Like most Americans, I’ve been thinking a lot about guns these past few months, since Aurora and Sandy Hook. And like most Americans, I’ve come to a series of conclusions and convictions about the gun control debate; a position I find morally and ethically solid.
And I’ll tell you about it. But first I want to tell you about my own personal culture of violence. Maybe just to get it off my chest, but maybe also to explain why I feel the way I do.
The first time anybody pointed a gun at me, I was fourteen or fifteen, I guess. I lived with my mom and my stepdad in a trailer park a few miles outside of Hamilton, Montana. We were poor, then: poor enough we didn’t have a telephone, poor enough that our primary source of heat was a pot-bellied wood stove that sat on a porcelain riser in the middle of our trailer’s living room, for which I split endless cords of wood in the side yard with a hand-held hatchet. It was grueling, tiring work, and I avoided it when I could.
Mom and Dad were out that night, though I can’t remember where or why. What I do remember is the sharp, rattling banging on the door of our trailer — a door made of thin, crenellated sheet metal with cardboard inside.
I peeked through the narrow window of the door and saw, outside, a group of boys. I knew them all, knew they hated me in the way that small-town bullying assholes hate anybody weird or different. A couple of them hated my mother and I, because of a dispute with their mother.
There were, I think, four of them. Maybe five. And two of them held guns. I didn’t know anything about guns, but these were semi-automatic handguns, not revolvers. They were grinning at me like feral dogs.
One of them held his pistol up. “Come out, faggot,” he said. “Come out, bitch.” The others took up the chant — come out, motherfucker, come out, faggot — as they waited, patiently, for me to open the door.
I remember the fear so clearly: that hideous rising sensation in your upper chest and your throat, like somebody blew up a helium balloon inside you that’s trying to take off. I had no idea what to do. My parents were gone, we didn’t have a phone. I couldn’t call the cops, and even if I could, they were miles away, in town. Screaming wouldn’t help — in that trailer park, screams weren’t especially unusual. I was at a loss.
To this day, I still don’t know why I walked across the tiny living room of the trailer and picked up the wood-chopping hatchet. I took it back to the window, showed it to the boys through that thin strip of safety glass…and slammed it, as hard as I could, into the door, as if I was going to hack through it and go after them. I think I was screaming, at the top of my lungs. I remember baring my teeth at them, through the door, and if anybody was feral that night it might have been me.
“Alright,” I said. “Here I come.”
They looked confused, uneasy. Then they began to back away. They jumped in their car and drove away. I was left still standing behind the door, which now bore a bright shiny wound in its ugly brown facade. That’s how I know they use cardboard to fill out trailer doors, you see.
I caught hell when my parents came home. I couldn’t seem to make them understand my fear. All they knew was that I’d trashed the house. I don’t know if they believed my story or not.
Nor do I know, even now, if the guns those boys had were “real” guns or pellet guns…or if they actually would’ve shot or killed me. Maybe they just wanted to scare me. Maybe they would’ve stood around me in a circle and beaten me, as they did before and after that night, or just pistol-whipped me. I don’t know. But I do know that was the night I learned a secret that kept me alive and free of permanent physical (if not emotional or psychological) damage throughout my turbulent, violent adolescence.
If you can’t talk or fight your way out of a situation, go crazy. It’ll usually scare ’em so bad they run away.
Based on their rhetoric, I suspect that most gun advocates have the same fantasy running through their heads when they start talking about why they need a gun for home defense. It’s the one where they awake in the middle of the night from a deep slumber at a gentle, unexplained noise from downstairs — a door whispering open, perhaps, or a window sliding up.
They reach into their bedside drawer and pull out their Glock or Colt or whatever their weapon of choice is. They slide out of bed, Honey Bunny still blissfully unaware and sleeping by their side, and through the bedroom door and silently down the stairs, like Jason Bourne, until they reach the ground floor. They peer cautiously around the corner. There’s the perp, his hands deep into the wife’s jewelry case.
Hands up, they cry, or I’ll shoot!
And here’s where I think the public version and the private version of that fantasy — the version they’ll admit to, and the real one inside their head — diverge. In the public version, the perp puts his hands up, and Honey Bunny calls the cops while our suburban Jason Bourne keeps his piece carefully aimed at the center of the perp’s mass, and the day is saved by a careful and conscientious gun owner. And, of course, the Second Amendment, God bless it and keep it.
But I believe that, for many of these people, the private fantasy ends differently. It ends with the perp whirling, his own (illegally-obtained) gun in his hand, ready to kill. He’s fast…but our Constitution defender is faster, and before you can say “cold dead hands”, the perp’s brain is spattered all over the Thomas Kinkaide painting Honey Bunny got for Christmas two years ago. Another evildoer sent to Hell. No great loss.
