Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Lines you amend; or, Johnny get your gun...


"So you're a gun lover, then?" he asked.

"Well, I wouldn't say that," I replied.

Gun lover? Even innuendo aside, the thought was a strange one. Gun lover? Gun lover? There was no way I could cosign that. Really, what's it supposed to mean? That cuddling cold blue steel in bed at night makes me feel complete? Or perhaps that I should be proud of a twelve gauge for its performance on a test? I mean, really, what is there to love? Steel, plastic, and wood? Ingenious engineering? The power to kill? Or perhaps phrased more palatably, the ability to defend?

"Appreciator, perhaps. Let's just say that I don't think that a place where only the State is armed is the safest one," I rhetorically spouted.

The ageing ex-marine replied, "I hear ya, buddy," and slapped me jovially on the back, his hand resting there a moment longer.

It was strange. In any other setting, there is little chance this man, or any of the other 3000+ (almost exclusively) men in this warehouse would have had any reason to talk to me. But here, at the Crossroads of the West Gun Show, it's like I've become part of some bizarre club, where the only requirements are to be white, male, and possessing an interest in (if not the physical substance of) firearms.

But it's more than just an interest in firearms here. An American gun show is an event, first and foremost, about values. This is an event driven by, and reinforcing of a distinct set of values, a unique culture. A culture wrapped in independence; a culture wrapped in pioneer spirit, in family, in strength and security, in revolution, in life, and liberty and the red, white and blue. And as with any coin, there is, of course, a less marketable, but still palpable flipside: a culture of violence; one of reactionism, misogyny, homophobia, racism, insecurity, and, staring down the barrel, death.

Of course, any reasonable gun owner (and there are many of them), would disavow the latter characteristics of this culture. And in their hearts, they may believe what they say. But when the elected leader of the National Rifle Association, the voice of the gun lobby, and one of the most powerful interest groups in the United States, comes out publicly against gays in the military to thunderous applause at an NRA convention, it becomes difficult to separate the two issues, whether you personally agree with his statement or not.

It is often suggested that the essentially masculine gun culture is related to its constituents’ insecurity about the calibre of their members. And I’ll grant that, for some, this may play a role. But to say that the American infatuation with firearms is a mere matter of penis size is, I think, an oversimplification of the issue. I've met many gun owners completely at ease with themselves who are vocal advocates of their 2nd Amendment right. Of course, we weren’t so intimate that I might ask to them to pull down their pants, so I can never know for sure, but I think there’s a lot more to it than simple penile insecurity.

Of course there are those who say, “just look at the shape of a gun. It’s clearly a penis extender!” Well, granted, there is that one scene in Full Metal Jacket where the recruits alternately hold their M-14s, then their packages, referring to the former as their rifle, and the latter as their gun, but I don’t think that a gun really equals a penis. Yes there is a similarity of shape, but the same could be said about a great many things. Like a garden hose nozzle, a caulking dispenser, a painting attachment for an air compressor, or a blow dryer. These things, and many others, have roughly the same form because their function is similar. They are compact projectile tools designed to be operated manually. And a penis… Well, you get the picture. So, I think if one is going to engage in intelligent discussion about gun culture, I think it’s too loaded an association: too testy and far too English Lit. After all, I’m not trying to degrade anyone. I’m just trying to get to the bottom of why so many American love their guns.

So to get to the root of this I think we have to go back, way back, to the very founding of the United States of America. After the revolution, there was seen a real need to defend the fledgling republic against potential attack in the absence of an organized national army. So in the nation’s new constitution, an amendment, the 2nd, was included, stating: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” This granted Americans the right to possess weapons to defend their country, to be used within the context of a well regulated militia. Although there have been many legal contradictions regarding this amendment, to me it means this: you can bear arms, if you are going to use them in defense of your country. Or even more simply: if you join the army, you can have a gun.

Read this way, almost every country guarantees this right. If we are going to send you to die in some god-forsaken hole for the sake of a flag, you are granted the right to carry a gun for that purpose. Seems pretty reasonable to me.

Ironically, the interpretation by the majority of gun owners of the 2nd Amendment is almost the opposite of this. To most I asked at the gun show, they saw their right as one to bear arms to protect themselves from their country, not to protect their country from anything at all. They were mostly concerned that if citizens did not have guns, it would be easy for the State to take away their other rights. And granted, given that the US constitution was drafted following a revolution against the pre-existing State, it’s easy to see how this interpretation could arise. But there’s really nothing in the constitution that legitimizes taking arms against the State. That would of course be a recipe for disaster. But even if we grant that this majority interpretation of the 2nd Amendment is the correct one, I still think we should look into the feasibility of this interpretation in a modern context.

So let’s first take a look back to the 1770s, when the 13 American colonies took arms against the British government. Let’s look foremost at the technology of the time. What kinds of weapons were being employed? Guns, yes, but what kind? Muskets. That’s correct. Muzzle-loaded firearms, where even the finest soldiers could sustain a rate of fire of only 3 rounds per minute. And this applied to both sides. Although the British had weapons better somewhat better suited to war, the difference in technology between both warring factions was marginal at best. The firearms used by citizens for hunting could be easily turned to the battlefield with lethal results to protect one’s home and hearth from attack.

In this kind of situation, it’s easy to see how the right to bear arms could be seen as effective method of preventing oppression. If the British came with their muskets, you could pull out yours, and with the benefit of surprise and a keen eye, you could get the drop on them. Freedom protected. Mission accomplished.

