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 spied 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 a tableau from an allegory I could spend a lifetime deciphering.

A woman was running toward the scene from the eastern slope of the road, but she was still thirty or forty yards away.  As Felton removed the gun from the shooter’s hand and tried to communicate with the survivor, I drove downhill to intercept the woman, whom I recognized, and took her to the nursing station, where I called the police and contacted the Dean of Students.

Within the hour, some pieces of the puzzle had fallen into place – a romantic triangle involving two students, both of whom we knew – Buddy H. and Cindy C., who was married to a non-student.  I knew only his last name.  There had been trouble before, and on that April afternoon the husband had come to campus to seek out Buddy, telling the student’s friends that the two just needed to talk.  I was never sure about the subsequent dialogue and choreography, but this much came to light: Cindy’s husband had brought the gun to campus, had forced Buddy up the hill, and just as we arrived had shot both Buddy and himself in the head.  C. was already dead out there under the stark blue sky, but Buddy H. lived for several hours, unresponsive but sustained by medical technology until the next morning.

Though I have tried to recount this incident dispassionately, even now it chills me to revisit the details.  If it sounds as though Felton and I acted with composure, I’m sure any deliberateness was born of a kind of shock, as I was far from calm once I returned to the scene and was interviewed as a witness.  Fortunately, Felton had already provided a full and fairly coherent narrative, and I had little to add, though I’ve been telling myself the story in many different ways for almost half a century.  It has various outcomes, and I’m not always just a witness, but no account is satisfying or cathartic.  No literary discussions about the limitations of violence have served to erase that little film loop in my mind, which often comes unbidden, “triggered,” as we say, by some subtle association.

As I sat before the TV news – coincidentally in my old friend Felton’s den –  the day after the Sandy Hook School shooting, I could feel my muscles growing increasingly tense as my teeth clenched and ground.  Unsurprisingly, the utterance of “gun” and “campus” in close proximity always gives me a twist in the gut, and it has never been possible to accept the UNCC incident as just another part of my education.  Watching the reporters and others hovering about the scene, I kept picturing that spring day decades ago.  The old images became increasingly vivid, and in the two months since Newtown, they have not subsided.

I have vivid recollections of hearing on the radio about the Columbine shootings and of seeing in my e-mail a campus alert during the slaughter at Virginia Tech just two hours away from where I teach.  Those are memories I’d just as soon forget, but because I’m a writer of stories and poems, as well as a teacher, I’ve long felt that I should organize my thoughts and emotions concerning America’s gun culture and lock them down in words.  It’s not easy, but as long as I teach courses with violent content, it’s not optional.

It’s not easy partly because I grew up with guns and learned to think about them and their uses in a rational, disciplined and nuanced way.  My father was in law enforcement throughout his working life and still carries a pistol.  I’ve hunted and shot targets, plinked and sent rodents back to their maker.  I own a handgun (with a six-shot cylinder) for home defense, a .22 caliber Henry target rifle (with a loading tube which, I think, hold about a dozen .22 longs) and some unfunctional antique weapons, one a Civil War-era Springfield.  I’ve owned a Wingmaster pump shotgun, a Marlin thirty-aught-six and a couple of other rifles but sold them when I decided to give up hunting as a pastime.  I’ve also worked in security and worn a pistol on my rounds.  My friend Felton has several guns which see frequent use in the field.  He’s a member of the NRA but a stickler for gun safety, and I have never even entertained the thought that he might be a danger to any innocent bystander.  I imagine he’d be troubled by Ted Nugent’s recent aggressive rants, and I don’t think he’d be drawn to Quentin Tarantino films.  I’d call Felton a “gun buff,” but also a cautious and prudent man.  The upshot of all this is that there’s a complex matrix of attitudes towards guns out there.  I’m a gun owner and a believer in second amendment privileges, but I have never believed that civilians need – for sport or personal safety – to own weapons of war.  My friends who own and use firearms, for the most part, agree.

I’ve met very few people who believe that guns appropriate for sporting or self-defense purposes should be outlawed (so that “only the outlaws will have guns”), or that the people who want all firearms forbidden form a significant national constituency, so that fear of the domino effect seems to me a transparent scare tactic.  Nor am I swayed by the argument that we should shrink from passing laws just because they will be difficult to enforce.  I do believe that we have entered a new era (though not so suddenly as we might imagine), and that we need to use all the logic and imagination we can muster to address the changing times.  When I look at the major reforms in gun laws that took place in Australia seventeen years ago, I’m encouraged, and when I see N.R.A. commercials, I wonder what percentage of Americans the N.R.A. actually represents.

To begin with, of course, we need to enforce the laws on the books.  Vigorously.  And to impose severe sentences on convicted violators.  We also need to think shrewdly and radically about how to keep guns and violent personalities away from each other, which will require universal and thorough background checks and should involve weapons safety tests and other measures in hopes of identifying at least some who are too unstable or dishonest to trust with guns.  And no, there are no foolproof procedures; violent people will find a way to arm themselves, but we sure don’t have to make it easy for them, and a serious, long-term consideration may begin to change the way we use guns and images of guns for entertainment and empowerment.  In the Commonwealth of Virginia over the past decade and a half background checks have kept thousands of unqualified people from buying guns.  Will they find guns anyway?  It’s likely some will, but it will be more difficult and more expensive than walking into the local gun show with a pocket full of cash.

