Gun Culture and Gun Cult

Because serious literature invites readers into conversations that extend beyond the fictional framework, teachers have to be willing to walk on thin ice to help students engage uncomfortable ideas and situations with the full force of their imaginations. This includes talking about guns and how they and their owners are presented. Of the courses I teach, three – Appalachian Literature, The Western Novel and The Civil War in American Literature – involve narratives in which firearms figure heavily. The weapons are maintained, discussed, brandished and valued. They are used for hunting, self-defense, feud, crime and battle, and some characters earn approval by their facility with them. In short, the intellectual and emotional force of the narratives often depends upon gun violence.

To visualize scenes and project themselves with visceral immediacy, my students have to understand how various weapons operate, from the muzzle-loading Springfields in Cold Mountain to Colt revolvers in Hombre and bolt-action deer rifles in Chris Offutt’s Kentucky stories. These days I frequently find that my students have almost no real-life familiarity with guns, and though it’s comforting that they’re not would-be vigilantes eager to pack Glocks to class, I have to teach them to imagine in detail the use of guns in fiction without seeming to promote the American gun culture which has outlived the frontier era. It’s a challenging exercise, never a comfortable topic to broach, but questions concerning guns serve to remind us all that the worlds of fiction, history and our own daily lives overlap in serious ways. They’re also, sometimes, painfully personal questions for me, but I do believe that a discussion which contextualizes gun use historically, interrogates gun violence and those who commit it, while refusing to glamorize guns, can be illuminating and life-altering. For now, the classroom seems a viable forum to conduct our investigations, but I don’t know that it will remain so.

One brisk day in the early spring of 1968 my friend Felton and I were returning to the UNCC campus from fishing at a friend’s lake cabin. It had been a good outing, and our spirits were high. As we rode westward up the sloping street that led to the student union building, we spyed two male figures at the crest of the hill. The pair stood four or five feet apart, one man’s arm outstretched. He seemed to be pointing a finger at the other’s face, but we both recognized right away that something about their postures and spacing was seriously wrong. It may be that we guessed simultaneously that a pistol was involved. About fifty yards away from them, we entered a bend where large rocks briefly blocked our view.

As we rounded the rocks, we heard popping sounds – one or two – and when we could see them again, one man was no longer standing and the other was holding the gun to his own head. Another shot followed, and then the bodies were sprawled on the pavement. When we reached them, one was trembling, the other still, his arm outstretched, hand still clinging to a small caliber revolver. Their contorted, riven faces and the blood pooling around them, the shadow of a tree, the wind suddenly silent – it all formed an unforgettable tableau, almost something out of an allegory.
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