There is a story my father tells about his father. This was in Wyoming, on the ranch. They had spent the summer together, building a cabin at the mouth of a small canyon; one night sometime after this my grandfather was in that cabin and he heard a noise. He took a flashlight and a pistol, perhaps the .45 with his name engraved on it that my father now owns, and stepped outside. The sounds he had heard were those of a black bear, which had climbed up the pine tree that loomed overhead. Not enamored with having bears on the property, my grandfather put the flashlight on the bear and fired. The bear fell dead at his feet. My grandfather went back to bed.
We hear often in this country about “gun culture.” We see photographs of piles of guns harvested by the police and DEA in a raid on a drug smuggling operation on the border. We see guns on the hips of our police officers. We see people bringing guns to political rallies. We see photographs of soldiers with their guns slung over their shoulders, their tired eyes. I read in the paper that the large majority of guns purchased by residents of Washington D.C. after the court ordered suspension of that city’s handgun law have been purchased by affluent people in low crime neighborhoods. The article features the story of a retired Army general who has “two revolvers, two semiautomatic pistols and a Benelli 12-gauge ‘combat assault shotgun'” in his home. My brother and his wife, who live in suburban Denver, are taking safety courses so that they can be licensed to carry weapons. But have we asked ourselves often enough, what is a gun?
I grew up with guns in the house. I grew up shooting them. When we were perhaps ten, my best friend and I shot the school bus, from his porch, with his air rifle. We did not know what would happen. It made a gloriously, disastrously loud sound and we were caught. I can still hear that PING echoing up the road. I grew up shooting clay pigeons. For several summers I shot weekly with my father. We had a number of shotguns in the downstairs gun case. We had rifles from his deer and elk hunting days. We had a .38 revolver which he had bought, in case of river pirates, when he traveled up the Yangtze with his grandfather in 1963.
We also had a .22 target pistol that he’d grown up shooting on the ranch. It was with this pistol that I nearly put a hole in my foot. This was in high school, with the same friend with whom I’d shot the bus. We were at the informal shooting range (a sage-brush covered hillside) down valley from our town. His father had served in Vietnam, and we had, with our parents’ permission, his service .38 and my father’s target .22. We were practicing our action movie moves. This consisted of pretending we were cops, holding our guns at our side, standing next to an imaginary doorway. A few yards away were some targets. The idea was to do it like they did it in the movies: wheel around into the doorway, raise the pistol, squat into a dramatic firing position, and blow the holy hell out of the targets. Often hollering as you did. We knew all the safety rules, and followed them. We took turns, and made sure everyone was clear. As I went to raise the pistol during my turn, the weight of the gun against my finger depressed the trigger. I was still looking down, imagining the bad guy that I was going to blast, and I saw the little puff and quick crater as the bullet buried itself in the dirt two or three inches from my tennis shoe. That friend of mine is a lawyer in Denver. He has owned a 9mm handgun for his entire adult life.
We also, in my family, had stories. There was the bear in the tree. There was my crazy uncle, a Lieutenant Colonial in the Air Force, who loved guns and explosives. He had acquired what was always referred to as an “Elephant Gun” and demonstrated it to my father in Arizona, when they were young men, by annihilating a saguaro cactus with a single shot. We knew the story by heart. There was my grandmother’s second husband, a Navy pilot, somewhat drunk, quaking in his Guadalcanal foxhole with his .45. He felt entirely naked without his Corsair and that pistol would be the only thing between him and the Japanese if they decided to come over the line that night. There was my father as a boy on the ranch, seeing a man shoot the picture of a face, in profile, into a scrap of tin with a rifle. The man drew a picture with bullet holes, fired from distance. There was my mother’s grandfather, a coal miner in Carbon County, Utah, on the picket line with a shotgun against the scabs. There were more, story after story.
There were the movies. Bruce Willis in Die Hard, the pistol taped to his upper back in the last scene. Clint Eastwood in the triangular shootout in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. I first saw that movie as a kid in Florida, very late at night, because I had an ear infection and could not sleep. My mother stayed up with me, and we watched it together. The close-ups of the eyes, the beauty of the guns.
There was Charlie Sheen putting down Tom Berenger at the end of Platoon. The marines and their weaponry in Aliens. Schwarzenegger in Predator. Bronson in Death Wish. Eastwood in the Dirty Harry movies: Being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world… Lethal Weapon. Full Metal Jacket. Young Guns. Rambo. Uncommon Valor. Red Dawn. The list is endless. These were the movies of our childhood. We sat in the theater, waiting for the lights to go down. Whispering to each other the lines we already knew from the previews. Spending hours afterwards bantering with the lines we’d just seen. Yippy Ki Yay, Motherfucker.