I think that’s the real fantasy…because I’ve had it myself, a time or two. I’m pretty sure it’s damn common, this blood-spattered Walter Mitty alpha male daydream of the righteous kill. It’s kissing cousins with those other popular current reveries: If I’d Been In That Theater, I Woulda Put That Sonofabitch Down and, of course, If Those Teachers Had Had Guns, No Children Woulda Died In Connecticut That Day.
These phantasmagories are, perhaps, the real American Dream.
And dreams are all they are, of course. If you want a nightmare instead, you might try imagining a Colorado theater full of confused, angry people, bombarded by the sound and light show of a Batman movie cranked to full sensory disrupt hanging over them like an Old Testament spectacle, not to mention the screams and panicky jittering of all those folks around them, pulling their trusty handguns and attempting to make the righteous kill, to hit that one “perp”…who, of course, is only one of many people with guns in their hands. In the flashing, strobing darkness.
Christ, they’d still be hosing the ticketholders off the walls.
And that’s still not as bad as the nightmares that plague the sleep of those unfortunate, stupid souls who head downstairs in the small hours of the morning, ready to heroically defend their castle against the junkie or rapist who’s intruded into the sanctity of their home…only to find themselves staring at the son or daughter who decided that was the night to sneak out to go smoke cigarettes and drink cheap beer with their friends, lying on the linoleum, making a noise like a hooked fish as their lungs fill up with blood, thanks to the .357 round that’s suddenly turned their chest cavity into an object lesson in fluid dynamics and entropy. In those nightmares, our Jason Bourne is kneeling next to their dying child, shouting Baby? Oh my God baby I’m so sorry somebody call 911!as their offspring bleeds out and becomes nothing more than a carefully-dusted photograph on the mantelpiece.
Over and over again. Forever.
I know about fear. I know about the terror of the sound in the night, the monster in human form showing up at your door with a weapon of personal destruction. I’m almost thirty-five years old and I still automatically look for the nearest exit in any room I enter. I still walk down the street with a mental model in my head of every pedestrian who is nearby, where the dark corners are that an attacker might spring from. When I hear a car engine suddenly rev up nearby, I automatically tense up, just in case it’s the same sonsofbitches who roared past me in their big fruity Chevy pickup that soft spring night when I was sixteen and pegged me in the back of the head with an unopened can of Rolling Rock, knocking me semi-unconscious into a ditch, where I lay until I came to my senses.
And I understand rage. I understand righteous indignation, wanting to bring the holy fire down on the heads of the cruel and the evil and the stupid. I understand the unspoken hope that some stupid bastard is dumb enough to actually break into your house…because then, as Rorschach says in Watchmen, you’re not trapped in there with them; now, they’re trapped in there with you. I understand wanting a reason to hurt the ones you’re afraid of.
One day, this kid Nick tells me he and his friends are going to beat the shit out of me before school the next morning. I don’t mean the kind of ass-beating you see in movies about how high school sucks: I’m talking about an American History X-style stomping, the kind where somebody can end up in the hospital, or dead. (The kind that a similar set of ignorant trash gave my acquaintance Matthew Shepherd a couple of years after he got out of high school, in fact.) I had no reason to doubt him. He wasn’t the first to make such a threat, or carry it out. I had my nose broken for the first time a few months before those boys showed up at my door; a few months later, another similar set of boys kicked me until they broke a rib.
So I went home that night, and I looked through my library, this being before Internet access was especially common, until I found a book that gave a description of how to make napalm out of Ivory soap and gasoline. I decided this was my only answer. My parents didn’t seem to much give a shit, and most of the authority figures in my life seemed to despise me as much as the other kids did. So I was going to light this motherfucker Nick up like the goddamn Tet Offensive.
Thank God I didn’t have access to a double boiler, or gasoline, for that matter. Instead, I mixed a bunch of isopropyl alcohol into liquid dish soap, poured it into a Tupperware container, and shoved it in my backpack. I couldn’t find a lid for the Tupperware, so I wrapped it in Saran Wrap.
The next morning, I got to school a half-hour early with my package of death, and decided to pour a little of it on the sidewalk and test it — kind of a trial run. And of course, it did nothing at all — the alcohol had either evaporated out of the container, or my mixture was wrong. Not that it would’ve done much in either case anyway.
My one moment of Columbine-style mayhem was over before it began. Instead, when Nick showed up, he called me a faggot and punched me hard in the face once, and I fell over and cried like a sissy, and everybody laughed, and he went on his way, his adolescent ego maintained and my own kicked down another flight of stairs.
