I saw this headline and story at the Guardian today: “Pandemic and protests spur Americans to buy guns at record pace.”
And it just made me sad. Sad because Americans see guns as a security blanket. Sad because guns are so expensive and also so easily misused. Sad because more guns is really not the answer to anything. Certainly not a pandemic.
Consider the sheer expense of guns. A decent revolver, ammunition, a cleaning kit, and a few hours at your local gun range will likely cost at least a grand ($1000) at a time when almost half of Americans can’t meet an unexpected expense of $400. Yet people find solace in a gun, a form of mental comfort, a sense of “I’m prepared.” For Covid-19? For peaceful protesters? For the Purge? Who knows?
It’s sad as well to recognize a gun in the home raises the risk of suicide by gun, and of course of accidental shootings. Too many people buy a gun without knowing much about them — and how important it is to keep them secure, especially from children.
Look: I’ve owned guns and have shot everything from pellet pistols and rifles to Dirty Harry’s famed Smith & Wesson .44 magnum. I can even cite Harry’s “Feel lucky, punk” line from memory. I’m not anti-gun, but I am anti-hysteria.
Too many Americans are looking down the barrel of a loaded pistol for answers — and that’s neither the wisest nor safest place to look. We need to strengthen our communities, not fortify our bunkers. Buying more guns only does the latter.
In The Matrix, Neo (played memorably by Keanu Reeves) saves Morpheus by breaking into a heavily fortified facility guarded by special agents. When asked what he’ll need to pull off this longshot rescue, Neo says, simply: “Guns — lots of guns.” It could serve as America’s new national motto. In God we trust? No — guns. And lots of them. Somewhere north of 300 million guns are currently in private hands, enough to arm each and every American, the tall and the small, with at least one firearm.
So it’s not surprising when Donald Trump references Second Amendment rights. (It seems the only amendment he knows.) He likes to assert these “rights” are in danger of being curtailed, but gun sales are still booming and there are no serious efforts at gun control.
As one of my friends whose barbed humor I enjoy put it: “There is only one amendment — the second amendment.” Mull that conundrum for a moment.
Back in World War II, America was known as the arsenal of democracy for all the weapons we supplied to allies like Britain and the Soviet Union. Now it’s just an arsenal.
The brutal truth is we’re stuck with all these guns. There is no political will to buy them back, even military-style assault weapons, and indeed what will there is centers on selling more of them. Back in 2017, several articles appeared noting how black women were buying guns in increasing numbers. Last week, NBC Washington ran a report on women of color becoming licensed gun owners in increasing numbers, partly as a response to police violence. “Peace of mind” is bought with a gun. Talk about racial and gender progress!
Speaking of the police, small wonder that America’s cops are edgy. When we talk about police violence, which is all-too-real and all-too-deadly, a factor we should consider is the reality that America is awash in guns, making every police call a potentially deadly one.
So, as much as Trump tweets about “LAW&ORDER,” what really rules America is money — the money to be made by selling lots of guns and ammo, as well as the cultural ammo you can always count on when hippy-dippy liberals like me start rattling rhetorical sabers about gun control.
The pen may be mightier than the sword, but an AR-15 trumps both in this man’s America.
I’ve owned guns myself and have shot everything from a pellet pistol to a .44 magnum, but I’ve defunded my modest gun collection, so to speak. I decided happiness is not a warm gun and that there are amendments other than the 2nd one.
For once you start shooting bullets, there’s no way to recall them. And, as far as I know, the only guy able to dodge bullets is Keanu Reeves as Neo.
A recent news item caught my eye: “Whiteman Air Force Base [in Missouri] to salute health care workers with flyover on Tuesday: Flyover will include B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber, four T-38 Talons and two A-10 Thunderbolt lls.” New York City had its own flyover by the aerial demonstration teams of the Navy and Air Force. “America Strong” was the theme of the latter.
Isn’t it curious that we celebrate our life-saving medical workers with flyovers by warplanes that are designed to take life? And, regarding the B-2 stealth bomber, a life-taker on a truly massive scale, since it’s designed for nuclear warfare.
Maybe there’s a weird form of (unintentional) honesty here. We use death-dealing machinery to celebrate life-preserving medical workers, highlighting a bizarre cult of death in America, one seemingly embraced and advanced by Donald Trump’s policies on Covid-19, among other policies working against the health and welfare of ordinary people.
