The day after Thanksgiving my Texas niece invited me to join her and other family members at a shooting range north of St. Louis. She enjoys target shooting and had brought a .38, a .45 and a 9mm pistol with her when she drove up.
We spent a happy hour blasting away at targets shaped like those you see in pictures of police shooting ranges. I was pleased to see that while it had been perhaps three decades or more since I had shot a gun, my aim was still pretty good. Not as good as it had been and not as good as hers, but most of the holes were in a reasonably small circle and none missed the silhouette. On the whole a lot better than shown in the target on their website. I’d be handy to have around in an emergency requiring a guy who could hit what he shot at.
The range where we shot had strong safety rules. When your pistol was not in your hand and pointed towards a target, it had to be lying in plain view, demonstrably empty of bullets. The rules were impressive.
More importantly, I had fun. It felt good.
As everyone knows, shortly afterwards came the atrocities at Newtown, CN. Twenty six little children and women died at the hands of a crazed killer. A nationwide debate has since ensued over the role of guns in our society and President Obama has proposed a moderate set of reforms.
I grew up in gun culture and learned basic gun safety. As a kid I had NRA training, practiced at a shooting range in Wichita, Kansas, and learned how to take care of and clean a gun. I was also a kid, and one time, a time I will never forget, almost shot someone because I was going to scare them. I “knew” the owner would never have a bullet in the chamber, and so did not check. Thinking a tiny bit more maturely, I pointed the gun down to the floor and pulled the trigger. There is probably still a hole there.
Good teaching cannot make up for a lack of maturity or good sense.
And so even in my own case, the issue is complex. Yes I know safety rules, and practice them, but once I was immature enough that I almost made the mistake of a life time. Had I not known those rules I likely would have. On the other hand, had the gun not been there, carelessly loaded, knowing them or not, no harm would have happened. And there is no chance today of my committing a similar mistake.
Unlike cars, boats, swimming pools, or horses, all of which kill not inconsiderable numbers of people, guns are normally made for one purpose: to kill something. Their primary uses are hunting, self-defense, and offense. People who engage in target shooting likely tell themselves that if they get good at it, they can hunt and defend themselves more effectively.
And they will usually be correct.
Many years later, when I was in college, I ended up holding a .45 on a criminal for perhaps half an hour. It was in Denver, and a friend had asked me to help him out of a very tight spot. I did. No one got injured in this little escapade, but while it was happening I had a lot of time to think. Not all the insights I had were flattering. In fact most were not. And the one I could most easily act on was “If you didn’t have that gun you would not now find yourself in the situation you are.”
I decided I was not wise enough to be armed. I sold all my weapons.
That was a long time ago, and I’ve been in a few rough scrapes since, but none that would have been helped at all were I armed. Even when I was shot at. (The curious can read about it here.)
I write these autobiographical comments mostly to demonstrate I am not an idle bystander in this debate, and it is with this history of good and foolish, risky and happy events involving guns in my own life that I look at the present debate over weapons in the US.
It is illuminating.
To my mind one of the most illuminating things has been the effort by the ‘pro-gun’ crowd to avoid the issue at hand. Very few people support banning all guns. But most people participating from the other side argue as if that was the agenda. This widespread refusal to address the actual reasons behind the current outrage indicates something else is at stake.
One of the sources of pleasure in shooting a gun is the sense of power that comes with doing so. Power to make things happen when and where I want them to happen. In a world where we are mostly pretty powerless, this is exhilarating. I might be at the mercy of others in employment, live low on a hierarchy of income and influence, fear for my safety or the safety of loved ones, and worry about a future I cannot control, but with a gun I am not nothing. If things get really bad, I have the “great equalizer.” Meanwhile I can exercise power at the shooting range, while hunting, or simply in my fantasies.
I think a good analogy in some ways is our love of a powerful car capable of 140 mph or even more, even if we cannot drive it as fast as it can go. We have that power under our control, and in a sense, we can unleash it (at the likely cost of a speeding ticket) if we choose to.
Power is not bad. We all need it, and in my view most Americans do not have nearly enough within their own lives. Most power is not the power of violence or its threat. It simply involves being able to matter, to have a nontrivial influence on the events and situations of our lives.