It terrifies me, in retrospect, to think what would’ve happened if I hadn’t been such a retard — if I’d melted Nick’s face off his skull. He was a brutish, vicious little asshole, but he didn’t deserve that. Nothing righteous about that little bit of wetwork.
But it doesn’t terrify me nearly as much as the thought of what would’ve happened if my dad had owned a gun.
Two of my friends, those first couple of years of high school, got their hands on a gun. Both of them used those guns on themselves, though from all accounts they might’ve done better to start with other members of their households. But they didn’t. Both of them went out into the Montana wilderness and put those guns in their mouths, and ended everything they might ever have been. The second one, my friend Sarah, went into the woods in November; they didn’t find her until the snow began to thaw in February, and by then there wasn’t enough left to fill a bucket. Her casket was closed at the funeral.
And I might’ve joined them, in my misery and terror, if there hadn’t always been a little titanium core of self-preservation at the center of my wobbling teenage self. Or I might’ve showed up in my high school one day with the intention of, as Stephen King once put it, “getting it on”.
When Columbine happened I was twenty-one years old, still young enough that those wounds were still bleeding…and my first thought, when I heard what Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold did, was empathy; not with the murdered, but the murderers. I knew — or thought I knew — how it came to that, how the hurt and the hate builds up. I remember that high school feels like a life stretch in a big house where the guards don’t pay attention and the other prisoners all want to fuck you up until you go crazy. I got it.
I was wrong, of course. Klebold and Harris weren’t purveyors of the righteous kill, either, any more than I would’ve been with my little Fauxlatov cocktail. They were victims, but as the main character in my favorite high school movie said: aren’t we all? They were just animals, as dumb and mean as the animals who wounded them. Animals, the way James Holmes is and Adam Lanza was an animal.
But unlike real animals, they had their guns. Lots and lots of guns.
America does have a culture of violence, make no mistake about it. But that culture is not embodied in violent video games and movies and comic books, or any of the other culprits that gun advocates like to trot out whenever some waterhead goes over the high side and starts mass murdering people.
The violence in America is embedded at the very heart of our culture, in those core values that nationalistic jerkoffs love to trot out at every opportunity: our rugged individualism, our can-do spirit, our supposed toughness. (I say “supposed” because it’s hard to regard people as tough when they’re so terrified of every shadow that they feel the need to carry military-grade munitions to protect themselves. That, speaking for myself, is the definition of craven and chickenshit. But I digress.) America’s motto might as well be Fuck You, I Got Mine. America isn’t about intellectual freedom, it’s about property rights and the ability to defend the same from anyone who encroaches upon them. What’s mine is mine, and if you try to take it, I’ll kill you: that‘s the American way.
That’s where our love of guns comes from. Guns are a marvelous tool for defending our property from those who might like to take or damage it. It’s hard to imagine that conservative Second Amendment advocates really give much of a shit about totalitarian encroachment upon freedom; after all, they’re the ones who cheer the War on Drugs and the War on Terror, who have nothing to say as our lawmakers sidestep not only the letter but the spirit of the Constitution and allow indefinite detainment without trial and assassination of American citizens. Their fear is not about the erosion of basic human freedom; they don’t care about free speech, due process. They care about anything that threatens their right to own the things they own and to keep them, without question. That’s why those self-same defenders of the Constitution mostly stood by idly while George W. Bush used 9/11 as an excuse to wipe his ass with that sainted document…but squawk like ugly, hysterical hens when Barack Obama tries to figure out ways to ensure that all Americans have access to basic healthcare. Because that’s taking money out of their pockets, and putting it into the pockets of all those freeloading immigrants, yadda yadda yadda. And money trumps freedom, every time.
The problem is not that Americans have guns. The problem is that Americans, by and large, cannot be trusted with guns: not to carry, and maybe not to own.
There’s another fantasy that the NRA and their groupies like to trot out: the Law-Abiding Gun Owner. These people are the last line of defense against the Bad Guys, in this line of thinking — a different breed, one feels. But that’s bullshit. James Holmes was a law-abiding gun owner right up until he walked into that theater in Colorado. Adam Lanza’s mom was a law-abiding gun owner, but that didn’t stop her psychotic son from taking her guns, killing her with them, and then playing Call Of Duty in the local elementary school. Everyone’s a Law-Abiding Gun Owner, right until they become a Bad Guy. And it’s nearly impossible to tell who’s going to take off their white hat and put on the black one, or when. In the wake of Aurora and Sandy Hook, a lot of people called for better mental health access in America; and while that’s fine, and I agree with them, the reality is that people like Holmes and Lanza don’t go looking for help very often, because as far as they’re concerned, they don’t need help. They’re the heroes in their own stories; it’s everyone else that’s insane and malign. It’s everyone else who needs to be dealt with.