As Tom Engelhardt notes in a new piece for TomDispatch.com, Trump is only America’s latest assassin-in-chief, but this time the killing is happening here in the homeland, rather than being exported to Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries across the globe. Speaking of violence coming home, together with homeland insecurity, is there any other country in the world in which gun sales have soared during this pandemic? From an article in The Guardian:
What can you say about mass shootings in America that hasn’t already been said? El Paso and Dayton (not Toledo, Mr. Trump) are the most recent in a seemingly unending series of shootings in America. A grim statistic:
“Dayton was the 22nd mass killing in America this year, according to an AP/USA Today/Northeastern University mass murder database, which tracks all attacks involving four or more people killed.”
Or, alternatively: “The shooting in Ohio marked the 31st deadly mass shooting in America this year, defined as those where at least three people are killed by gun violence in a single episode.”
The nonprofit organization, which is based in Washington, DC, defines a mass shooting as an event in which at least four people were shot. By its calculations, that means there have been some 292 mass shootings in the US since the year began.”
In a prepared statement this morning, President Trump came out against white supremacy, racism, and bigotry, but tragically this is a clear case of “Do what I say, not what I do” for Trump. He compounded his hypocrisy by ignoring the ready availability of assault weapons, blaming instead mental illness and violent video games, among other factors.
Firstly, the mentally ill are more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it. Secondly, violent video games are a global phenomenon, but I’m not reading about dozens of mass shootings each year in Japan or Korea or Sweden.
Trump’s weak-willed words were thoroughly predictable; he’s closely aligned with the National Rifle Association and its total fixation on gun rights to the exclusion of all others. He’s not alone in this. When I taught in rural Pennsylvania, my students knew all about the Second Amendment. But their knowledge of the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments was far weaker. Yes, for many Americans guns really do trump free speech, freedom of the press, and similar rights.
Predictably, Americans search for a magic bullet (pun intended) after these horrifying massacres to put a stop to them. How about better background checks? Eliminating extended magazines for the millions of assault rifles that are already in the hands of Americans? Better databases to track the mentally ill and the criminally violent? And so on. And we should have better background checks before you can buy a gun; we should stop selling military-style hardware; we should keep better track of dangerous people. But steps such as these will only stem the violence (if that). They won’t put an end to it.
Our culture is suffused with violence. At the same time, powerful forces are at play (stoked by our very own president) to divide us, to inflame our passions, to turn us against them, where “them” is some category of “other,” as with the El Paso shooter, who targeted immigrants “invading” America.
To stop mass shootings, we must change our culture of violence. This is made much more difficult by men like Trump, who’ve embraced violent rhetoric for their own selfish purposes. But we must change it nonetheless, else witness more carnage across America.
Note to readers: This is not the first time I’ve written about violence and guns in America. Here are links to a few articles on this subject at Bracing Views:
Doing some housecleaning of the mind, so to speak:
I recently read a book that argued the U.S. military loses its wars due to poor strategy and lack of understanding of “limited” war. It was a sophisticated book that cited the usual suspects in classical military theory, like Clausewitz. And it got me to thinking. I don’t think the U.S. loses wars because of poor military theory or improper applications thereof. And I don’t think the U.S. can win wars by better/smarter theory. Rather, the wars the U.S. has been fighting since Korea should never have been started or joined to begin with. Whether it’s Vietnam in the 1960s or Afghanistan and Iraq today, these are and never were “winnable” wars. Why? Because they were unnecessary to U.S. national security. And the only way to “win” such wars is to end them.
Unnecessary wars persist for many reasons. A big one is profit, as in Ike’s military-industrial complex. Perhaps as well these wars are sustained by a belief the U.S. military could win them if only the generals hit on the right strategy. But there is no smarter way to win dumb wars. You win them when you end them.
War criminals. There’s been talk lately of President Trump wanting to pardon war criminals and how this would jeopardize order and discipline within the U.S. military. But let’s leave aside low-level offenders (your sergeants and captains) and talk about high-ranking war criminals. Indeed, what about the men who chose to go to war under false pretenses in the first place? If you choose not to prosecute men like Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld, why pursue and prosecute the little guys?
I once read that the guilt for war crimes is greater the further you are from the crimes you effectively ordered. Adolf Eichmann didn’t dirty his own hands; he was a deskbound murderer. And perhaps that’s the worst kind.
