Guns and Civilization

obama shooting

I have been thinking a lot about guns and the gun culture these days, as I suppose most of us have. All of that NRA talk at the Senate hearings about how mothers require not just maximal firepower but the scariest-looking weapons if they are going to protect their children; all of those visions of home-invading hordes….

Second Amendment extremists hate the government, the supposed upholder of the rule of law, but at the same time they’re terrified of the break-down of civilization that occurs when governments are too weak to maintain order–something that they associate with cities, those places where only bad guys and the police have guns and citizens are at the mercy of both. “I think,” Senator Lindsey Graham mused, “I would be better off protecting my business or my family if there was law and order breakdown in my community, people roaming around my neighborhood, to have the AR-15.”

On a whim, I Googled the phrase “Cities and guns.” The first item that popped up was this comment in the Glock Talk forum, from Frank 4570 (Feral Human):

Clearly our biggest problem is that city people are not familiar with guns. And as a result, it’s pretty easy to convince them guns are bad. The only time they see a gun is when the thug down the street shoots somebody.

It’s not like the the neighborhood kids get together and go shoot guns at the end of the street like we do out in the country.

Short of building about a million indoor shooting ranges, I really don’t know how to change this problem. And unfortunately, the city people outnumber the country people, and it is getting worse every year.


I have all kinds of ideas.

First, I agree that many city people have no appreciation at all of the “good” side of guns, whereas for many in the rural gun culture, a gun is not just a tool for hunting or self-defense, but in an almost mystical sense, a guarantor of civility.

Writing in The New Republic this week, Walter Kirn tried to bridge the divide between gun culture insiders and “certain purists among the unarmed” who regard guns with indiscriminate loathing. His first hands-on experience with a gun, he related, was when he was a teenager. His father had gone off on a business trip, leaving him and his mother and his younger brother alone on their isolated Minnesota farm. When word came that an escaped convict was in the neighborhood, Kirn sat up all night pointing his father’s loaded shotgun at the door, an image that to me recalls Atticus Finch–the civilized man par excellence–guarding the prisoner from the lynch mob in To Kill a Mockingbird. Years later, when Kirn was with his young children, he was menaced by a meth head on the streets of Livingston, Montana. He staved off a confrontation when he pulled out a target pistol that was providentially in his pick up truck’s glove compartment.

Kirn doesn’t say that guns are good in and of themselves, but he believes that they can inculcate an awesome and salutary sense of responsibility among those who wield them. Gun ownership, he says, is all about regulation–about being the custodian of an awesome force, “a successful disciplinarian of something radically alien and potent.” As I remember, Obi-Wan Kenobi said something much like that about The Force; there are probably all sorts of similar sayings about Samurai swords.

Kirn continues:

To civilize, I think, is the key verb. It’s a crossover word, with a cultural legacy and a practical, specific meaning—to order; to, yes, “regulate”—that the gun-owning mind responds to and respects. In westerns, the gun (the gun in the right hands; and the gun owner thinks of his own hands as the right ones, which all who wish to engage him in conversation would be wise not to forget) is a tool of civilization, not a totem. It tames, the gun, but only if it’s first tamed. Those who won’t tame it, or can’t—because they’re unable to tame themselves—must face being disarmed. Especially hard-to-tame types of guns, moreover, must be closely, vigilantly watched.

Guns for Kirn are a little like what sex is in D.H. Lawrence novels–a channel for a cosmic force that is as much dishonored by Puritanism as it is by a thoughtless hedonism.

I might not relate to that, but how could I? Like Josh Marshall, who wrote eloquently about the separate tribes of gun owners and non-gun owners, when I see a gun, I see an artifact that is specifically designed for the taking of life. Cars and chainsaws can kill, hammers can kill, even a butter knife. But fatality is something contingent, an accidental property of those tools, which were designed to do other things. All of the human ingenuity, craft, and intention that goes into a gun is directed to killing; the destruction of life is its sole purpose, its telos, as Aristotle would have had it.

Like the Feral Human said on the Glock forum, city people, who live close together, work indoors, and don’t do a lot of hunting in their own backyards, tend to experience guns as bad things. I know I have. I have only handled a gun once, when I was 10 or 12 years old, at a Skeet range at Boy Scout camp. Like President Obama (see the photo above) I enjoyed the experience immensely, but it ended in humiliation, when I turned around without thinking and pointed the business end of my shotgun in the instructor’s face. It was a complete accident, but to make an example of me, he expelled me from the range; he might have even banned me.

Flash forward twenty years or so, when I was unlocking the front door of my apartment building in Brooklyn and a man pushed in behind me and showed me his gun. It was a silver automatic pistol–so small and yet so unimaginably terrifying. He lashed the muzzle across my temple, drawing blood, then he pressed it against my head and shouted “I’m going to shoot you, motherfucker!” He took my leather jacket, my wedding ring, and my wallet; eventually he clubbed me unconscious. When I came to, I was astounded that he hadn’t shot me. He’d said he would, after all.

For weeks, months, even years after, I fantasized about what I might have done if I’d had a gun myself. The answer, I knew, was absolutely nothing. I’m not trained in self-defense and I’ve never played aggressive sports; I’m non-violent, but not so much out of principle as my innate constitution. Fear paralyzes me; the only thing that’s ever pushed me towards violence is rage. And alcohol. Once, when I was a teenager and I’d had too much to drink, I punched a friend in the mouth. I can’t remember doing it, but he never forgave me.

Walter Kirn’s high-minded ethos of responsible force or not, I have a feeling I’m not that different than a lot of other people when it comes to anger and alcohol. I don’t know how to parse the Second Amendment, but I do know that I hate guns: They’re just too lethal. And people (me, anyway) are just too flawed.


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