The writer appreciates how powerful a gun can make her feel. But it is imperative we let go of the good guy with a gun fantasy if we want to live to see another day.
I have always liked guns—as a kid in YMCA day camp, I was a more-than-decent shot at riflery, and even then, as a little kid, I was proud to be a girly-girl with guts and good aim. Many years later, when my husband was assigned to West Point, we visited the cadets’ new shooting range. A group of cadets—half of them male, half female—thought it would be amusing to hand this thirtysomething “ma’am” a virtual pistol that tracked each shot with a laser beam, certain that I’d dither, fumble with nerves, and virtually take out, say, an overhead light fixture. I didn’t. They offered an appreciative “oooooooh!” when I zapped the target on the very first try.
I don’t hunt. I barely ever shoot for sport. I don’t even own a gun. But whenever I had a gun in my hand, it made me feel competent, self-reliant, and, oddly, intelligent. As if I had the good sense to be willing to harness the power of deadly weaponry in case of emergency … in case I had to defend myself, in case I had to defend someone I loved. To me, guns are power, and I liked having it. With a gun in my hand, centuries of institutional sexism receded as the grip warmed to my touch. As someone who avoids conflict to the point where I won’t even clap back at a Twitter troll, with a gun in my hand, a different persona emerged. A confident, rock-solid self who said “Dare Me.” What a gun brought me that, so far, nothing else could, was the sense that I could, effectively and literally, take matters into my own hands. Who needs Jessica Jones–like superpowers when you’ve got this?
As a White, now-middle-class lady with feminist peacenik tendencies and an essentially manageable adulthood spent residing either in a heavily guarded military Mayberry or on a quiet street in hipster suburbia, I could be fascinated and impressed by guns because I no longer had meaningful occasion to fear them. Until he retired from active duty, my husband had an Army-issue pistol he refused to keep in the house, so I didn’t even know the strange moral reverb of having a firearm stashed in a happy home. Sure, guns seemed scary when I lived in crime-ridden neighborhoods in New York City or San Francisco, when I’d frequently be awakened at night by the toy-pistol-sounding pop-pop-pop of multiple shots fired, but the further away from that territory I moved, the more guns became, in a way, lifestyle fetish objects, totems from the distant Planet Badass.
When firearm aficionados, NRA members, and champions of the Second Amendment bristle and foam at the mere mention of increased gun control as a needed response to mass shootings, I understand their outrage, that feeling of threat that comes from potentially diminished autonomy and liberty. The Second Amendment is sacrosanct to them, and I get it. I know that the needle-pushed-into-the-red anger—which, alas, in far too many tweets, editorials, and Facebook posts shores up the “gun nut” stereotype—conveys a fear of power draining away, because, with gun in hand, I’ve felt that power so acutely myself. Once you have a way to stoke that surge, it’s hard to be without it. Especially if it’s being wrested from you, not surrendered willingly.
But here’s the thing: Even as someone who gets a primal “I’m empowered to watch over me and mine” pleasure zap from guns, I think it’s time to admit that the “power” that guns offer has become bullshit.
This year has been astonishingly brutal, and just this past week, there have been so many mass shootings and acts of gun violence in this country that I, like many people, am having trouble keeping them all straight. Robert Lewis Dear killed three people at a Planned Parenthood he shot up in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Fourteen were killed at a center for care of the disabled by a couple allegedly pledged to ISIS in San Bernardino, California. On the same day, a shooting in Savannah, Georgia, left one woman dead and three injured, and news of the crime was all but lost in the media who rushed to cover the scene in San Bernardino. Just last night, in a gruesome murder-suicide in Brooklyn, New York, a man shot and injured his ex-girlfriend and killed her boyfriend before turning the gun on himself—in front of his young children. According to ABC News, we now average one mass shooting per week in this country.
The response from the pro-gun populace has been “GUN OWNERSHIP: Now More Than Ever.” If these kooks are out there shooting up the country then, by all means, we should be suitably armed to protect ourselves from them, and others like them. (People like Nevada Assemblywoman Michele Fiore, e.g., whose holiday card this year features the entire family fully armed.) The pro-gun control side of the debate has called out the lack of logic in this position, citing the fact that the Second Amendment was written in a different time, for Americans living under very different conditions. Do you think the amendment was predicated upon the ability to foresee trips to Cabela’s to buy AR-15s? It is one of the very few issues in which I am inclined to empathize with both sides. (Even though just taking ten minutes to read a raft of internet comments on the subject is enough to cause a stress aneurysm.) Both sides feel passionately, so passionately, it seems, that everybody wants to see change, but nobody wants to listen. I cannot, at this juncture (as a politician would say!), imagine what détente will look like.
Before we even attempt rational discussion (if such a thing is possible. I’m not sure it is), we need to get clear on certain facts, some of which are actually, believe it or not, encouraging. For instance, as Andrew O’Hehir reports in Salon, gun-related deaths are actually at an historical low. He writes:
“Mass shootings—a special variety of gun violence, orchestrated for maximum media effect and maximum panic—barely existed before the 1970s, and have clearly increased both in absolute terms and in terms of cultural prominence. But overall, gun-related deaths in the U.S. have fallen by nearly one-third since hitting a postwar peak in 1993.
This is an inconvenient fact that doesn’t precisely suit anyone’s political agenda, and as a result almost no one believes it. It simply doesn’t feel true, because we are all locked into a narrative that things are always and invariably getting worse. I had to haul out FBI statistics to convince my older brother of this last Thanksgiving, and I had to do it again this year. I’m pretty sure he still thinks I’m making it all up. I spent part of Wednesday evening flinging numbers at some guy on Twitter who found this inconceivable, and suggested that the stats had been cooked in some widespread government cover-up. He and my brother are not alone. As a Pew Research study published in October reports, 56 percent of Americans polled in 2013 said they believed gun violence had increased over the last 20 years, while another 26 percent said it had remained about the same. Only 12 percent perceived, correctly, that gun crimes had declined.”
Still, we feel, as a country, that we’re under siege, and the response, as evinced by the boom in gun sales that follows a mass shooting (or two, or three)—the day after Thanksgiving, gun sales were brisk, and boomed after Wednesday’s massacre—shows that many Americans believe that being prepared to fight fire with fire will restore us to greater safety, or at least peace through deterrence. But I think we’re past that point now (and, on a practical level, if a shooter comes into your workplace/church/mall/movie theater, do you, realistically, have to skill or reflexes needed to take him or her or them down? Be honest. And on the matter of deterrence, given the mental makeup of someone intent on mass murder, do you really think they’ll scratch their plan because some of their intended targets may be packing?)
Although I understand the seductive, civic-minded appeal, we have to let go of the Good Guy (or Girl) with a Gun fantasy, and admit that there are larger entrenched cultural issues behind the upsurge in mass shootings—alienation, sexism, racism, xenophobia, corporate greed stripping people of jobs, security, and a sense of purpose. Even armed to the teeth, Americans will still suffer the grave repercussions of these core problems. And, alas, I feel that the attacks will only continue.
I don’t know what else to do, so this is what I implore of all Americans: Say what you will, and agitate accordingly, around guns and gun control, but be brave enough to look beyond them to the systemic problems that drive people to reach for them. I’m aware that a request is not a remedy, but for lack of a certain-to-succeed solution, this shot in the dark will have to suffice.
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