Historically, we recognize the moral and legal culpability of high-ranking murderers like Eichmann. Should America’s top leaders be held responsible for the murderous results of wars that they launched?
Lady Liberty Locked and Loaded. The U.S. routinely brags of having the best military ever while leading the world in weapons sales while professing to be an exceptional bastion of liberty. And most Americans see no contradiction here. Simultaneously, men like Trump continue to vilify brown-skinned immigrants as bringing violence to America. Lady Liberty, in short, no longer lights her torch for the huddled masses. If we (or the French?) were making her today, she’d carry a .44 magnum (or an assault rifle?) in place of a torch. Do you feel lucky, immigrant punks?
Coincidence: A friend just sent me the Global Peace Index for the world’s 163 countries. The USA ranks #128. (Iceland is #1, followed by New Zealand at #2.) USA! USA! USA!
A friend of mine sent along a campaign ad for a woman running for Congress in Texas. Kim Olson is her name, and she has some good ideas. But the ad itself is telling for different reasons. A retired Air Force colonel, Olson appears in her military-issue flight jacket, complete with her rank, wings, and command patch, as she talks about being a “warrior.”
I have nothing against Colonel (retired) Olson. She’s gutsy and committed to public service. But enough of the “warrior” talk and enough with the military uniforms! You didn’t see Ike campaigning for president while wearing a jacket with five stars on it.
Readers of this blog may know that I taught at the Air Force Academy for six years. Impressive? Not according to the Secretary of the Air Force. In her words: “We are now boarding and recommending people for instructor duty and you’re not going to be able to do it unless you’re the best of the best. Historically, we didn’t value instructor duty. If you taught at Lackland or at the Air Force Academy or ROTC…that was kind of because you couldn’t get a better position and it was kind of a dead end. So now we’ve flipped that.”
I’ve changed my call sign to William “Dead End” Astore. It has a nice ring to it.
In all seriousness, the military has always favored doers over thinkers. Nowadays, you’re supposed to be a warrior, constantly doing…well…something. So we’ve been doing something, usually the same thing, repeatedly, in Iraq and Afghanistan, regardless of results. And history? Who cares? America’s military members barely know their own history, let alone the history of foreign peoples and cultures.
Incredibly, the military’s push for better education (defined as “intellectual overmatch,” I kid you not) is couched in terms of out-thinking the Russians and Chinese. In other words, we’re doomed.
As I put it to a friend, “The services need to develop senior officers with depth and breadth of vision, but the system is designed to produce narrow-minded true believers. It’s a little like trying to reform the Catholic church and its hierarchy of conservative, insular, cardinals and bishops.”
Or, as one of my Air Force friends put it, waxing satirically: “But you know, the problem really is that we don’t award enough ribbons, haven’t changed the uniform in a few years, and are allowing transgendered to serve while violating the rights of commanders by not allowing them to share [with subordinates] their [conservative Christian] faith.”
That’s enough random thoughts for this Thursday. What say you, readers?
Back in the 1970s, when I was in high school, smart aleck students used to joke about high school as “prison.” Nowadays, American schools have metal detectors, school police, even armed teachers. And let’s not forget reinforced doors and lockdown drills–just like real prisons! And all these guns and security devices and police presence is together touted as “the solution” to school violence.
I thought of this when I read this morning that Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where seventeen students were murdered last February, is adding metal detectors to protect students. (Not that metal detectors would have kept out the former student/shooter, Nikolas Cruz, who murdered all those teenagers in cold blood.) Perhaps the school is doing this to reassure parents; or to deter copy-cats; or to preempt possible lawsuits in case of future attacks. Or maybe they really believe that having 3,200 students pass through metal detectors each and every morning is the cost of being “safe.”
One thing is certain: We’re raising our young people with a lockdown mentality. We’re teaching them the best way to be safe is to submit passively to metal detectors and other forms of security screening. We’re indoctrinating them with the idea that a guard with a gun is the very best form of security, and that even their teachers, charged with educating them, may be packing heat in the classroom — to keep them safe, naturally. (These teachers may even be making a few extra bucks after completing gun training.)
Who says American students aren’t learning anything in our schools? They’re learning every day they pass through a metal detector, or see heavily armed police in school corridors, or their teachers toting firearms. Every day they have to submit to lockdown drills, they’re learning.
I don’t have a smart aleck observation here. Just a sad one: that old joke about school as prison isn’t even worth a teenager’s smirk anymore.
