Before I lock and load, let me state my bias. I’m a card-carrying member of the ACLU and the NRA. I don’t want the state in my uterus or my gun collection. Having guns controlled by the government is like having abortion rights regulated by men. As with abortion, the debates over guns in America are underscored by seemingly irreconcilable differences, if not seething hatred: conflicting values based on structural positions of class, race, gender, religion, and region. At the bottom of the gun controversies is a bitter culture war in which pro-gun Second Amendment fanatics see America on the verge of anarchy, requiring law-abiding people to arm themselves in self-defense. Such people no longer believe the police can protect them, or that they live in a democracy. Anti-gun crusaders are cosmopolitans who look to European society as a bastion of peaceful gun-free sanity. These gun-control advocates view America as a violent nation awash in firearms, held hostage to the impulsive acts of unstable people. Living in two different worlds, each side feeds the other’s fears.
But guns make America a special place. According to Tom Diaz, a former congressional expert on handgun control, the United States has become “a kind of underdeveloped moral Third World, a place where the rest of the world can indulge its gun lust.” Brochures lure tourists to shooting ranges on both coasts, offering “the opportunity to shoot guns strictly controlled everywhere in the world but here.” Tourists from countries like Japan with strong anti-gun laws use America as a playground—the way Americans take sex tours to Thailand. Underlying all the Second Amendment rights rhetoric, Diaz claims, is a full-metal-jacket capitalist agenda—in which a gun is a dealer’s “little moneymaking machine.” As the market became increasingly saturated and stagnant over time, gun makers began producing more powerful, lethal weapons and targeting new consumers—women, minorities, and youth. In today’s gun market, the focus has shifted from skill, accuracy, and marksmanship to speed and firepower. The ultimate purpose of guns is killing, yet they remain unregulated, like sex in Thailand.
Americans have been able to challenge the tobacco industry and to demand quality control on everything from automobiles to hair dryers, but until recently guns remained off-
limits—the result of Second Amendment zealots, gun lobbying, and a cultural history saturated in firearm mythologies. But that’s changing. Last February a federal jury found several gun makers liable in seven New York City–area shootings, charging them with negligent marketing practices—dumping handguns onto the black market and failing to weed out dishonest distributors. Other cities including New Orleans, Miami, and Chicago have filed similar suits. In recent years we’ve seen the carnage from Waco to Ruby Ridge, from the Long Island Railroad to a high school in Littleton, Colorado. Gang-related violence has turned inner cities into teenage wastelands.
We need to think through what guns really mean to us. Two new books—Diaz’s Making a Killing: The Business of Guns in America and Guns in America: A Reader—offer divergent perspectives on this complex American fixation. The editors of Guns in America are three academics from varied disciplines seeking a realistic and sane way to regulate our guns. Basing their ideas on the pragmatic notion that Americans will always want guns (and abortions), the authors represented in Guns in America present a wide range of opinions, cultural histories, and policy recommendations exploring the relationship between guns and our national identity. Diaz, on the other hand, is a self-declared recovering gun nut whose solid and compelling analyses of the economics and politics of gun manufacturing, lobbying, and law are badly undermined by tirades apparently calculated to play upon liberal fear. Watch out! Survivalists are stockpiling semiautomatics!! Remember, a gun killed John Lennon!!
Diaz reduces gun shows to a “breeding ground for illegal gun sales.” Anyone unfamiliar with gun shows—essentially flea markets for hobbyists and collectors—would conclude from Diaz’s portrait that America’s gun subculture is a euphemism for white power. Diaz never discusses hunters, nor does he consider rural traditions or how the politics of class and region play out in the gun control controversy. He also ignores the legions of retired cops and military men for whom gun collecting is more like bowling than some right-wing conspiracy.
In contrast, Guns in America presents a broader and deeper exploration of our relationship to firearms. Forty-three chapters written by journalists, academics, physicians, lawyers, politicians, policy makers, and crusaders give us enough information to make up our own minds. “Our history cannot be told without acknowledging the centrality of guns in our national experience,” argue the editors in the introductory chapter. A historical section traces the roots of gun culture among Puritans and the early restrictions placed upon firearms—slaves were prohibited from carrying them, and concealed weapons in cities and saloons were not allowed—pointing out that “the guns that liberated some are the same guns that terrorized others.” The manifest destiny that empowered European imperialists would have failed had Native peoples (and slaves) been armed. Recognizing that our love of guns is built on myth, David T. Courtwright examines cowboy subculture, providing an illuminating, raunchy portrait. Contrary to our image of handsome, shining heroes of the Great Plains, cowboys “were lower-class bachelor laborers in a risky and unhealthful line of work…members of a disreputable and violent subculture with its own rules for appropriate behavior.
J. Neil Schulman’s “Talk at Temple Beth Shir Shalom: Friday, April 30, 1993” is a tough-Jew manifesto. Reminding the congregation that “Jews stopped being victimized when they took up arms and started fighting back,” Schulman chillingly compares the 1938 Nazi Weapons law to the 1968 Gun Control Act. “Jews in Germany submitted to Nazi gun control laws and allowed themselves to be disarmed,” he observes. “Guns Are the Tools by Which We Forge Our Liberty” is a gem reprinted from Vermont Outdoors Magazine. Lawyer-mother-vegetarian Cindy Hill sees guns as vital to democracy. She quotes Noah Webster: “Before a standing army can rule, the people must be disarmed; as they are in almost every kingdom in Europe. The supreme power in America cannot enforce unjust laws by the sword; because the whole body of the people are armed.”
Equally moving but vehemently anti-gun is “A Loaded Question: What Is It About America and Guns?” by Leonard Kriegel. Unfortunately this is the only real memoir in the collection. Kriegel’s story begins when he’s a boy in a wheelchair, with polio and a rifle in his hand. Nothing could compare to the pride and empowerment he felt firing his first shot. Later on in life he’s a father, and in an encounter with border police he experiences repulsion and loathing at the killing capacities of a gun.
A good collection should be like a box of assorted chocolates—some selections will be better than others, and that’s clearly the case here. Reprints of policy statements, magazine and newspaper articles, and essays from scholarly journals tell us a lot about guns in America, but where are the voices of North America’s Los Madres—moms whose children have died on city streets? Or the Zen of shooting? Or Dad and me oiling our guns over a bottle of vodka, Harry James wailing in the background? With so few strong first-person narratives, we can’t really learn much about what guns mean to Americans. Debates over guns in America seem doomed to the same purgatory as abortion and animal rights. How do we live together? The guns in America are shot from the heart—pumped from human emotions. Won’t you be my neighbor?