary. Until it's not, and then it will be the next Democrat. Lather, rinse, repeat. And I'm not even talking about those who think the Trilateral Commission or the Illuminati or some other (Catholic? Jewish? Intellectual elite?) cabal is masterminding the whole thing. Otherwise normal, straightforward-thinking conservatives talk like some grand opportunity for armed heroism is just around the corner.

You don't buy a gun unless you think there's a chance you'll need to use it and you don't defend the Second Amendment as a sacred text unless you think there's going to come a time when a "well-regulated militia" (or a bunch of good ole' boys with guns and pickups, which I don't think is the same thing) will be just the answer to the country's problems -- and gosh, wouldn't it be kind of neat if that day came? In other words, on some level they seem to want this to happen. That's the sense I get.

It's a similar logic to the action movie or disaster movie (and these obviously overlap). In the quasi-apocalyptic scenario of a disaster or an invasion by an unprecedented malevolent force, the bric-a-bric of democratic bureaucracy falls away and the strong take center stage. The efficacy of violence is the order of the day, and those who wield it most effectively are seen as leaders. The angst of our postmodern condition gets swept away in the purpose-driven teleology of the battlefield.

The liberal fixation on doing something about the guns is the mirror side of this totemic construction, but its source is the anxiety over the loss of agency endemic to late capitalism. We yearn for something to interrupt the ennui of what Robert Scholes calls "the bureaucratized, commodified world that is our present environment." We pine for a moral landscape in which the lines are more clearly drawn and the course of action is difficult but easily defined.

We believe, intuitively, that hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side.


Rachelle Eaton said...

The connection to movies is something I've thought about. I'm doing a critical thinking/argument unit with my 9th and 10th graders right now and gun control is the topic they chose. I hear a lot of the idea that guns are necessary for self-defense, that an armed "good guy" could take down a shooter and prevent mass killings like Newtown, et al. It seems to me that this is simply an argument based on imagination formed by the way it would happen in movies, not on any evidence that it would actually turn out that way.

India Henson said...

I been sort of taken by the difference in presidential influence. When George Bush was president, the invasion of Iraq and his meddling in Middle East affairs was the sign for the end of times... The Apocalypse... when all the bad stuff was gone and the good stuff remained (or is it the opposite, I do get confused). Now that Barack Obama is president, there's a sense the we are all going to hell in a hand-basket, and the ones with guns and canned food will rule what's left of the world. In either case I wanted to be the one who was killed, because I don't like to clean up other peoples' messes.