A month ago, a deranged man stocked up on legally-purchased weapons and military gear, including an assault rifle with a 100-round magazine, and shot up a crowded theater showing the Batman movie; 13 people died, 58 were injured. Since then, at least two people have been arrested carrying guns into movie theaters showing the same film. Nineteen people were shot in one night in Chicago, three days ago; six died. The next morning, an ex-employee of a Manhattan company, feuding with the former boss who had fired him, killed the boss with a handgun on the sidewalk outside the Empire State Building during the morning rush hour; police officers on scene, extensively trained in firearms skills and tactical judgment, immediately killed the shooter, who never fired another shot, and wounded nine more bystanders in the process. Naturally, the gun-rights crowd insists, in every case, that the solution would have been more guns.
A couple of months ago I received a review copy of a recent book on US gun culture, and have finally gotten a chance to go through the volume and see what it had to say. American Shooter: A Personal History of Gun Culture in the United States, by Gerry Souter, is an interesting and highly informative book that conveys a vast range of historical and technical information about the development of firearms usage and attitudes toward guns in the US. It’s especially timely as the gun wars rage and another electoral season is on us. Its unique contribution arises from the perspective of its author – an outspoken liberal who is openly suspicious of the NRA and the fearful and fantastical paranoia of the “self-defense”/militia crowd, but who is also a lifelong shooter who has a great deal of experience with guns and not only supports responsible gun use but encourages it as a tool for social cohesion and self-development.
The book is organized roughly chronologically, and surveys the development of firearms technology from before the American Revolution through to today, the evolution of military doctrine for combat with light weapons, and the history of public attitudes and public policy regarding guns in the US. An interesting theme in the book is the ways in which the first two factors – changes in technology and the military use of firearms – directly influenced public involvement in, and attitudes toward, shooting in the civilian environment. (Briefly: military necessity drove many of the technical developments that are common even in non-military arms today, while the need for, and lack of, accurate shooting skills among military recruits led to the development of weapons with increasingly high rates of fire – to overwhelm the enemy with “suppressive fire” rather than aiming for an accuracy that was beyond troops’ abilities – and also civilian shooting training programs intended to increase basic skills among potential inductees but which also recruited civilians to shooting sports in large numbers. The result was, to different degrees at different times, a public that was interested in and familiar with military weapons, while those weapons became increasingly powerful and deadly.) The author sketches out the ways that the US’s wars familiarized generations of citizens with rifle use and also flooded the civilian environment with surplus weapons by the millions – or, more recently, created a vast market for military-style knockoffs intended specifically for civilians. He parallels these developments with stories of his own experiences with guns, including youth competitions, hunting with his father, working as a security guard with a borrowed pistol so old it fell to pieces when he took it out of the holster, working as a news photographer in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, and his current plans for a National Shooting Sports League to interest the public in the safe use of guns. The book is fascinating, informative, and often funny, though it suffers from some very clunky structure and repetitious text. (My Amazon review of the same book touches on its content and organization, and its flaws, in more detail.) I recommend it as an excellent general information source about the history of guns in the United States, and as a thoughtful pro-gun liberal’s perspective on a responsible approach to firearms usage and policy.
What matters in all this, of course, is the question of how guns fit into the social environment of the United States at this point in our history. Souter does a good job reviewing how our long background of war, expansion, conquest, and fear of violence have driven the use of guns, and shaped public attitudes toward them. Gun policy in the 21st Century has to be built on the foundation of the public’s received attitudes and beliefs (often hugely false) about guns and our own history with guns, as well as the staggering volume of guns currently swamping our society (and continuing to flood into it at increasing rates). The fact that that history has changed dramatically – few people now hunt for subsistence, the days of pioneers and the open range are both long gone, and we have a full-time professional military, equipped with specialized weapons, that far exceeds our needs for self-defense – is relevant but not decisive; it is the myths about gun culture, both in the past and today, that determine public beliefs and attitudes and thus the ongoing development of gun culture and gun policy. In that regard, Souter presents a picture of the peaceful and beneficial use of guns to contrast with the deliberately-stoked fears and myths that create the market for para-military “self-defense” weaponry and preparation.
As a life-long gun user, Souter appreciates the role of guns – particularly non-military rifles and shotguns – as tools for sport, relaxation, and the development of discipline. He supports hunting and target shooting, and is convinced that reviving public participation in shooting contests would teach self-control and self-esteem to youth, and create a culture of responsible gun use among adults. His NSSL proposal is intended to make shooting a televised spectator sport that would replace images of violence and social unrest as the immediate association of guns in the public’s mind. Whether or not that is a realistic prospect, these are the sorts of things that anyone ought to be able to support, even liberals who have learned to be squeamish about guns from the wild-eyed whackos who have hijacked an entire technological milieu in service of their self-created paranoid fantasies.