But those are crazy people, goes the response. Evil people. Not good people. Maybe, but you know what? Difficult as it might be to institute a moratorium on the public and private sale of assault weapons, it’s still a helluva lot easier to implement than a moratorium on crazy, or evil, or just being a stupid thoughtless tiny-dicked jerk-off who carries a piece because it makes you feel like more of a man.
You can’t ban crazy. But you can make it harder for crazy to go crazy in such a very wholesale way.
Also, let’s clear something up right now: the Constitution of the United States does not confer upon you, the American citizen, the right to own a semi-automatic weapon. It says this, and only this:
A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
If you define “arm” as a synonym for “weapon” with no qualification, well, homie, sorry to disappoint you, but that particular right was infringed upon a long goddamn time ago. If you don’t believe me, walk down Main Street of your town with a broadsword strapped to your back. Unlike a pistol, you can’t get a permit to carry a sword, concealed or otherwise. (This despite a fairly conspicuous lack of mass decapitations, or innocent children getting killed accidentally during a slash-by.) Your right to keep and bear that particular sort of arm was infringed upon, in most American jurisdictions, in the nineteenth century.
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s nuclear bombs. A nuclear bomb is an “arm”, by anyone’s definition, and frankly, if your concern is a sinister (i.e. liberal) government instituting a totalitarian overthrow of the country, I’m pretty sure a nuke is a better deterrent against the unholy might of the United States military than your trusty Colt .45. But even the most rabid NRA activist wouldn’t argue that you ought to be able to own a nuke, or mount an antitank missile launcher on the roof of your pickup truck. Hell, very few people would say that it’s reasonable for you to be able to carry a grenade launcher or a Vulcan minigun…and yet these are, by definition, “arms”.
So we all agree there are some weapons that nobody needs to have. Why not put assault weapons in that category? They’re useless for home defense, unless you’re getting home invaded by the fucking Predator. Ditto game hunting, unless you just really want to skip the whole pesky step of turning your elk meat into jerky. It’s really fun to go and shoot them at a range, but so what? It’s fun to go fishing with dynamite, too. The fun factor is outweighed by the risk to society at large.
And I’m going to say this right now: if you can’t adequately defend your home with a shotgun or a low-capacity handgun, if you seriously believe need an AK-47 with a 30-round clip, you’re a stupid, dangerous asshole, period, and I’ll be happy to tell you that to your face. I hope you don’t have kids, partially because they’ll be in your line of fire, and partially because I simply hope you’re not in the breeding pool. Let’s leave the continuation of our species to people worthy of that task, okay?
Me? I keep a machete leaning against the wall next to my bed, as my absolute last line of home defense. My first line, mind you, is the set of bars on my windows and doors, which are far more effective than any gun could ever be. My second line of defense is that ‘Emergency Call’ button on my cell phone.
As much as I enjoy my own little preemptory revenge fantasies where I’m Liam Neeson in Taken, with that much-vaunted “particular set of skills”, the reality is that I don’t actually want to kill anybody, not even some idiot who’s desperate enough to try and break into my house to take what I have.
I’ll tell you one more story, before I’m done.
Back in Hamilton, back in the day, there used to be a little rec center, in a big cavernous building that used to be a supermarket. I have no idea if it’s still there or not; I’ve never returned to that place since I left, and I’m grateful for that fact. But when I was in high school it was there, and we used to go down there and dance to the grunge music that was popular in those dim dead days, and stand outside smoking and drinking filched booze mixed heavily with soda and trying to look cool.
One night, in some fit of melodramatic teenage angst, I wandered away from the rec center and out past the lights of the parking lot, into the empty field next door. There was probably a girl, or the lack of one, involved. You know how it is.
I was too busy brooding to pay attention, until I heard the rustling of feet in the grass. I looked up and saw them: another group of boys (and one big hulking slab of a girl, not coincidentally the sister of one of the boys who’d shown up at my door that night with guns). They’d seen me drifting away; they followed me.
The leader was this kid named Sam, as I remember. He wasn’t big, but he was mean and stupid, in that sort of snarling juvenile delinquent kind of way. At the end of that school year, when he was seventeen or eighteen, he dropped out to go drive big rigs with his old man, full-time, and I never saw him again. But he was there that night, grinning at me. I don’t remember exactly why he hated me. Did I smart off to him? Make him feel stupid, as payback for him making me feel terrified?