And what is a gun? It is a handle or a stock. A trigger connected to a hammer. A chamber for the cartridge, or a ridge at the near end of the barrel for holding the cartridge in place. The barrel itself, for directing the bullet where you would like it to go.
There are the muskets which the Pilgrims carried, which have always looked to me, in the cartoons, something like long black trumpets.
There are the muskets used by the Colonists at Lexington and Concord. I can imagine those men still, the way they were described to me all through my youth: standing behind trees and stone walls, clever and plucky, potting the dumb Brits one after another as they marched forward in their senseless, old-fashioned formations.
There are the black powder muskets of the Mountain Men who ranged into the Rockies a century and a half before I grew up there. Every Fourth of July weekend of my youth I saw guns like these, demonstrated by Mountain Man re-enactors. They went off with huge concussions and great clouds of smoke. The men wore coonskin caps and threw hatchets into targets.
There are the Gatling Guns of the end of the last century. There are Capone’s Tommy Guns. There are the Big Guns of the battles of the First World War and the M16s of Vietnam. The Israeli Uzi, the notorious Glock, the cowboys’ Smith & Wesson, the Colt Dragoon. The Derringer and the Luger and the over-under, the four ten and the thirty ought six.
There are the soldiers’ muzzle loading guns that kept turning up on the field at Gettysburg for decades after the battle and which presented an enduring mystery: they had been loaded six, seven, eight times, the barrels jammed with bullets and wads. Inoperable. But why? It was a mystery, a frustration. These men were well trained. We know they were. At the reenactments of Civil War battles that flood the country every summer, no one ever pretends to load their gun without then pretending to fire it. What was the problem with those men at Gettysburg? We don’t hear about them loading multiple times. We hear about how many rounds they could fire into the face of an approaching enemy in sixty seconds, not about them stupidly loading two rounds in on top of each other. Not to mention five or eight rounds. But the guns kept turning up. More and more of them.
There are the shotguns you can hear like a song across the stubble fields of middle America during bird season. There are the rifles carried into the woods every year after deer, which have bred so madly on our continent that you could kill a hundred thousand of them a day over the course of a season and not make a dent. There are the rifles that were used to kill the wolves and bears, causing the deer population to explode. There are the pistols carried by homeowners, the pistols carried by target shooters and criminals, there are the AR-15s hanging on the pawnshop walls of Missoula, and the .9 mms beneath glass in the sporting goods stores in Tucson.
A gun is a myth. It is not a thing. It is a tissue, a connective fiber, soft, stretching, endlessly layered, filamented, tied to a thousand stories told to a thousand boys as they are growing up all across our country.
A gun is manhood. It is to the mythology of America what Prometheus’s fire was to the Greeks. The colonists, besieged on one side by savages and on the other by the injustice of empire. In our mythology, what do they have to protect themselves? They have their axes for the forest, their Bibles for the savages, their rectitude and yeoman independence for the empire. And they have their guns as their illuminating power, their guarantor, the tool closest to their hearts: the woodsman with their long guns venturing out to the forest for the game provided by the bountiful continent; the homesteads with their muskets leaning by the door as protection from all the looming threats outside; the militias that could not be defeated by the armies of the most powerful country in the world.
A gun is an invented thing. There was no quick draw. No steely-eyed gunman ever stood in the street at noon, facing down his own death. No one’s hand ever hovered over the butt of his pistol, waiting for that fateful word: Draw! A real gunfight was far more sordid. It was brass knuckles or switchblades from distance. Men had their guns drawn going in, they got killed while fumbling them out of their pockets, they shot each other in the back or the shoulder or the ass or anything else that happened to be turned. They shot windows and bystanders and themselves, in much the same way that I nearly did with my father’s .22.
The quick draw is a storytellers’ invention. A product of Hollywood, of pulp novelists. And yet a month ago my sister forwarded me a YouTube clip from a German television broadcast, showing an American claiming that he is the fastest draw who ever lived. The Germans love this man. He can draw and shot a balloon and put his gun back faster then you can believe. He has mastered an imaginary skill, brought it from the screen into the real world. But he does not think of it as imaginary. He dresses like a cowboy. He comes from Montana. He feels that at very least he is a re-enactor, and at most he is carrying on a deeply grounded piece of American history. And he is not wrong. He is enacting a myth. A ritual. A rite. It is a religious act, one of belief.