Souter takes a more jaundiced view of handguns. Though he acknowledges their place in hunting and for target competition and casual shooting (and describes the fun he and his wife both have in pursuing those activities), he is critical of the practice of concealed carry for personal defense. His concerns are several-fold, and he has an insightful perspective on that contentious issue. He notes that defensive shootings are much rarer than the gun nuts like to pretend, and that the statistics used to scare people into buying guns are grossly manipulated (he also notes that the same can be said of statistics used to support the opposite point of view). He attributes the upsurge in demand for concealed carry privileges and looser restrictions on licensing to a scare campaign conducted by gun manufacturers faced with declining sales, and right-wing gun advocacy groups, most especially the NRA. His citations of NRA policy papers and advertising campaigns document how insidiously, and dishonestly, they inflamed the issue for self-serving purposes. (From an actual NRA pamphlet: “You’re a woman. Someone’s going to rape you. You’d better buy a handgun.”) (Souter frequently details aspects of the NRA’s history; though they were not always the largest gun advocacy group, and only recently became the reactionary political juggernaut they now are, they have often played key roles in civilian firearms training, competition shooting, and promotion of both gun use and hunting, and thus have an outsized importance in the history of US gun culture from around the time of the Civil War. Souter offers both praise and criticism for the NRA, in different contexts.) Most significantly, he identifies the issue of the defensive use of guns as fundamentally one of social character rather than simple utility. He says more than once that “carrying a handgun as a daily accessory represents a failure of American society”. He stresses the fear that drives gun sales and gun carry laws, and the myriad ways that fear creeps into and takes over people’s lives, deliberately magnified and manipulated by pro-gun vested interests (as well as the way anti-gun forces have their own fears and fear-driven campaign tactics).
It’s hard to know how to reconcile these two aspects of gun culture. It’s especially disheartening that the most divisive and destructive side is the one actively stoked and inflamed by the gun interests. (This is largely, though not openly, for financial reasons: sales of long guns have plateaued as hunting culture dwindles and rifle competition has fallen from public interest; handgun sales have been the financial savior of the firearms industry, and there is nothing they will not do to keep that trend rising. Handgun sales continue to skyrocket even as the actual crime rate has plummeted for over 20 years and is now lower than it was 40 years ago; encouraging delusional fears of crime is a primary sales tactic of gun makers and gun-rights advocates.) Even without that pernicious campaign of social destruction, the existence of close to 300 million civilian firearms, over a third of them handguns, makes any practical program of limiting the prevalence of deadly hardware in society an almost impossible goal. For this reason, Souter’s proposal to change gun culture by changing people’s appreciation of guns, rather than shifting the balance of pro/anti sentiment, may make sense.
In broader perspective, the idea of a liberal embrace of guns in sane ways may be an important tactic for changing and ameliorating the harmful effects of guns hoarded out of fear or hostility. If guns themselves were seen in a more neutral light, the focus of gun policy could be turned to more practical issues related to their design, regulation, and use. More significantly, public attitudes could be influenced to accept guns but reject the paranoid and violent rhetoric of the extremist community, which has become the only refuge for some pro-gun citizens who are not themselves anti-social but perceive only hostility from non-gunners. (Perhaps a pipe dream: if liberals came to appreciate safe uses of guns in larger numbers, they might someday form a voting bloc in the NRA that could help take that organization back from the real whackos who run it today.) That might also reduce the perceived need for concealed carry, and put the hostile or paranoid attitudes that drive that practice in a clearer light.
One mistake that anti-gun liberals make is to lump all guns and uses of guns together as part of the real social problem they are reacting to, which is the ready availability of handguns used for destructive purposes (deliberately, accidentally, or in momentary passion). Civilian assault rifles are an idiotic indulgence but don’t actually cause all that much harm. Long guns of all types are involved in a small percentage of gun-related deaths. Limiting some categories of weapons doesn’t require limiting all of them. Liberals have failed to make these distinctions (aided in large part by gun nuts who insisted on defending assault rifles and large-capacity magazines as being both necessary and the simple equivalent of Revolutionary War muskets, while working every devious angle they could concoct to eliminate or evade any regulations of firearms whatsoever). More-rational rhetoric from the more-rational side of the debate might help expose the sheer lunacy of the other side (or not: right-wingers do love their epistemic closure).
That possibility, and Souter’s sense of the social cost of irrational attitudes toward guns from both right and left, is one of the attractions of American Shooter. (Its wealth of historical and technical information is another, especially for readers new to gun issues. And the book is genuinely funny in many places.) It may be doomed by making too much sense. (For Souter’s own protection, I have not quoted him where, in several places, he comes dangerously close to saying the same things that made long time gun professional Jim Zumbo the target of a lynch mob composed of his own fellow enthusiasts.) But if any progress is to be made on these issues, and especially if they are to be resolved other than by unremitting hostility between opposed and often equally factually challenged camps, his is a voice that deserves to be heard.
UPDATE: While still writing this, but before posting it, sixteen more people were shot overnight in Chicago. One died.
UPDATE: Removed broken footnote marker.