Does it even matter?
They surrounded me. There was the usual talk. Hey, faggot. You think you’re funny now, faggot, you fuckin queer cocksucking fucking bitch? For a man who’s never touched another man’s penis in my life, I’ve gotten gay-bashed more times than I’d care to count. I don’t know if they actually thought I was gay, but again: does it even matter?
Then they started spitting. All of them. Big, gooey loogies, on my face, my neck, the back of my head, my clothes. Laughing as they did. All of them but Sam. He just stood there, two feet away from me, grinning his sick grin.
Whatcha gonna do, faggot? You wanna go? Come on, faggot.
And I had a moment of absolute clarity. Everything went cold and clear. This was years before The Matrix, but my world went into bullet time.
I saw that I could reach up, grab Sam by either side of his head, and break his neck. I could do it before he could react, before any of them could react. I knew I had the physical strength to do it: I had already nearly reached my full height of six foot three then, and I could pick up a washing machine from a dead lift and put it on the back of a pickup truck. I was bullied not because I was weak, but because I was slow, and couldn’t really fight very well.
But I didn’t need to fight Sam. I could just put my hands out and kill him, in an instant.
I could feel my hands twitching, eager to end all of this in that one instant.
You probably think I was wrong, or that I was fantasizing. But I’ve thought about this a lot over the last twenty years, and I remain as convinced now as I was that night that I was absolutely correct in my assessment of the situation. At that moment, though I was the one surrounded by jeering enemies, their phlegm dripping off my nose, I owned Sam’s life. It was mine to end, if I wanted.
My hands went up…and then down again. I didn’t kill Sam. I just stood there, trembling with fury and fear and misery, my tears mingling with the spit on my face. I don’t remember how it ended. I think maybe one of my friends happened to see what was happening and came up, shouting at them to leave me alone. Maybe Sam belted me one, or knocked me down, or just called me a faggot again and walked away. I have no memory of that.
Just Sam’s face. Just his grin in the dark of that field, and the knowledge that I had the power of life and death in my crude boy’s hands.
“It’s a helluva thing, killin’ a man,” says Clint Eastwood in the sublime Western film Unforgiven. “Take away all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have.” I don’t think most Americans really understand that. We don’t understand that there’s no such thing as a righteous kill, not really: just murder, and you’re on one side of it or the other. We love our guns because we don’t really understand what they do. They don’t solve the problem. They just make new ones.
Did Nick, he of the napalm science experiment, deserve to die? Did Sam? Of course not. They were vicious boys, and I still cannot bring myself to forgive them or wish them well, though I am satisfied with the knowledge that both of them probably ended up with precisely the sort of lives they deserved. But they didn’t deserve death.
Nor did I deserve to kill them. Even if I’d been justified in doing it, even if I’d somehow managed to avoid prison or long-term confinement in a mental hospital, I still would have had to live with the ache and knowledge of what I’d done for the rest of my life. The fear and the horror they and all the others like them inflicted upon me, for all the years I was forcibly detained in the Guantanamo Bay we laughingly refer to as the American educational system, is nothing compared to that.
At the heart of America’s rage is fear, as it was at the heart of mine. We have our guns because we’re afraid of being hurt, of losing what we have — our lives, our loved ones, the things we’ve accumulated that form the mosaic of our lives. And like all frightened things, we act savagely. Back a dog into a corner and see what he does in his fear. We do no different.
And that’s why I don’t think we can be fully trusted with guns, ever; why other countries have as many guns but less deaths, less mayhem. The worst of us are the ones who want to share their pain and rage and confusion with others, the Eric Harrises and Dylan Klebolds and Adam Lanzas and James Holmeses. But even the best of us are dangerous in their terror.
There’s an old saying: no man who actually wants to be President is suitable for the job. Likewise, I don’t think that anybody who really wants a gun should be entrusted with one. I know this might offend my friends and acquaintances who are gun advocates, but I don’t trust anybody with a gun. Because I don’t trust that any individual has the skill and the wisdom to decide who deserves to live or die, and to carry out that decision. I certainly don’t.
Would a ban on assault weapons end murder? No. But it would make it harder. And anything that makes it harder for people to kill each other is probably a good thing, in my book. But maybe our real task is simply to help people learn not to live in fear: to be careful, but not paranoid, and not so eager to see violence done. Maybe then we can be trusted with the power of life and death.
But until then, I will keep advocating to keep that power out of all of our hands…and thankful that, upon those awful occasions when it was in mine, that I was at least smart enough not to wield it.