Think about the person who feels powerless and unnoticed, or even humiliated within their community. The saying is it is better to be disliked than ignored. Eventually some do even self-destructive things to make sure they matter in the eyes of others, turning to power over others when frustrated by a lack of power within their own lives. This need can be met either by exercising that power, like mass killers, or the far milder version of acquiring power that might someday need to be exercised. Because this desire is rooted in our need for efficacy and not being able to exercise it, it is hard if not impossible to address the symptoms rationally and ignore the causes.
In recent online debates with the most intense of gun enthusiasts, I often encountered people parroting the NRA line there is no such thing as an assault weapon. This strange argument ignores the fact that such “non-existent” weapons were banned by law until the NRA urged the law not be renewed and they are livid with Obama for wanting again to ban such non-existent weapons. The irrationality is extraordinary.
After I pointed out that assault weapons were not necessary for hunting, self-defense, or target shooting, some eventually let the cat out of the bag, warning about government tyranny. Somehow they thought having an assault weapon would preserve them against drones, helicopters, and highly trained military units. They would be powerful. Or, as another finally put it, I would find out how important those weapons were when I and other members of the starving masses attacked his home for food during a time of collapse. It did not matter that this is not how people act in a collapse or disaster. What did matter was that finally, when the chips were really down, they would be revealed as men (usually men) of foresight, ability, and power. Take away the guns and you take away the fantasy and they have to confront today’s powerless without the existence of ameliorating fantasies.
These needless weapons gave them power over fear, although only from within the context of an even greater fear.
Fear arises from feeling powerless against a threat, and so leads to seeking power against that threat, real or imagined.
“White skin privilege”
Liberal critics might point out that white Americans, and most of the most intransigent defenders of assault weapons and big magazines are white, have the least to fear because of their “white skin privilege.” They are partly right and mostly wrong.
When your job is insecure, your income vulnerable, and others depend on you for support, while being able to provide that support is a central part of your feeling competent as a man, talk about skin color does not matter much. And this predicament is the concrete situation many face of all skin colors. Of course non-whites have suffered from this problem at least as long as whites, but there is another dimension to consider.
Southern slave culture was an extreme version of an attitude that ruling elites there have continued to promulgate: You might be low on the totem pole, but at least you are not Black. Other elites divide in different ways. You are not Mexican. Or Indian. Or Asian. And in the past Italian, Jewish, Irish, and Eastern European could have been placed here. Life is a hierarchy, and not always fair, but you, at least, are not at the bottom. Considerable comfort could be taken from the fact that your place in a hierarchy was secure, and not at the bottom. A White man can never be a Black man.
Further, in a society where the elite promoted the dream that with enough work anyone can be rich, many console themselves with the belief that someday they will be on top. Meanwhile they vicariously enjoy the fact that there is a top to be a part of.
Now many kinds of hierarchy are dissolving around them, most symbolically by our having a Black president. His policies consistently support the economic elite, but he as consistently undermines the consolation of many who see themselves as above the Blacks, the gays, the Mexicans, or other groups long despised or belittled, a change made all the more obvious because he is Black and they are White.
Despite our national bragging, income mobility in the US is now less than in Canada and many European countries. This statistic is a pretty good clue as to the declining real power Americans exercise over their futures compared to the stories we are led to believe. The result is a pervasive feeling of powerlessness. It is at its most virulent with those who once could console themselves that while they might not have much power now, they were not at the bottom. They are confronting the fact they are at or close to the bottom of the only hierarchy in America that matters any more: wealth. And they do not like it.
And so the fantasies of needing the “great equalizer” are perhaps stronger and more important now than ever before. It is more comfortable to fantasize being powerful in a time of collapse than deal with the fact that you are not much at all in the eyes of Power today.
Powerless Americans = Irrational Americans
There are fascinating studies that indicate people who find themselves powerless before events are prone to irrational interpretations of those events and their place within them. This fits the irrational reaction of the most intractable gun advocates who seem impervious to words and logic.
The sad irony is that in their reactions the gun culture of the right strengthens and helps perpetuate the forces that are making them genuinely powerless. The long term means for ameliorating and perhaps eventually triumphing over this deeply self-destructive attitude in American culture is removing fear as best we can and enlarging a dimension of personal efficacy in everyone’s life that does not depend on having more than someone else. Better health care for all, better access to good education for all, and means to strengthen people’s sense of power in their jobs all will help. But for these things to happen ironically we need to prevail over the opposition of many who will benefit disproportionately from their existence.