Beyond that kind of scrutiny, I believe that weapons of war (including assault weapons) fall into the same category as machine guns and other firearms covered in the 1934 National Firearms Act, and that their sale should be forbidden.  I have no idea how to approach the millions of such weapons already in private hands, and I don’t believe any arguments will phase Wayne LaPierre (who has reversed his own position from a decade ago) and those who pay his salary and direct his rhetoric, but until this issue is addressed, we haven’t completely investigated the problem.  Again, Australia: under PM John Howard the government introduced a buy-back program that eliminated thousands of guns.  Next proposal: high-volume magazines are not necessary for sport or self-defense in any scenario that anyone has cited an actual example of.  Beyond that concealed carry permits should be issued only by law enforcement agencies after rigorous training of applicants, with the gun owners bearing the full expense of the instruction; the quickie internet “training courses” which are now legal should be abolished.  Hands-on training by carefully licensed professionals should be mandatory, as keeping a gun is very different from keeping a weed whacker.

We also have to concentrate on making schools secure environments, and though I’m certain that entryways and surveillance equipment need to be examined, reinforced, thoroughly scrutinized, I suspect that fully trained police officers on campus (perhaps on an unannounced, rotating basis) may be part of the solution in some high-risk locations . . . though I hope not.  As most law enforcement officers (a decisive majority of whom are for much stricter gun laws than we now have) agree, wide-scale arming of teachers is neither a practical solution nor a wise philosophical choice.  And the volunteer posses in Arizona (complete with their surprising rap sheets) now being trained by Steven Seagal (who says he has logged “millions of hours” in weapons training) — worst idea I’ve heard yet.

Certainly I believe we should create and maintain an assertive and effective mental health program designed to identify and treat problems which are violence-related and those which are not, but there’s no way to identify and prepare for someone living a life of quiet desperation who just hasn’t snapped yet or panicked because he heard an unfamiliar noise in his dark house.  That’s the group most likely to supply the next surprising assassin.  No one can predict or prevent all scenarios, but raised levels of vigilance and constructing obstacles designed to identify potential felons will help.

But even if a clear majority of Americans agreed with me on these points, it’s hard to find our way to wisdom in this matter due to two seldom-discussed factors central to our understanding of guns.  Few are eager to talk about these aspects, but they are crucial.

First, for a host of people, many of whom are not gun enthusiasts, it is thrilling to shoot a firearm, even more thrilling to shoot something with that gun.  Power, control, the magical extension of our hands, the magnification of our ability to throw something.  I used to love to see cans jump off the fence rail when I squeezed a trigger, to watch those RC bottles pop and shatter, and I found satisfaction (and peer acceptance) from being able to bring down dove, quail and an occasional whitetail.  Perhaps more surprising, family range visits, machine gun socials and hunting vacations are all a part of our culture, and not primarily because we need the meat or believe we’ll be called upon to defend ourselves, but because it’s “fun.”  It stimulates our hearts and and pumps our adrenaline, and we are addicted to adrenaline.  As I said, “thrilling.”

Violent video games and action movies bristling with mayhem and activating our appetite for fantasy are a part of that fun — imaginatively, vicariously, but vicarious satisfaction is visceral and emotional and often directs our actions.  Note the fervor of, say, Auburn or UCLA sports fans, many of whom have no “membership” status in the university community other than their decision to be fans.  Their “membership” is artificial, but their ardor no less for that, their bodies no less stimulated.

Pride of ownership is also an issue with guns and serves as the bridge to factor number two: beyond the thrill, guns are also symbols.  Their compactness and sleek, efficient construction of wood and metal, their necessary portability and their extension of our hands, our reach – these make guns the perfect fetish items, in both the psychological and anthropological senses.  They become signatures of our identity, then sources of them, and no one wants to think of surrendering his or her identity to any government agency.

This extension of our feelings for guns, the elevation of them to symbols beyond the practical – beyond sport or self-defense – is what makes the issue so emotional, and those who favor gun ownership with moderate restrictions and regulations and those who value their second amendment rights to the point that they eclipse other dimensions of our democracy must  sit down together and admit: “Yes, they’re exciting to shoot; yes, they’re useful as tools, and yes, some of them play the wild card role in our efforts to be safe and fair and free, the most successful experiment in the history of nation-making.” Not until that happens will we have progress.  And we have to enter such negotiations with the understanding that, though few specific scenarios can be prevented with restrictions and background checks, the atmosphere which fosters gun violence can be altered with a multi-faceted, honest and rigorous approach.  If we don’t find some middle ground, the cult of the gun (the thrill, the fun, the empowerment, Heston’s “not-till-they-pry-it-from-my-cold-dead-hands” zeal) will more and more thoroughly define our culture.

I confess that the events of the past few years have almost eliminated any notion that I would now find pleasure in shooting my guns, and the last few months have underscored that new perspective.  I keep them clean but don’t practice.  If there’s a varmint that needs relocation, I’ll abstain from the lethal and do the best I can with an air rifle, though still a little ambivalent about that.  As the song says, “The thrill is gone,” but I do still believe in responsible teaching of works in which gun violence features prominently.  For now, I won’t shy away from All Quiet on the Western Front or Lonesome Dove, Flags in the Dust or “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” but I think it’s important to begin such discussions by addressing the relation of weapons ownership and use to the context of the works, the societies dramatized on the page.  The Saxons had a saying: “Hope for the best, but don’t leave the house without your spear.”  In the late nineteenth century American West people said that, while Abe Lincoln had made all men free, Samuel Colt had made them equal.  Historically, their perspectives are understandable, but if these axioms must still govern us today, perhaps that means we’ve lost control of this democratic enterprise in matters far more fundamental than questions of whether or not a civilian should be allowed to own a weapon of war or buy one sub rosa at a gun show or carry a hidden revolver into a bar, a church, a college campus.  We’re already seeing signs that the ice we stand on is cracking, and we can’t stand still but must tread softly but decisively, if we’re to prevent our future from being very cold.


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