Although very rusty, I’m range-qualified on the M-1 rifle, .30-caliber carbine, recoil-less rocket-propelled anti-tank weapon (bazooka), .30- and .50-calibre machine guns, M-2 flamethrower, Thompson “Tommy” submachinegun (beloved of Dillinger-era movies), and the Browning M1911 automatic – which the Utah legislature is voting to elevate into a state symbol, along with the Rocky Mountain elk.
For a brief time, as a young union functionary/bodyguard, I also “carried”, because my boss demanded it and also due to peer pressure from union reps I travelled with who were lapsed Mafiosi. Although I’ve been shot at, and witnessed gangbangers die of bullet wounds on a city street, I’ve never quite lost my American fascination with the mystique of guns, their shape, heft, calibers and the thrill of jacking one.
Guns are so seductive.
The other night, when I lay in bed with flu and had nothing better to do than feverishly watch television, of my available 40 or so channels (not counting Spanish-language), well over half consisted of shows favoring guns of various types: Bang, bang! Blood pumping like wine. They ranged from Turner Classics to reality shows like Cops, 48 Hours, America’s Most Wanted, Hot Pursuit Sniper: Inside the Crosshairs, etc.
From knowing some of the writers and directors, I’m almost certain that most are liberal Democrats. (Disclosure: in at least two of the movie projects I’ve been involved with, guns play a part.)
Presently, I don’t own a gun and won’t have one in the house, partly because I have a young curious son. Statistics conflict. Criminologist Gary Kleck insists householders who use a gun for self-defense are less likely to be harmed in a home invasion; dissenting sociologists argue that having a gun in the house means you are more likely to get killed, either by accident or in domestic violence.
Even so, the idle thought of shopping for a weapon never quite leaves me. My dad kept a gun until my mother made him get rid of it – for which he never forgave her. Dad and I, but not Mom, were both huge fans of John Ford westerns; indeed, he died of a heart attack watching a rerun of My Darling Clementine, with its shootout-at-the-OK-Corral climax.
By law in Israel, IDF soldiers must keep their automatic weapons at home, and the same applies to Swiss army conscripts. Yet both Israel and Switzerland have very low murder rates. In the US, where an estimated 250 million weapons are lying around, the murder rate is 20 times that of some other so-called developed nations. So, it seems that, at least in some cultures, there’s little correlation between owning a gun and using it to kill a fellow citizen. Subversive thought: maybe the all-powerful gun-crazy National Rifle Association may have it right, after all: people, not guns, kill people.
I grew up playing cowboy-and-Indians, pretending to shoot a Colt single-action six-shooter. Then, Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry came along with his Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum (“the most powerful handgun in the world … Do you feel lucky, punk?”). Pow! Pow! Pow! Now, kids my son’s age use 30-shot AK47 assault rifles to assassinate enemy “militants” on all-too-real Xbox games.
Despite the Tucson massacre (and inevitably, more to come), gun control is politically off the table – partly because voters are indifferent or ambivalent, and because Obama’s Democrats, spooked by the myth that Al Gore lost in 2000 because of his alleged anti-gun stance, are terrified of the NRA’s political clout. Few office holders dare stand up to it, even though many of its candidates lost in the last presidential election. [The US Supreme Court not so long ago ruled decisively, with a long, vivacious opinion by Justice Scalia, in favor of a broad interpretation of the Second Amendment.]
Our psychic need for weaponry can’t be blamed entirely on the gun lobby, or our violent frontier history, or occasional home invasions, which, though real, are a statistically insignificant threat. The mantra of “self-defense is the only option against attack” strikes a chord not only among us males, but also with women who are the target of (often sexualised) magazine ads for gun ownership touted as a prophylactic against the threat of sexual assault.
I live in Los Angeles whose civic memory includes the 1992 Rodney King riots, when the police abandoned us to the looters. Gun sales rocketed, and the under-siege Korean American community armed itself to defend their businesses and lives. The wild-hearted mobs stopped just short of an invisible drawbridge to my west LA district, but had they poured across La Cienega Boulevard, I’m not certain I wouldn’t have emulated my Korean American neighbours.
Pragmatism sometimes overrules ethics.
Mikey Weinstein, an Air Force academy graduate and former Reagan White House lawyer, is under constant death threats – vandals routinely shoot out his windows – because he protests the pervasive Christian evangelical proselytising in the military. Whatever his private reservations, he keeps a 12-gauge shotgun in the house, and his daughter sleeps with a .357 revolver by her bed.
And I remember my late friend Jim Boggs, a scholarly radical African American autoworker in Detroit. On my last visit to his home in a tough neighbourhood, Jim insisted on walking me to a corner bus stop on the way back to my hotel. Just before leaving the house, he calmly reached behind a marble bust of Karl Marx on the mantelpiece to withdraw a fully loaded .38 Saturday Night Special. Holding the gun by his side, as we strolled down the street in broad daylight, he said, “Hey, I’m 100% for gun control. But I know this block. I’m no damn fool.”
CLANCY SIGAL is a novelist and screenwriter in Los Angeles. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org