So, in the 18th century, the 2nd Amendment would have been an effective tool to ensure freedom from oppression. But over the course of the next few centuries, a lot changed in military technology. The increased specialization of military weapons made them impractical for any sort of civilian use. So even if exploding artillery could legally be procured by American citizens under the 2nd, there is no way that the man buying them could justify the expense to his wife when the plough horse was on his last legs. And this trend continued, with governments devising more and more effective methods of separating flesh from bone, while the civilian was stalled in progress with little more than a rifle.

So by the time the First World War rolled around, with governments worldwide in control of aircraft, machine guns, submarines and dreadnoughts, there really wasn’t a lot of reason for the average American to get in a clamour about his 2nd Amendment rights being violated. His 2nd Amendment rights were already useless. If the State wanted his land, his wife or his horse, there wasn’t really a damned thing he could do about it. And this was before the poison gas, tanks, rockets, ICBMs, satellites, unarmed drones, microwave pain inducers and nuclear weapons that were to come.

Even if we look at (non-military) police forces dealing with armed opponents, there isn’t much hope for our 2nd Amendment advocate. Compared to military units, police use a fantastic amount of restraint, not only in their level of weaponry, but also in the way they engage foes. Police use exclusively small arms, non-lethal whenever possible, typically give warning, and aim to capture, not kill. And those who stand against them almost never win.

Even drug dealers, who are often armed with the best weaponry illegal money can buy, rarely even get a shot off when their compounds are raided. Why? Because police are trained to win without firing a shot. They observe cautiously, and raid when thugs least expect it. And drug dealers know that lifting a gun toward a cop is death, but clever litigation might just get them life (even if behind bars). How can an average citizen, however armed, expect to stand against the State, especially in a situation where the State disregards all other basic rights?

The point is this: This is the 21st century. The 2nd Amendment is dead. There is no possible way that an American citizen can hope to defend his liberty by the gun. If you come out saying "you can have my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers," you can rest assured, that when the smoke clears, they most certainly will.

The 2nd Amendment today is a symbol, no more. So why is it so important in this day and age?

Well, if the 2nd Amendment exists to defend against oppression, then what is of real value is the freedom that it works to protect. The right to bear arms is, in and of itself, a right of secondary importance (perhaps why it is the second, and not the first amendment). Again, the right to bear arms exists only to defend other rights. And these other rights are the ones with which virtually all Americans primarily associate. Like the right to express yourself in whatever way you see fit, or the right to walk free of arbitrary detainment, or the right to believe in what you want, free of coercion.

But just because the 2nd Amendment has been rendered ineffective, I don't think it means that Americans should lay down their arms and accept oppression. It simply means that the battle for civil rights has been moved to a new arena. This battle is no longer fought in the fields of war, but in the halls of courthouses, and the houses of government. The gun lobby groups have clued into this, but they only have half the picture. They are out there, litigating and pressuring to defend the rights of Americans, but they are only concerned with a right that is useless in the information age, a secondary right. What they should really be doing is fighting against arbitrary imprisonment, unjustified search and seizure, censorship, and inequality. If your average gun-owning American skipped on guns, and invested the same time and money into the legal battle to protect their rights, one can be certain that they would not have eroded so precipitously in the last decade.

But policy makers were able to hoodwink the American people by publicly trumpeting the symbolic 2nd Amendment, while whittling away the real rights of freedom of speech, and right to a fair trial. If gun owners had been really concerned about their civil rights, and not about their damned guns, there would be no way Americans could be arrested and held without charge under the guise of 'national security'. But here, at the gun show, this celebration of an American right, no one's really thinking about rights. They're thinking about guns, pure and simple.

I’d like to share my thoughts with the people around me here, but I don’t think it would be too well received. Reason isn’t really part of the equation here. The mythology runs too deep. Criticizing the 2nd Amendment is like criticizing independence, or liberty, or ‘our troops’. Question gun ownership at a gun show, and people are liable to get nasty. Armed people. Armed nasty.

But otherwise everyone is really friendly. After all, I am part of the club (shhh…) Who could fault a young man for taking an interest in firearms? This is America, right?

But it doesn’t take long for my interest to wane, and I decide it’s time to leave. On my way out, I run into the same retired marine. We chat briefly, and I try to veer away from guns in the conversation. I learn that he’s from Escondido, the town nearest to Palomar Mountain, where I’m staying. We talk about what a dry summer it’s been, and the dying of the orange orchards.

“Heck,” he says, if San Diego keeps growing, it’ll be just like Orange County, not an orange in sight!”

He seems to have taken a shining to me, and maybe I’m just skeptical, but to me it seems slightly excessive. He looks at me in this way makes me just a wee bit leery. Like there’s something else going on, to which I am not quite party. But I push the thought away.

I eventually bid him adieu, and head to the parking lot. I’m half way to the car when I see him again. He hands me a piece of paper.

“It’s my number,” he says. “Give me a call when you’re in town. I’d love to sit down and have a cup of coffee with you.”

I tell him that I’ll try to, and wish him a good weekend.

As I sit in the car, about to start the ignition, I wonder what that was about. Was he just a lonely middle-aged man looking to make a friend? Perhaps he wanted someone to go shooting with down at the range some afternoon. Or maybe, as the hum tone of tension suggested, he was quietly hitting on me. Or maybe he just didn’t want it to be interpreted as such, and his nervousness made the interaction awkward. Not that I would be bothered by it. I just prefer to know what people’s motivations are.

And as I drive away, I think it could be alright to have someone to go shooting with in Escondido. I mean, I’m not much of a firearms enthusiast, but it might be fun. Yeah. Why was I being so weird about it? He was just a nice man.

But then, who knows, after all, he might just be trying to get his hands on my gun.

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