Walls and weapons and wars have come to define the USA in the 21st century. The most infamous wall is Donald Trump’s proposed extension of the border wall with Mexico. Weapons are everywhere, domestically with guns and mass shootings even as weapons sales overseas drive U.S. foreign policy. Wars are simply endless in places that most Americans would struggle to identify on maps. What percentage of Americans, for example, could identify Niger before the ambush that cost four Green Berets or Yemen before a Navy SEAL died there after Trump’s first military action (which he subsequently blamed on the generals)? Indeed, how many Americans could identify these countries now, even with U.S. troops having died there, ostensibly in the name of fighting terrorism and keeping America safe?
I’m both a baby boomer and a retired military officer. Looking back to the 20th century and in the context of the Cold War, when I thought of walls, images of Berlin came to mind, with desperate people risking life and limb to seek freedom in the West. A wall was a symbol of them – you know, the Evil Empire, the Soviets, the Stasi, the freedom-deniers. The USA, land of liberty, neither needed nor wanted walls. Weapons? Sure, we had plenty of those when I was young, and sold lots of them too to countries overseas, when we weren’t using them ourselves to pummel Southeast Asia and other regions. But military-style assault weapons for citizens were virtually unknown until the 1980s, and extensive weapons sales overseas had a purpose (at least in theory) of deterring communist expansion. Nowadays, weapons sales need have no purpose other than profit for those who make and sell them.
And wars? However evil the U.S. had acted during the Vietnam War, and indeed there’s much evil in policies that enjoin troops to “kill anything that moves,” as Nick Turse has documented in his book by that name, at least one thing can be said of that war: it ended, and America lost. Even the Cold War ended (or so we believed, until recent claims that Russia and China represent the threats of the future). Today, America’s wars never end. Retired generals like David Petraeus spout gibberish about the wisdom of a “sustainable sustained commitment” to the war in Afghanistan, with the Pentagon babbling on about “long” and “generational” campaigns, as if prolonging wars for less-than-vital causes is a sign of U.S. strength.
The point is this: Walls were not us. Weapons, however prevalent throughout U.S. history, were not treated as panaceas and sold as solutions to everything from classroom shootings to saving American jobs to boosting economic growth and cutting trade imbalances. Even America’s wars were not open-ended or openly described as “generational.” All of this is either new today or a twisted version of past policies and practices.
The Unmaking of American Idealism
As a teenager, I embraced American idealism. The bicentennial was coming in 1976, and I was the proud owner of a reproduction of the Declaration of Independence. It was on pseudo-parchment paper, a cheap copy for sure, but I treated it as if were precious because it was – and is. It’s precious for the ideals it represents, the enshrinement of self-evident truths like life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness, however imperfectly America upheld and advanced these in practice.
Maybe this is why I bought a roll of American flag stickers and stuck them on everything (including our kitchen door and our washing machine, which must have thrilled my parents). Back then, I thought I knew what America stood for, or at least what my country stood against. Despite all our sins, America was anti-wall, and even as we built and sold weapons and fought proxy wars in a contest with the Soviets, there was a sense America stood for freedom, or so I believed. Meanwhile, in the immediate aftermath of Vietnam, we were also not as eager to fight wars everywhere and without end.
But that was then, and this is now. Forget about the “Age of Aquarius,” a trippy song about peace and love that I remember singing when I was eight years old. Today in America, it’s the Age of Mars, the Age of Walls and Weapons and War.
Coming of age in the 1970s, I heard and read a lot about war. Vietnam had been a disaster, but there was always the example of World War II to set things right in my mind. I could read about American heroism at Wake Island and during the Battle of the Bulge; I could watch movies like “Patton” that glorified tough-talking U.S. generals; I could look to my uncle who won a bronze star fighting at Guadalcanal in the Pacific. I knew (or so I thought) that America stood for freedom and against tyranny.
But that ideal of freedom was always tinged by images of violent frontier justice, as depicted in popular culture. Memorable movies of my teen years included Clint Eastwood playing a rogue cop in “Dirty Harry,” Charles Bronson playing a shattered vigilante in “Death Wish,” and John Wayne playing tough cop roles in movies like “McQ” and “Brannigan.” These movies were clear about one thing: the rule of law wasn’t enough to keep us safe. Sometimes, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, which usually involved Clint or Chuck or John (and, later, Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo) dispensing justice with fists and from the barrels of various (big) guns.
