The American West was won by the industrial revolution: steamships bringing European refugees, steamboats inserting people and removing commodities from the heart of the continent, railroads uniting the continent, and guns. Guns were handheld-small, but they wiped out the buffalo so that the starving original population could be subdued, confined and mostly eliminated. Of course, one can shoot people as well as bison, and that’s been the crux of the argument ever since.
The remedy for shooting people has been the removal of all guns. But the argument for keeping them, in Montana at least, has been hunting and protection. We draw a distinction between handguns and long guns, but our long guns are not normally war guns. Rather we tend to have big game rifles and waterfowl shotguns.
The industrial revolution extended the powers of ordinary humans in both war and peace. The hand-carried device that can eject a high-speed pellet, a gun, has become loaded with juju, the way a small piece of paper imprinted to be money becomes a symbol of power and control. Those who wish to have the extra impact of being gun-carriers have a motto: “guns don’t kill people — people kill people.” Quite so. But they don’t follow through with that idea.
I don’t own a gun. I had a little single-shot .22 once that I used to kill gophers (actually ground squirrels) to feed our pets (eagle and fox), but I left it behind somewhere because I was going to the city. Nevertheless, when I was an animal control officer (specialized sheriff’s deputy), I was expected to qualify on a rifle range and did pretty well.
When I was little, there was an automatic pistol in the house meant for protection. It was WWII and guns were everywhere, on everyone’s minds, and that’s part of the reason that Westerns (gunslingers) were big when television arrived. I handled that gun, didn’t shoot it, and was taught that all guns were loaded. But as an adult my Marine veteran brother shot himself in the forearm with an “unloaded” gun.
I recognize the beauty and history of guns. Bob Scriver had an extensive collection of historic weapons, so I can recognize a Hawken, a big heavy buffalo shooting instrument so well balanced and designed that even I can hold it steady, or “Yellow Boy,” the Winchester .66. I rubbed down the Colt Navy pistol kept on the bookshelf and the hand-made tiger-maple and brass Kentucky rifle a couple of locals created, inventing a small forge from a barbecue grill and a hair-dryer in order to cast the butt-plate and trigger guard. In fact, I got impatient with the miniature “lodgepoles” of long guns precariously leaning in every corner, gathering dust unless there were aficionadoes who wanted to handle them.
One of the intinerant traders who came through Browning all the time in those days showed us a special handgun he had acquired. I’ve forgotten what it was exactly. We were fond of this good-hearted man who was not at all violent and rejoiced to have produced a son late in life. (Suppress jokes about being a “shooter.”) When he got home with that handgun, he put it down briefly on his coffee table while he turned to his wife. The toddler son saw the gun, picked it up, shot our friend in the chest. He died. Even a small child can be deadly with a loaded gun.
A gun is only an extension of human abilities and only effective as a mechanism if it is properly maintained. Modern war movies show the soldiers “breaking down” their guns, cleaning and inspecting them, then reassembling them — over and over until they know them intimately and have integrated them into their brains and reflexes. We have seen sharp-shooters with their high-tech electronically augmented shooting machines that are kept in carefully foam-cushioned cases. Therefore, we have to know that it takes a LOT of practice, the physiology of “Brad Pitt,” and a specific kind of temperament. Those who are not just sharp-shooters but also assassins must be willing to accept orders and able to assimilate the morality of killing. Probably family is not a good idea. Maybe not any intimate relationships.
“If you fight with violence,” Gene Sharp says, “you are fighting with your enemy’s best weapon, and you may be a brave but dead hero.” Or crook. Mr. Sharp is the thinker about non-violence who is said to be the guru of the Egyptian regime change. There are those in our society who have discovered that “death by cop” is an exciting way to commit suicide, though the price for failure is pretty high.
But the reason I don’t own a gun is pure laziness. I have no reason to get up early to shoot gophers, so I don’t need a long gun. Beyond that, even a handgun means taking the time and making the effort to sight it in, clean it, and practice enough to stay accurate.
There are no children in this household and I don’t let visiting children out of my sight, though I can’t always control them. It’s best to put a gun in a lockbox of some sort, better to separate it from ammunition. If I were keeping a gun for self-defense, it would have to be quickly accessible, meaning where I could get at it fast, though to keep it from being stolen I probably ought to put it in a hidden spot. Problematic when I can’t even remember where I put the book I was just reading. That applies to the key of the lockbox as well.
In the end the bumper sticker is true but incomplete. Even allowing for accidents, which inevitably happen, a gun is a mechanism that extends the power of human beings without either making them worse or better. The worse the person the more evil (I locate evil in persons, not the devil.) is empowered. We would want to prevent bad people from having guns, but bad people — who are often evil because of their craving for control and power — are exactly the ones who want to own guns. Good people have better things to do, unless they are hunters. I don’t object to responsible hunting though I’ve been accidentally shot at twice.
So in the end gun control is a matter of people-control, and we aren’t even close to understanding how to do that responsibly. Clearly institutional religion is not the answer. Training and other education is not the answer, though they help. I think the answer is in a true understanding of what a human being is and can be. How we achieve that is what’s up for discussion world-wide. We’re in the midst of a tech revolution that moves power away from violence, though the management of money can kill far more people than guns or even bombs. (By ignoring famine, disease.) Tech revolutions don’t improve humans, but they are a means towards that end. Then maybe we can tell what our devices are extending.
(Cover Photo: David H. Lewis)