A gun is a national triumph. We do not show Johnny Get Your Gun unedited on television every year. We show Saving Private Ryan. The movie is Spielberg’s answer to decades of war movies trying to be anti-war. His answer to decades of anguish over Vietnam. I think of Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda, crying: We did not lose Vietnam! It was a tie!
In Spielberg’s film the gun is heroic. It is a tool of nobility. A necessary part of the triumph. It is the filmic equivalent of the imaginary “smart weapons” of our current wars. Necessary, articulate means used by professionals to keep the rest of us safe. But not mercenaries. Not strange men with odd accents that we use to do our dirty work for us. No. Our guns are wielded by farmboys from Iowa. Our triumph is that the gun does not take our decency. Tom Hanks is decent to the end, firing away with his pistol at the oncoming tank. From Valley Forge to D-Day we knew this to be true; this was the great tragedy that we believed we saw in Vietnam. This was the threat of that war, and the threat of the thought and literature and films that came out of it: could it be that the gun was not inextricably decent? Could Prometheus’s flame have a sickening side? Could our triumph have been dented? This is the niggling doubt that Spielberg felt called to answer in his movie.
A gun is our self-reliance. It is what let the Pioneer ride across the plain. When the redskins came, he could defend himself. He could defend his family. It is the myth of our self-reliance. The myth that it was technology and not disease that vanquished the Indian. The myth that the movement West was not in the main a communal enterprise, carried out by men and women in every way dependent on each other, on their social nets, on the very Indians they were displacing. It is the myth that the Pioneers moved on when some other Pioneer’s cooking smoke came visible on the horizon. Land’s getting too durn crowded for me.
The gun is the myth of our fearlessness. That bravery whose shadow side is fear: of the Indian, the empire, the drug dealer, the grizzly bear at the door. The gun is the creator of this myth, and its solution. The gun is its propagation. We arm ourselves to the teeth against the very progeny that our first myths of the gun engendered: the forest, the urban jungle, the savages that inhabit these places, the feeling that we are still Puritans faced with an impenetrable wall of leafy green horror out of which an arrow may come at any moment to land quivering in our chest. The retired general in D.C. does not feel safe without five guns in his house. He lives in a wealthy neighborhood, and has never, by his own admission, experienced any crime in it. In my brother’s neighborhood in Denver the houses are beautifully cared for. The laws are well manicured. The sidewalks and the cars are clean. There is nothing to distinguish one from the next and every one, including my brother’s, has a modern alarm system tied directly into the police department. And yet they are taking a handgun course for protection.
My father’s half-sister lives in rural Colorado. Her husband is a gun guy. He owns AR-15s, pistols and hunting guns. He feels as though one of the great dangers of his life is that the government will come for him, forcefully. He is a kind man, and a gentle one. A Vietnam veteran. He is not crazy. He simply has this fear. And he will tell you that he knows history; particularly, he knows the history of armed resistance against oppression in this country. He understands the role of guns in that history.
He lives not far from the site of the Ludlow Massacre, in which, in 1913, 19 striking miners, women and children were killed by the Colorado National Guard, doing their business with machine guns on the behalf of the coal companies.
A gun is a myth. We are a country with no foundational myths other than those we have made for ourselves. For people like those in my family, there is no particular ethnic heritage to speak of. We are not Irish or Italian. We go back long enough on the continent that it would feel silly to try to “rediscover” some kind of old world heritage. But the draw of establishing an identity, in any way we can, is strong. A friend of mine has done this: his parents are a hippy and a psychologist from Oklahoma who moved to Colorado in the early 1970’s. He has always been someone who needed a cause. For many years it was social justice. He became an educator, devoted his life to it. And then several years ago he went to Ireland. A full Irish-American renaissance has begun. He’s given one of his children an Irish name. He reads Irish poets. And I understand why: it is unbalancing to feel a void behind you, your past extending only a handful of years, a few generations, and beyond that a kind of emptiness. The English have a thousand years of history. The Chinese, five thousand.
And humans need myth. They need history, remembered and misremembered. They need to be able to look back and say: this happened, and it created us. This myth, this history, gave us our good qualities. We are not simply alone in the world, responsible for coming up with our own codes, from scratch. That kind of solitude would be unbearable. And so myth. We want to be able to ask how we should act, and to be able to look back and find answers there. We want to find encouragement. To find progress. We want to be better than we were; to believe that we are capable of improvement. To find strength, perseverance. To believe that once we were cold as hell and shivering, and then Prometheus gave us fire and now look at us, humming right along.