Extreme violence as well as images of the lone gunfighter were and are features of American history and culture, of course. But these were counterbalanced in the 1960s and 1970s by peace anthems such as John Lennon’s “Imagine.” A less known song, one I sang as a kid, was “Billy don’t be a hero” (how could I resist: It had my name in it). In this song, young Billy wants to go off to war, but his fiancée discourages him. Predictably, Billy goes anyway, the words of his fiancée following him (Billy don’t be a hero/don’t be a fool with your life). Billy, after volunteering for a dangerous mission, dies a hero, the government sending a laudatory letter to his fiancée, who tearfully tosses it into the trash.
That song made an impression, though it didn’t stop me from joining the military. Why? Because I bought the narrative: the U.S. was fighting a war of survival against godless communism, showing patient resolve as we worked to contain a threat to freedom around the world.
That cold war ended more than 25 years ago, yet nevertheless the U.S. continues to build and sell more weapons than any other country; to support higher and higher military spending; and to wage more wars in more places than ever. Clinton or Bush, Obama or Trump, the war song remains the same. It all represents a narrowing of national horizons, a betrayal of American promise, one we’ll overcome only when we change course and reject walls and weapons and war.
Stopping Walls, Weapons, and Wars
There are two war parties in the U.S. today. We call them Republicans and Democrats. When it comes to fostering and feeding war, both are essentially the same. Both are slaves to the national security state, even if Democrats make a show of rattling their chains a bit more. Both define patriotism in militaristic terms and loyalty in terms of blanket support of, even reverence for, American military adventurism and interventionism. Political candidates who have rival ideas, such as Libertarian Gary Johnson (remember him?) or Green Party candidate Jill Stein, are not even allowed on the stage. Even when heard, they’re dismissed as jokes.
In 2016, for example, Johnson suggested cuts to military spending approaching 20%; Jill Stein suggested cuts as deep as 50%. Their proposals, however, were simply rejected as preposterous by the mainstream media. Even Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist, refused to propose serious cuts to military spending: if he had, he knew he’d be dismissed as either a weak-kneed appeaser or an unserious ignoramus. (Recall how Gary Johnson was depicted as clueless by the mainstream media because he couldn’t place Aleppo in Syria or instantly name a foreign leader he adored.)
Unmasked military authoritarianism is the new reality in U.S. government and society today, complete with a martial parade in Washington, D.C. come this November. This is no surprise. Recall how both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump boasted of how many generals and admirals supported them in their respective presidential campaigns, as if they couldn’t run for office unless they’d been anointed by men in military uniforms wearing stars.
And we dare call this a democracy?
Seeing the problem clearly is a way to begin to solve it. Want to restore American liberty? Stop building walls (and tearing children from parents). Stop buying and selling massive amounts of weaponry here and everywhere. And stop waging war across the globe. Americans used to know the chief result of divisive walls, proliferating weapons, and endless war is chaos everywhere and democracy nowhere. How did we come to forget this lesson?
If we take these simple yet profound steps, I could look again at my childhood copy of the Declaration of Independence with a renewed sense of hope.
Five years ago, I remember talking about lockdown drills (or “active shooter drills”) with colleagues at Penn College. Such drills were voluntary. Basically, the drill involved locking the classroom door, moving students to the back of the classroom, and having them hunker down, away from windows, while keeping silent so as to avoid detection by a shooter roaming the halls.
I was against these drills. I thought they added to the fear, and I chose not to do them. But maybe I would do them today.
After one shooting massacre (I can’t recall if it was Virginia Tech in 2007 or Sandy Hook in 2012), locks were added to the classroom doors. In theory, if I heard gunshots, I or one of my students could jump up and lock the door before a shooter got in. But what if a determined shooter shot the lock out?
What a world we Americans live in. Locked classrooms, lockdown drills for active shooters, and now the proposal to turn teachers into so many Harry Callahans (Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry) and our schools into “hardened” targets by arming teachers with pistols. Perhaps we should keep an AR-15 in each classroom (alongside the fire extinguisher), with a sign that reads, “In case of emergency, break glass – then lock and load.”
President Trump has argued that select teachers be armed – following the NRA’s theory that a good man with a gun is the best insurance against a bad man with a gun. It’s a crazy idea, but we live in a crazy country. Among the worst parts of Trump’s proposal was his stingy suggestion that armed and trained teachers might earn “a little bit” of a bonus. How generous of our brave commander-in-chief.
