Stephen King wrote an essay about guns that he's selling for 99 cents. Here are my thoughts, completely free of charge!
A number of my libertarian friends have been posting stuff on Facebook suggesting that the term "assault weapon" is a purely political term that has no real meaning when discussing firearms. I am convinced by this argument. They suggest that any proposed regulation of "assault weapons" is a stalking horse for broader restrictions on gun ownership and perhaps even a ban on private ownership of semiautomatic weapons.
I certainly hope this is true, but I doubt it.
Although semiautomatic rifles show up in horrific massacres like the Sandy Hook Elementary School murder of teachers and children, far more people are killed by handguns in this country than by all other types of guns combined. Here's a handy pie chart to illustrate the point!
I live and teach in the city of Boston. Almost every one of my students has lost someone they cared about to a handgun murder. I have been to two funerals for such murders, and I know of three of my former students who have been killed by handguns. This despite the fact that Massachusetts has one of the lowest rates of firearm-related deaths in the country. I can only imagine what it's like in any of the cities with higher rates.
I can see that some folks might have need of a rifle or a shotgun--I certainly believe that there are some people in rural areas who need to hunt in order to eat, and I suppose ranchers might need rifles or shotguns to keep predators away from their herds. I imagine that all the well-regulated militias that gun owners belong to probably require some sort of rifle or something. (I actually don't know anything about these well-regulated militias, but since that phrase is part of the second amendment, I am sure that many freedom-loving Americans volunteer for duty in such militias and embrace serving their communities and conforming to regulations.)
But nobody needs a pistol.
I recently read Justin Cronin's article in the New York Times about his life as a liberal gun owner. It's nowhere near as good as Chuck Wendig's similar piece. It also illustrates why we'll have a very hard time getting rid of the guns that are killing us.
Because our stories are going to prevent it.
Stories are important. They affect the way we view the world. More, as it turns out, than rational thought. Cronin's piece is a great illustration of this. He owns pistols because freedom, of course, but also because he feels like he needs pistols in order to protect his family.
But I am my family’s last line of defense. I have chosen to meet this responsibility, in part, by being armed. It wasn’t a choice I made lightly. I am aware that, statistically speaking, a gun in the home represents a far greater danger to its inhabitants than to an intruder. But not every choice we make is data-driven. A lot comes from the gut.
In other words, Cronin knows that having a pistol in the house actually puts his family at greater risk of dying than not having a pistol in the house. But he's doing it anyway because he's got a story in his head about being some kind of lone holdout with a gun defending his helpless family from something. (The vampire apocalpyse in his bloated, overpraised novel?)
Cronin's big road-to-Damascus moment, the thing that convinces him he needs to own pistols, is literally this: he and his family were stuck in traffic on the road to Austin during a hurricane evacuation and they felt uncomfortable! They were afraid something might happen! And apparently, had they been armed, they would have felt safer knowing they could have engaged in an unpredictable shootout with their fellow citizens!
I had some examples to illustrate why having a pistol makes you less safe than not having a pistol,(Wendig's point about the Empire State Building shootings is the strongest) but, as Cronin's piece illustrates, such rational evidence is powerless in the face of the stories we tell each other and ourselves in this country. And these stories demand guns.
There is the story of resisting tyranny. This comes from our national mythology and the disgraceful way we teach our history. American history is typically taught as a series of triumphant wars, beginning with the American Revolution, when a hardy band of scrappy colonists kicked the ass of an empire! Good thing they had guns! (And the help of the French, who couldn't resist the opportunity to poke at their rivals and without whose help we'd still be living under the oppressive shackles of the British Commonwealth, like Canada and Australia. Ahem.)
Even when I was taking American History ten years after the US's defeat by Vietnam was sealed, our history was still taught this way. My kids are taking US history next year,and I'll bet the clusterfuck in Iraq won't affect how the story is told any more than the stalemate in Korea and defeat in Vietnam affected how it was taught to me.
So, as always, the truth is complicated and the myth is powerful, so we need guns to resist tyranny and rise up against an oppressive government if necessary. Never mind Waco and Ruby Ridge and every other example that shows the futility of trying to outshoot the state. Hell, even MOVE got firebombed, and they were only facing the Philadelphia PD.
Ah, but look at North Korea and other totalitarian states--the government is armed and the people are not! See where that leads? Tyranny!