The myth of the gun is what entangles our endless debates about the Second Amendment and assault weapons bans. It is what makes Europeans think we must be crazy. But to threaten people’s guns, particularly in the West, is to threaten their mythic understanding of the world. It is to threaten the identity they have built up for themselves, for better or worse; it is to threaten the understanding given to them for their entire lives by popular culture; it is to threaten their national pride and their national history; it is to insult their idea that they, and everyone around them, everyone in their community, is a strong, capable individualist who can own a gun without running around shooting themselves in the foot like an idiot, or shooting each other.
My father finishes the story of his father killing the black bear in this way: Do you know how dangerous that is? Because if he misses, and that bear comes down out of the tree only injured, it’s going to maul him before he can get another shot off. But he didn’t miss. Killed it with one shot and went back in to bed.
It is a story about being a man. It is a part of the story my father has about his own father. A story about his own creation. We all have these stories. They are the implements with which we create our pasts, and thus ourselves. For my friend who has rediscovered his Irish roots, these creation implements are the poems of W.B. Yeats. Of Seamus Heaney. He looks back to something, even if he has never really known it, and says: that is connected to me. That meaning. That struggle.
To other people in our country the creation implements are the guns with which, in their view, this nation was carved out of that howling wilderness that still threatens to resurrect itself. The wilderness tested us, and the implement of our triumph was the gun. This struggle proved our worth and our nobility. It gave us our identity. Muzzle loaders and Minié Balls, the sharpshooters with their long guns at the Battle of New Orleans, the first elk they killed as a teenager, the entrance into manhood, the idea that if whatever horror out there on the street comes through the door, by god, we can defend ourselves against it.
To threaten my father’s guns, then, would be at the very least to ask him to give up one of the signal implements of his life. It would be to ask him to give up a central part of his own creation myth. It would be to ask him to make what was once possible, what was once a noble a way of defining yourself, of coming into your identity, impossible. And for someone like my father, the kicker is that you would be asking him to give this up, not because of anything he’s done, or any impoverishment that it has brought to his life; but because other people can’t handle themselves. You would be asking him to give up some aspect of his strength because other people cannot handle that strength.
We love to think of ourselves as a rational society. Applying economic analysis to non-economic subjects is all the vogue. Computer modeling is king. If you want to ensure your kids a good future, we are told, tell them to go into statistics. That’s where the action is at.
But myths are not, by definition, rational. The rationality of Zeus hurling thunderbolts or Jesus casting demons into pigs isn’t the point of those stories. Nor is it the point of the steely-eyed gunslinger in the street at high noon, of the Iowa farmboy marching forward with his M1 to defend his country. We might also add that the allure of Yeats is not rational in our contemporary sense. Nor is the allure of ethnic heritage or The Biggest Loser or any of the other thousands of narratives, major and minor, on which people base their beliefs.
The reason they found guns loaded many times on the battlefield at Gettysburg is that we have a biological aversion to killing other human beings. One would not know it from the way history gets written, but it is actually quite difficult to train a soldier to kill another soldier, particularly at close quarters. And doing so often carries a great psychological cost. Soldiers who have PTSD from killing in battle often report having waking dreams of the men they killed. Heads split open, the men they killed walk in to sit down with them at dinner. Bloody holes in their chest, they stand with the children around the Christmas tree. What the soldiers were doing at Gettysburg was loading their guns, raising them to their shoulders, and pretending. They could not bring themselves to fire, even at someone who was trying to kill them. But they could be executed for refusing to engage, so they pretended. They loaded their guns and raised them and pretended to fire and then took their guns down and loaded them again. In all the clamor created by the guns that actually were being fired, they believed they would not be noticed. Many of them did this. They did it again and again, until, presumably, they were shot themselves and dropped their guns, with wad after wad, load after load, bullet after bullet rammed down into the barrel.
The army had no idea this was happening. The army had no idea all the way through the Second World War, when studies seemed to show that only 15 to 20 percent of front line soldiers had fired their weapons at the enemy. Further research has raised this to perhaps 20 to 25 percent. Only one quarter of front line soldiers in that war and all the wars before it actually tried to kill. The rest did not engage. They shot over the heads of the enemy, they didn’t shoot at all. The myth, of course, was different.
And what did the U.S. Army do? It needed soldiers that would kill. We are, after all, a rational society. We have our wars and we need people to fight them. So the Army adjusted its training routines. It learned the most psychologically effective, scientific ways to train its soldiers. By the time of the Vietnam war, an estimated 98% percent of soldiers had been trained to fire their guns to kill.
As with the man doing his quick draw for the German camera crew, if the myth does not accord with the reality, then a reality must be created that accords with the myth.