“Gun Culture and Gun Cult,” an essay reprinted from Volume 62, Number 2 (2013) of SHENANDOAH

by R. T. Smith

1. Guns in Literary Studies

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, language and situations with the full force of their imaginations. This includes talking about guns and how they and their owners are presented in texts. 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, and I also teach a crime novel now and then, or Faulkner. 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 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. I’m no expert, and it’s a challenging exercise for many reasons, never a comfortable issue 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. With the availability of vast resources on the Internet, we can pursue our inquiry with no actual weapons in the classroom.

rifle2. ONE GUN

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 saw two male figures at the crest of the hill. The pair stood about four 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 we guessed simultaneously that a pistol was involved. Neither of us were strangers to guns, but we both registered a sense of alarm right away. We continued our progress in their direction, and 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 – two or three – and when we could see them again, one man was no longer standing, and the other was holding a 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 chiseled image from an allegory that 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 his friends in the cafeteria 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 marched Buddy up the hill, and just beyond our view had shot both Buddy and himself in the head. C. was already dead out there under the stark sky, but Buddy H. lived for several hours, unresponsive but sustained by medical technology till 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 coherent narrative of what we’d seen, and I had little to add, though I’ve been retelling myself the story in many different ways for almost half a century. It has various configurations and “what if’s,” diverse outcomes, and I’m not always just a witness, but no account is satisfying or cathartic or full. I see it as a parallel to Kurosawa’s Rashomon, but more compressed and vivid. No literary discussion about the limitations of violence have served to erase the little film loop in my mind, which comes unbidden, “triggered,” as we often, unthinkingly, say, by some subtle association.

As I sat before the TV news – coincidently in my old friend Felton’s comfortable den – over forty years later, the day after the Sandy Hook school shooting, I could feel my muscles growing increasingly tense as my teeth clenched and ground. Unsurprisingly, 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 before. The old images become 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 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 Smith & Wesson Chief Special. I’ve hunted and shot targets, plinked and killed rodents. I own a handgun for home defense, a .22 Henry target rifle my wife gave me as a birthday present and some unfunctional antique weapons, one a sawed-off and pitted Civil War Springfield. I’ve owned a Wingmaster shotgun, a Marlin thirty-aught-six with a scope and a couple of other rifles, which I sold 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 and others for personal protection. 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 aggressive rants, and I don’t expect he’d be drawn to Quentin Tarantino films, though he’s a fan of westerns. I’d call Felton a “gun buff” but also a cautious and prudent man. All this is to say that 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, especially considering the widespread absence of training and (thank God) combat experience. My friends who possess and use firearms, for the most part, agree.


I’ve met few, maybe no, 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 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 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 our 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, and when I teach books involving “gunplay” (a dangerous term), we discuss the students’ opinions of gun ownership and use.

To begin resisting the possibility that our country will become immersed in gun frenzy, 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 be trusted 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 openly. Will they find guns anyway? It’s likely some will, but it will be more difficult, expensive and downright inconvenient than walking into the local gun show with a pocketful of cash.

I have been to those shows, particularly at the old fairgrounds outside of Charlotte, and the atmosphere was at once festive and ominous. I used to love talking with enthusiasts about vintage weapons, both replicas and authentic survivors. I’d go with friends and engage in heated arguments about the relative virtues of Winchester and Henry lever-action rifles, about the limitations of the Ferguson breech-loader, while singing the praises of the Sharps and snickering at the Kragg-Jorgenson issued to American troops during the Spanish-American War. It was pleasing to pretend to know more than I did, and the damn things did feel good in my hands, as my peers had always suggested they should.  There was a carnival atmosphere buzzing among the booths, and almost nothing about the events encouraged rumination.

Beyond the kind of scrutiny I recommend above, I believe that weapons designed for battle conditions (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, though I now understand that many sportsmen prefer AR-15 style weapons for hunting, which is a mystery to me. I have no idea how to approach the millions of such weapons already in private hands, and I don’t believe any arguments more rational than financial will faze Wayne LePierre (who has reversed many of his own positions from a decade of so back) and those who control his purse strings and direct his rhetoric. However, 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 removed thousands of guns from circulation. Next proposal: high-volume magazines are not necessary for sport or self-defense in any actual situation I’ve ever heard cited (though everybody loves to speculate, “if only victim X had been carrying . . . ), and perhaps 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 courses; the on-line quickie “training courses” which are now legal should be abolished. Hands-on training by scrupulously licensed professionals should be mandatory, as gun ownership is a very different proposition from keeping a weed whacker.

