Driving south on Connecticut Avenue a couple of weeks ago, approaching the nation’s Capital, I noticed the license plate on the car immediately in front of me: “BULLET,” and in smaller print below, “For Hire.” It was a Virginia registration of a relatively new vehicle, but I was so shaken by what I had seen that I didn’t note the model. What kind of person would order such plates? All I could determine was that the driver was male and that I wanted to get as far away from the vehicle as soon as possible.
Virginia is for gun freaks, I realize, but why would the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles permit designer tags proclaiming “BULLET For Hire?” My reaction wasn’t a matter of censorship. I wouldn’t have been upset by “BULLET” itself, without the “For Hire,” but together the intent is quite clear, violating the State of Virginia’s own guidelines for “personalized license plates.” One of the restrictions states that the plate must not be “used to condone or encourage violence.”
A day or so later, I called the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles and—after a series of unsuccessful attempts to reach the right person—eventually talked to a spokesperson, who told me, “We take a lot of precautions to avoid inappropriate messages” on license plates. To her credit, since I had identified myself, she tracked me down a few days later and sent me an email indicating that the BULLET license plate was under review. But with all of those precautions, how did this call to violence occur in the first place?
I suggest a climate of violence that is so pervasive that few people are able to see what is directly in front of them. In other words, the license plate I observed is no longer offensive to most people. Guns are a fact of life, and even an event like the Virginia Tech Massacre, in April of 2007, which resulted in the deaths of 32 people, isn’t a big deal. Sure, the pundits expressed their grief in muted reactions when the massacre occurred, but what happened then? Very little. Ditto Columbine and any number of other massacres where guns were the implement for the murders. Guns, we say, are such a reality of our lives that we’d better learn to live with them.
Guns are not a fact of my life and, as all the polls about gun control tell us, the majority of Americans want more—not less—gun control. Again, this is a well-known fact, not something recent, but the National Rifle Association is so powerful that almost no politician will challenge it. What happens, instead, is that guns become more and more ubiquitous in our society. After the Virginia Tech incident, there was a fair bit of discussion about guns in classrooms and the usual cry from the NRA that if students had been able to take guns into classrooms, fewer people would have been killed.
Even if this were true—and I’m not convinced that it is—who wants to encourage a shoot-out in a classroom? If students are permitted to take guns into their classes, there’s going to be a major increase in the number of teachers and professors who are shot. I taught long enough to see the reactions of students when they got a low grade on a paper or an exam. Some were angry enough to pull out a gun and shoot me, a rather sick variation on kill the messenger.
But let’s return to Virginia, where just about the only restriction on guns is that “A person under 18 shall not possess or transport a handgun or assault firearm.” True, if the handgun is concealed, then a permit is required. Big deal. And what about rifles? And what about the recent advertisement from the National Association for Gun Rights, a Virginia organization? The advertisement—referred to as “A message from U.S. Senator Rand Paul”—shows Paul on the left, with a rifle pointed at President Obama on the right. What’s unclear about this message? It’s not even subliminal.
I’ve written enough about guns in the past to be able to anticipate the kind of reaction an essay like this will generate from the gun crazies in the United States. When I’ve published essays about America’s gun insanity in overseas publications, within minutes the gun lunatics in the United States begin sending me threatening messages, which also tell me that if I don’t like guns, I should take up residence in another country. Sorry, but I’m not going to help you create your kind of utopia.
Guns don’t kill people. People kill people. So, if we can’t put restrictions on guns, how about putting them on people?
Killers will always be able to get guns, so why ban guns? Agreed, but most victims of guns are family members or known acquaintances. Aren’t those people worth saving, even if we can’t stop the rampage of a true fanatic?
There is an easier solution to the disagreement between the pro-gun and anti-gun factions in the United States. Let the pro-gun proponents have a national shoot-out, since what they secretly desire—but are afraid to say—is to kill another person with one of their many guns. Agree on a day and let all the pro-gun fanatics line up across the nation, each one facing another, and at a designated time have a shoot-out. Half of them will be shot, and those who survive will be able to proclaim that they’ve killed someone. A badge of honor. And then, afterwards, can’t we destroy all the remaining weapons that senselessly kill thousands of innocent people each year in this country? The national carnage will be over all at once.
Let no one shoot a pistol into the air in celebration of that fact.
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.