Think about that for a moment. There is an active shooter (or shooters) in a school, armed with military-style assault weapons and perhaps protected by body armor. Young people are running and screaming, bullets are flying, and in this bloody chaos, we place our faith in a teacher, perhaps armed with a 9mm pistol, thoroughly trained in shooting under combat conditions, willing to risk it all “for a little bit of a bonus.”
It’s a powerful fantasy: the cold bold Harry Callahan-like teacher, taking aim with his or her pistol and blowing away school intruders with perfect head shots. And that’s exactly what it is: a fantasy. As Belle Chesler, a teacher, put it at TomDispatch.com, “We are not warriors, we are teachers. We are not heroes, we are teachers.”
It’s one thing to shoot at paper targets on a gun range; it’s another thing entirely to fire accurately in combat when you’re outgunned and someone is firing back at you. What if, during the chaos of shooting, a teacher accidentally shoots a few students? So-called friendly fire incidents happen frequently in combat, despite the most careful troop training.
If you want more security guards in America’s schools, hire them. Don’t try to turn teachers into cheap cut-rate guards. Yet “a little bit of a bonus” for armed teachers is the best idea our stingy billionaire of a president can come up with.
As we saw in Parkland, Florida, even armed and trained deputies may hesitate before confronting a heavily-armed shooter. How is your average teacher going to react? At least we know Trump will rush in, heel spurs and all, whether he’s armed or unarmed, to save the day. Or so he says.
Most people, even when armed, will not rush toward the sound of gunfire. We tend instinctively to freeze, to take cover, or to run. It takes a combination of training, willpower, and courage to rush toward danger, often strengthened by teamwork and inspired by one or more leaders who set the example. The problem is not as simple as “give a teacher a gun, and he or she will blow the bad guy away.”
In a country awash in weapons, there are no easy answers. One model is to turn our schools into fortresses, complete with surveillance cameras and panic buttons and smoke ejectors in hallways, as in this “safe” school in Indiana. Trump’s model is to arm select teachers for a tiny bonus. Limited efforts at gun control, such as raising the age to purchase an assault rifle from 18 to 21, are like putting a Band-Aid on a sucking chest wound. One thing is certain: better law enforcement is crucial, e.g. there were many warnings about the Parkland shooter that were dismissed or ignored.
Again, there are no easy answers. And so Lockdown America is now our reality.
Update (3/9/18): In the wake of the Parkland shootings, Florida legislators have approved guns for teachers in the classroom, as well as more spending on school security. Assault weapons, however, are not to be banned. So the solution to bad men with guns is indeed good men with guns, according to Florida. The NRA wins again.
How long before a teacher, teacher’s aide, or coach with a gun accidentally or intentionally hurts a student with a gun? How long before the inevitable lawsuits result from this, the multi-million dollar settlements? Will school districts be required to carry expensive insurance against gun shootings by educators? Are taxpayers ready to pony up a lot more money to cover the costs of insurance premiums and lawsuits?
Yesterday, I saw a sticker on a pickup truck that read “God, Country, Guns.” To me, that sticker made as much sense as “God, Country, Hammers” or “God, Country, Bicycles.” A gun is just that: a tool, an object, like a hammer or a bicycle, only much more dangerous in the wrong hands.
But many Americans don’t look at guns as tools, as objects, as a deadly technology that requires great care and also strict regulations. They identify it with God and Country. They see it as representing certain values, such as freedom and liberty and individuality. For some men, guns are synonymous with masculinity. They are symbols of potency. Of agency. They are worthy of protection, indeed of a lifelong vow, ’til death do us part. Hence the catchphrase, “you can have my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.”
This sacralization of the gun, its elevation as a totem of strength and virility, its hugely symbolic presence in American life, is an important reason why gun control efforts largely fail, even in the aftermath of horrendous mass shootings. Reasoned and reasonable efforts to limit mass shootings, e.g. by banning military-style assault weapons, high-capacity clips, and bump stocks, are no match for people’s emotional — I daresay religious or spiritual — attachment to guns.
I’ve owned guns myself and have enjoyed firing everything from a pellet rifle to a .45-70 and from a .22 pistol to a .44 magnum. As a historian of technology, I appreciate the history of guns as well as their aesthetic beauty. (If you go to a gun show or hang around gun owners, you’ll often hear guns described as “beautiful.”) But my appreciation for guns doesn’t translate to an affection for them. And in the cause of greater public safety and a reduction in mass shootings, I’d like to see stricter regulations for certain guns and related accessories.