Of course, the government is far better armed than the population in nearly every country in the world with the exception of failed states like Somalia. But the story of guns as a bulwark against tyranny is too powerful to fall before rational evidence.
We need a new story.
We have another story we tell, and this, I think, is the one Cronin and other pistol owners are responding to: the lone savior with a gun.
I think this one actually grows out of the idea that we stood alone against the British (and later that we singlehandedly saved the world during World War II). But you'll see it in Shane, in High Noon, in Die Hard, in Django Unchained, in the upcoming The Last Stand, and especially now in The Walking Dead and other tales of the zombie apocalypse.
When the shit hits the fan, these stories say, you'll be glad there was a man (always, always a man) there with a gun to make things right.
(Of course, Romero's movies always make the point that it's really people with guns that are the problem in the zombie apocalypse, but where's the fun in that? Left 4 Dead is way more appealing.)
I like a lot of these stories. I spent hours of my life playing Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2.
But wow, do we need some new ones.
There's one more story that affects this debate, and it's a particularly ugly one that I've addressed before. This one is a uniquely white people story: the black people are coming for your stuff.
I made the mistake of reading the comments in several articles after the murder of children and adults by a previously law-abiding gun owner at Sandy Hook Elementary. The idea that if people stop owning guns, criminals will prey on them was pretty prevalent, and often expressed in vaguely racist terms: "who's going to go to the hood and tell the gangstas to give up their guns?"was one comment I saw somewhere, sorry I don't know where but I'm sure it's not too hard to find this sentiment.
When white people say "criminals," they see black faces. This, I think, explains why the NRA gave up its "If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns" slogan. Because "outlaws" in the white imagination are white guys. And kind of cool ones at that. But "criminals"--well, those are black guys. (scary! ) And they've all got guns and they're coming for your stuff. (And your women too, but I'm depressed enough without unearthing this ugliest part of the white psyche.)
This is bullshit.
I live in the hood. (Egleston Square! Represent!) I do not own guns. The white folks who live in this neighborhood are overwhelmingly liberal and do not own guns. This neighborhood is not plagued by bands of armed black guys coming to kill whitey and take his stuff. The people who have guns in this neighborhood tend to shoot at other people who have guns. And of course innocent bystanders. And people who resemble people they have beef with. Guns have not made my neighborhood safer. Me owning a gun would not make my neighborhood safer.
You know what makes my neighborhood safer? Economic opportunity. Jobs.
(This leads us to another bullshit story about self-made success and equal opportunity, but let's keep the focus on guns.)
The only thing that will really make us safer is a more just society. Working together and looking out for each other are actually far more powerful forces for safety than guns.
Getting rid of the pistols would certainly be a step, but it's not going to happen. We simply don't have the will in this country to get rid of guns. And we won't until we can start telling and believing some new stories. So here are some potential steps.
Well, I'd love it if rappers could stop feeding white racism with this gun-toting gangsta bullshit. Here's a message for the white kids who buy this music: these guys are not "authentic." They are not "keepin' it real." They are bullshit artists enriching themselves by reinforcing racist mythology. Please explore some underground hip hop. They will keep shoveling this gangsta bullshit out there as long as white people keep buying it. (This is rap's dirty little secret: the market is driven by white consumers who far outnumber black ones. So it's not what's real that gets promoted: it's what white people will buy, thinking it's real).
Parents: let's try to demand better of our schools. When our kids come home with the same Triumph of American Progress of Freedom and Liberty crap for a US History textbook, let's talk to the teachers and the schools. Let's demand that US History be more than simply mythologizing a bunch of killing.
Here's a message for my fellow creative professionals: let's try to write some different kinds of stories. Sure, we still want to see stories of heroism and survival, but does it always have to be a man with a gun? Does it always have to involve standing alone?
There's a lot to mock about Tolkein--the sexism, the racism, the stupid names, Tom Bombadil and all the horrible singing--but damn if the guy didn't create a myth in which the fate of the world hinges on cooperation. In which, in fact, the world is saved not by carnage, but by an act of mercy. If anybody who had the opportunity to kill the repugnant Gollum had actually done it, then Sauron would have won.
I'm not calling for a bunch of namby-pamby stories in which everybody holds hands and sings kumbaya. Please, let's continue to have violence and horror and heroism and all that stuff.
But let's try to resist the seduction of the lone man with a gun story.
Let's tell some stories about the collapse of society in which something other than force triumphs.
Let's try to create some new mythologies.
The old ones are killing us.