Gun Minds, Gun Hearts

Let's forget the law for a moment. Not every moral lesion can be salved by the medicine of the law. Let's not talk about gun control; let us merely ask the question of the moral effect of guns on their owners.

As I have stated in other articles, I am not a technological determinist in the sense of believing that humans are the tools of their tools. I don't believe that guns make us into anything, any more than microscopes or saws do, and they certainly don't absolve us of responsibility for anything. Instead, there is a marriage between the mind and the tool: certain minds are drawn to certain tools, and the tools encourage the person to emphasize certain tendencies. The sport utility vehicle advertisement that correlates driving offroad with coloring outside the lines as a child is an insightful and amusing example. If you own a sport utility (I do) you want to drive it in the landscape. But you bought it for that reason in the first place; something in you wanted a car that would make you want to drive off-road.

Just as sport utility vehicles are "about" driving outside the limits, guns seem to me about three things: hunting, target practice and killing people. If you think of target practice as essentially preparation and not an end in itself, then there are only two uses of guns. Since pistols and semi-automatic "assault" rifles are not used in hunting, for them there is really only one associated meme: killing humans.

In semiotic terms, a pistol or assault weapon is a sign in which the signifier is the physical tool and the significance is slaughter. We associate these weapons with our long national dream of killing. I believe there are extreme differences of degree: in those, formerly frontier, parts of the country where there is a gun in every pick-up, the dream is probably more quiescent because the tool is such an ordinary part of everyday life; paradoxically, the tool is ordinary because the purpose for which it was needed, the routine killing of others as part of the occurrences of daily life, has only just started to recede into the middle ground of the relatively fresh past. In other parts of the country, where the historical killing is much further in the past, an individual drawn to guns is likely to have much more overt dreams about killing.

Of course, every human being on earth is an incipient murderer, probably including Mother Teresa, and most (who may have a frightening but alluring dream or a moment of verbal aggression from time to time) never become latent. Most American gun owners are law abiding. But that does not detract from the reality that the gun is purchased because of the appeal of a dream about killing people.

I figured this out at the gun counter in Oshman's sporting goods store in Austin, Texas, where a customer and the clerk were discussing the relative stopping power of different types of ammunition. "Are these any good?" the customer asked, pointing at a box of bullets in the glass counter.

"Well," said the clerk, "a friend of mine who's a police officer in a town north of here came home at 1:30 in the morning and her husband put six of those into her at short range. And she's still standing and back on the job."

In the grand tapestry of human conversation, this was a fascinating one because of the amount of information it communicated about the two people engaged in it.

The customer and the clerk were standing in a public place, discussing perfectly legal objects of commerce, and the customer was asking which of these objects could be used most effectively to kill or at least disable another human being.

The clerk then replied that the type of ammunition in which the customer was interested wasn't worth buying for that purpose, because six of those objects fired into the flesh of a friend of his at close range had not been enough to put a crimp in her life style.

For most of us, the shooting of a friend would be a very traumatic experience, but the clerk related the story as if it were just another amusing anecdote, relevant to the customer's decision. He talked about his friend no differently than he would have said, "A friend of mine fired six of those into a bear, and it kept advancing" or "Those wouldn't even penetrate a tree."

Left hanging in the air was the question of whether the policewoman's husband shot her because he wasn't expecting her and thought she was an intruder, or was trying to kill her. The customer didn't ask and in fact this information, though interesting to me, wasn't relevant to their discussion, which really involved the physics of killing people.

Now, you can argue with me that the customer was only interested in self-defense and wanted to know what type of ammunition he could best use to protect his home. I am certain that there are guns in houses all over America, which are kept for this purpose and never taken out and fired (though some of these, as the policewoman's story may illustrate, are used to shoot the innocent, others are stolen and still others are found and used by children to shoot their friends or themselves.) But in how many of these conversations is the premise of self-defense used as the excuse to acquire the alluring information which will simultaneously slake, and yet help fuel, a thirst for killing? No form of ammunition yet invented will stop an assailant, but fly harmlessly around a six year old girl on rollerskates.

There is a subculture around guns which is overtly fascinated with murder. These are the militia types who daydream together about killing government officials; the dealers at gun shows who sell murder manuals and The Turner Diaries (the founder of Paladin Press, pre-eminent publisher of manuals on bomb-making and assassination techniques, is on the NRA board of directors.) The man who searched Los Angeles for a graffitist he could provoke, then shoot, or the teenager so excited by his new pistol that he starts a schoolyard confrontation in order to use it are two more examples. No-one can deny that sociopaths are drawn to guns; but what I am arguing is that guns appeal to the sociopathic side of a much wider element in our culture: the people (and this means most of us) who believe that there is a much wider spectrum of people whom it is legitimate to shoot than the law narrowly and officially allows.

What I am saying is that for the average person--even for the average responsible citizen, homeowner, pillar of the community who owns one--a gun responds to, and calls, an attitude that life is cheap, that there are worthless lives, and that killing people is one of the available options for solving problems. And a subset of this population secretly daydreams of the day when life will present them with the opportunity to use the glorious tool, and kill someone, without consequences.