Again, here are three reasonable changes I’d like to see:
No military-style assault or high-caliber sniper rifles.
No high-capacity clips.
No bump stocks or other devices to increase rate of fire.
Yet, no matter how reasonable these changes seem to most, organizations like the National Rifle Association will oppose them,* as will those who associate guns with God and Country and freedom and similar values.
Growing up in the 1970s, I remember reading “Field and Stream” and “Outdoor Life” (and an occasional “American Rifleman” too). In the early ’80s, I wrote a paper on the history of hunting in America prior to the U.S. Civil War. Until fairly recently, gun owners focused mainly on hunting and personal protection, using weapons like bolt-action or lever-action rifles, shotguns, and revolvers. Rifles that I recall friends talking about or owning were .30-06 or .30-30. Nobody talked about owning an AR-15 or AK-47 or similar military-style assault rifles with “banana” (high-capacity) clips and bump stocks.
America, of course, is a land of extremes, and one example is today’s gun-rights crowd, which attacks all regulations or restrictions as an assault on their “rights” or “way of life” as articulated in the Second Amendment. But it didn’t use to be this way. Indeed, it wasn’t this way when I was a teenager. How did guns become so venerated, so cherished, so worshiped, in American culture? So much so that people ride around today with stickers equating gun ownership with God and Country?
As long as our society continues to worship the gun, the more likely it is that we’ll suffer more mass shootings — and indeed shootings in general.
*Yes, in the aftermath of the Vegas Massacre, it’s true the NRA said it wouldn’t oppose “additional regulations” on bump stocks. Note, however, that no ban is forthcoming from Congress. The NRA are a savvy bunch…
President Trump is hawking weapons in the Middle East. After concluding a deal with the Saudis for $110 billion in weaponry, he sought out the Emir of Qatar and said their discussions would focus on “the purchase of lots of beautiful military equipment.”
Trump’s reference to American weapons as “beautiful” echoed the recent words of Brian Williams at MSNBC, who characterized images from the Tomahawk missile attack on Syria as “beautiful,” not once but three times.
We can vilify Trump and Williams for seeing beauty in weapons that kill, but we must also recognize Americans love their technology of death. It’s one big reason why we have more than 300 million guns in America, enough to arm virtually every American, from cradle to grave.
Why do we place so much faith in weapons? Why do we love them so?
In military affairs, America is especially prone to putting its faith in weapons. The problem is that often weaponry is either less important than one thinks, or seductive in its promise. Think of U.S. aerial drones, for example. They’ve killed a lot of people without showing any decisiveness.
Technology is a rational and orderly endeavor, but war is irrational and chaotic. Countries develop technology for war, thinking they are adding order and predictability, when they are usually adding just another element of unpredictability while expanding death.
U.S. air power is a great example — death everywhere, but no decisiveness. Look at Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia). The U.S. obliterated vast areas with high explosive and napalm and Agent Orange, killing millions without winning the war. The technological image of America today is not stunning cars or clever consumer inventions but rather Predator and Reaper drones and giant bombs like MOAB.
Profligate expenditures on weapons and their export obviously feed America’s military-industrial complex. Such weapons are sold by our politicians as job-creators, but they’re really widow-makers and life-takers. Americans used to describe armament makers as “merchants of death,” until, that is, we became the number one producer and exporter of these armaments. Now they’re “beautiful” to our president and to our media mouthpieces.
We have a strange love affair with weapons that borders on a fetish. I’ve been to a few military re-enactments, in which well-intended re-enactors play at war. The guys I’ve talked to are often experts on the nuts and bolts of the military weaponry they carry, but of course the guns aren’t loaded. It’s all bloodless fun, a “war game,” if you will.
Nowadays real war is often much like a video game, at least to U.S. “pilots” sitting in trailers in Nevada. It’s not a game to an Afghan or Yemeni getting blown to bits by a Hellfire missile fired by a drone. For some reason, foreigners on the receiving end of U.S. weaponry don’t think of it as “beautiful.” Nor do we, when our weapons are turned against us.
Enough with the “beautiful” weapons, America. Let’s stick to the beauty of spacious skies and amber waves of grain.