Utopia and the Gun Culture

Me and a Gun

It's not Bob Dylan's best by any means, but for quite a while I've had a fondness for his little-known early folk song, "Let Me Die in My Footsteps", which I first heard in a recording by Happy Traum (with Dylan in background) from the Best of Broadside album, a marvelous collection that I gave to my mother as a Christmas present ten years ago.

When I first heard the song, this verse is one that quickly stuck in my mind, and is one that has a habit of floating through my mind's ear with some regularity:
If I had rubies and riches and crowns
I’d buy the whole world and change things around
I’d throw all the guns and the tanks in the sea
For they are mistakes of a past history
It was a constant earwig this weekend after I learned of the massacre in Arizona.

I think John Scalzi, among others, has sensible things to say about the politics of all this -- it's entirely likely that Jared Loughner was, in a vernacular sense at least, "crazy", but the national conversation has turned, for good reason, to the violence implied by much right-wing rhetoric -- and overtly stated by slightly less such rhetoric.

I have lived most of my life in a state where it was recently declared legal for people to carry guns in the State House. I lived for the first 18 years of my life with a gun shop attached to my house. When my father died in 2007, I inherited that gun shop, and had to get a Federal Firearms License to sell off the inventory. I know the gun culture in this country well, because though it's never held much appeal for me, it is a world I have never fully escaped. Mine has not been a world just of hunting guns, either; I shot my first machine gun when I was about 9 years old, maybe 8. (I've written about all this in some detail in my Rambo II essay.) I still have many well-armed friends, some of whom, in fact, I sold guns to.

Despite my left-wing tendencies in nearly every other realm, I'm not a big fan of most gun control proposals and legislation, but my reasons for not being a fan would probably cause people more comfortable with our gun culture to label me anti-gun -- most of the legislation seems to me ineffective. Dylan's utopia in "Let Me Die in My Footsteps" is one I fiercely yearn for -- a world of no weaponry.

But that's a utopia, and while utopian thinking has its place, I don't think it should be the base of legislation.

Ours is a nation of hundreds of millions of guns legally owned by civilians. It's just about impossible to know how many illegal guns are out there in addition to the hundreds of millions legally available. That's not a fact you can just legislate away, and broad attempts to do so only play into the fears of gun owners who think the government wants to take their guns -- and playing into those fears just causes more people to hide their guns and grow ever more paranoid. What we have to continue to work on is figuring out a sane way to live with an insane reality: ours is a country where there are more guns than people.

Even my father, who was just about as pro-gun as it's possible to get, told me toward the end of his life that he thought the gun manufacturers had overproduced irresponsibly and flooded the market in search of ever-growing profits. My father was not much of a hunter or a fan of what he and a few friends called "Fudd guns", and much of what interested him about guns had to do with history and machinery. (This is not to deny the intense, macho intoxication guns provide -- indeed, part of my hatred of machismo comes from seeing it so often expressed through weaponry. When I first heard Nine Inch Nails's "Big Man with a Gun" back in 1994 or so, it spoke startlingly, bluntly, painfully to an anger I had then hardly begun to comprehend: an anger at what I had been born into. We've all been born to it, though, because ours is, regardless of any individual's particular beliefs, a gun culture.) He didn't think cheap, artless guns added much to the world; more likely, they made it a rougher world to live in.

Having been given a life membership to the NRA when I was born, I remain a member, but I think it's a despicable organization. I haven't cancelled my membership because at this point I cost them money in postage and printing. I also have a morbid fascination with their propaganda. They are an organization that preys on fear and paranoia to raise money. I think the Democrats were smart not to put through any new gun legislation after President Obama's election (it was Howard Dean, I think, who helped convince them that lots of one-issue voters would be turned off by any mention of gun control). There's no need to confirm the sense that many gun owners have that the Democrats hate and don't understand them.

But that didn't stop the NRA and other organizations from spreading lies and fear about the impending apocalypse for gun owners. The NRA didn't do it because there was any actual threat to gun ownership, or even much threat of greater regulation. They did it because whenever they say, "The government's coming for your guns!" people send them money. The NRA is aligned with the manufacturers, and the paranoia is great for them as well, because when people think there will be new regulations, they go out and buy as many guns as they possibly can.

My father died before President Obama was elected, and it's too bad that he did -- he'd have been as anti-Obama as anybody, but he also would have been able to profit tremendously from the huge rise in demand after the election, and he might have finally been able to retire. He dreamed of selling the business and moving to Arizona.