We also have to concentrate on making schools secure environments, although I have no idea what would have prevented that killing at UNCC decades back. And though I’m certain that entryways and surveillance equipment need to be examined, reinforced, thoroughly scrutinized, I suspect that fully trained officers on campus (perhaps on an unannounced rotating basis) may be part of the solution in some high-risk locations, however difficult it is becoming to identify or define “high-risk.” 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 posse in Arizona (complete with their surprising and alarming rap sheets) now being trained by Steven Seagal (who claims to have “logged in “millions of hours” in weapons training) – worst idea 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 anticipate 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 or run across the perfect symbolic alarm to match his neurosis. That’s the group most likely to supply the next surprising assassin, unless the wars we have prosecuted abroad come home to nest. So far, with the exception of 9/11, Americans more than all other nationalities combined are the mass killers of Americans on American soil, and they’re often doing it with legally acquired weapons. No one can predict or prevent all scenarios, but raised levels of vigilance and constructing obstacles designed to identify potential felons will help. Potential gun accident victims and gun suicides, as well. How many children are killed by guns accidentally every year, and how would “a good guy with a gun” prevent these travesties?

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 factors central to our understanding of guns. Few want to talk about these aspects, but they are crucial.

First, it is thrilling to shoot a gun, even more thrilling to shoot something with that gun. Power, control, the 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 bottles pop and shatter, and I found satisfaction (and peer acceptance) from being able to bring down dove, squirrels, quail and an occasional whitetail. Family range visits, machine gun socials and hunting vacations are all a part of our culture, and mostly not because we need the meat or believe we’ll be called upon to defend ourselves, but because it’s “fun.” It pumps our adrenaline, and we are addicted to adrenaline. As I said: “thrilling.”

Violent video games (Is that a redundancy?) 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 Notre Dame 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 and brains no less stimulated by watching “their” team do well. I say “they,” but I’m not immune to that associative pleasure, and there are teams I root for, though it never seems to eclipse my other interests and needs. So far. But adrenaline can be a strong drug, and the physiology of vicarious satisfaction with all that chemistry running riot is above my pay grade, though I think I recognize it when I see it.

Pride of ownership is also an issue with guns and serves as a bridge to factor number two: beyond the thrill of their look and feel and impact (it’s even possible to fall for the noise making), guns are also symbols. Their compactness and sleek, efficient construction of wood and metal (or polymers, plastic), their necessary portability and their extension of our hands, our reach – these make guns the perfect fetish items, in both the psychological sense and the anthropological one. They become signatures of our identity, then sources of them, and few want to surrender their identities to any government agency.

This extension of our feelings for guns, the elevation of them to symbols far beyond the practical – beyond sport, self-defense, historical collection or anything our Founders could have foreseen – is what makes the issue so emotional, and until 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 can sit down 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,” there will be little progress. And we have to enter such negotiations with the understanding that, though few specific scenarios can be prevented with specific laws, restrictions, 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-in-from-my cold-dead-hands” zeal) will more and more thoroughly define our culture. [Just this once, I want to add an updating addendum: since I wrote this essay, the mantra that a bad guy with a gun can only be stopped by a good guy with a gun has become popular, and it does have a nice ring to it, suggesting that law-abiding citizens need only go about armed, and the “bad guys” will shiver and flinch and withdraw or fall like ninepins. Unfortunately, these bad guys who have accelerated the national conversation often have, as well as guns, body
armor, training, explosives, multiple large magazines, messianic motivations, even suicide belts. To meet this threat head-on, gun for gun and obsession for obsession, we must go far beyond the measures of even the Israelis (whose situation is different from ours) to prepare; we must become a nation of warriors. Who was it who wrote, “I was a soldier so that my son could be a farmer so that his son could be a poet”? If that ambition and its corollaries must become obsolete just so the patrons at gun shows can carry their armament into the shadows, we have lost the American dream and might as well drop the opening “O beautiful” from the beginning of that song.]


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 and locked but no longer 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 I’m still a little ambivalent about that; the feel of my cheek against the stock and finger inside the trigger guard is creepily comforting, if only because familiar. As the song says, “The thrill is gone,” but I 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 and situations 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 often claimed that, while Abe Lincoln had made men free, Samuel Colt had made them equal. Historically, their perspective is 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 that questions of whether a civilian should be allowed to own a weapon of war or buy one sub rosa at a weapons bazaar or carry it hidden into a sports bar, a church, a college anthropology classroom. We’re already seeing signs that the ice we stand on is cracking, and we have to tread softly if we’re to prevent our future from being very cold, our identity from being as single-minded as a cult grown from the remnants of a great and self-strangled culture.

recent-meR. T. Smith has edited Shenandoah since 1995 and serves as Writer-in-Residence at Washington & Lee. His forthcoming books are Doves in Flight: 13 Fictions and Summoning Shades: New Poems, both due in 2017.