I wish the left were better able to admit that their ideas for gun control are mostly just feel-good measures. (I'm not so innocent as to believe that anti-gun groups don't do everything they can to raise money, too, and I'm more than familiar with the inaccurate and distorted information they've spread through the years. Political organizations exploit political situations for fundraising and power. The NRA just happens to do it with deadly weapons.) It would be nice to be able to wipe out the incomprehensible knot of laws we have regarding guns in this country and start anew with some reasonable, coherent measures, but that's as utopian as hoping to throw all the guns and tanks in the sea. (Poor fish...) Many of our laws actually work -- even my father came to like the instant background checks now required for all purchases, because they're good protection for the dealer. I'd love to see guns and gun ownership treated like cars and car ownership, though I know the pro-gun folks would fight that with everything they could. Not every state mandates training for gun permits, and states like mine don't even require permits for gun ownership, just for concealed carry. Gun sales from shops are tracked and have lots of paperwork attached to them, but gun ownership and private sales aren't tracked in any way, and if I were emperor of the country, I'd get all owners licensed and guns registered. It ain't gonna happen, though, nor is there any particularly easy way to accomplish it without tremendous invasions of privacy and the likelihood of lots and lots of quiet disobedience, which would only increase the black market. I don't think either is desireable.

Which is what brings us back to rhetoric and reality. The guns and the tanks aren't going into the sea. The US will remain a country with more guns than people for the foreseeable future. We will remain a country where the First and Second Amendments are both strong. Lots of people will own guns, and some of those people will be ones who feel alienated, people who are unhinged and paranoid, people who might be tempted to kill other people. There is no practical way to change that reality.

But I wish the right were better able to admit that this is not a particularly desireable reality. The gun owners I know are mostly really thoughtful, responsible people. We have our differences in politics, since most (not all) of them are pretty conservative, but I think they take their gun ownership really seriously, and not just "seriously" in the sense of "You'll have my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hand." The gun owners I know are vigilant about gun safety, and proselytizers for it. Some of them are teachers of gun safety courses. (My father was a certified NRA instructor -- much as I loathe the political operations of the NRA, I have to admit that a lot of their gun safety work is admirable and helpful.) I think one of the most remarkable elements of our gun culture is how responsible most owners of legal guns are. It's worth pausing a moment and realizing that though our death-by-gunshot statistics are high, they could be a whole lot higher, given the amount of guns around.

What is responsible behavior in a society such as ours? I don't generally like Keith Olberman that much, but I thought he was onto something in his "Special Comment" on the Arizona shootings, and his warnings, admonitions, and apologies in that piece all speak to admitting and accepting responsibility within the reality we share.

I'd urge two books for reading in these times: David Neiwert's The Eliminationists and Joan Burbick's Gun Show Nation. Neiwert is an astute analyst of far-right rhetoric. Burbick's book appealed to me because we seem to come from similar backgrounds, and though pro-gunners won't necessarily think she's a fair reporter or analyst, the paranoia stoked by the NRA and its brethren makes everything short of a completely laissez-faire approach seem threatening.

I'm not an advocate for Jon Stewart-style false equivalencies of "the left is just as bad as the right". I don't see it that way, and not just because it distracts from the systemic problems that all sorts of left-wing activists work against. Deadly domestic terrorism in this country during my lifetime has mostly been caused by the right wing -- the Oklahoma City bombing, the spate of "pro-life" murders and bombings, the guy who flew a plane into an IRS building, etc.

Sure, the left has its radical environmentalists, and though they aim to destroy property rather than people, the Unabomber has some affinity with leftish ecoterrorism. But the sort of rhetoric that the Unabomber fed off is not at all part of any left mainstream I know -- heck, eugenicists and Nazis tend to be some sort of environmentalists, too, but that hardly makes the Sierra Club their ideological equal. There's an important difference some (left-leaning) commentators have noted -- most political movements have an extremist wing, even a violent wing, but responsible ones don't treat their craziest members as if they are rational beings, don't dogwhistle to the hooligans, don't let their will to power legitimize the power fantasies of marginalized and unstable people. But the eliminationist rhetoric of the right in this country has become, via Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck and Michelle Malkin and Michael Savage and Sarah Palin, the political mainstream as represented by so many of the people elected to our government within the Republican party.

Sure, U.S. history begins with violence, propaganda, deadly rumor-mongering, populist fear, and murder. And our political universe has long been one that thrived on such things.

Progress may be a myth, but it's one I believe in, because, despite my pragmatism, ultimately I want to be the sort of person who believes things can get better. I want to believe we can progress from our origins, that our political culture can grow beyond our gun culture, that our rhetoric can be less bloody and more nuanced. I want to believe it. I want Bob Dylan's naive, lovely utopia to keep singing through my mind.

Perhaps what I need is to hold Dylan's utopia in mind alongside my favorite Langston Hughes poem, "Let America Be America Again", in which Hughes exhorted us to be realistic about our history while holding onto our utopian impulses:
O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--
And ends with this fine stanza:
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain--
All, all the stretch of these great green states--
And make America again!

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