I’m pretty okay with any kind of gun control that our political process can produce. Sure, let’s do it. Let’s try doing something instead of doing nothing. Unrestricted gun ownership is, like the second amendment, a wildly anachronistic relic of a very different period in this country’s history, and I’d be down with scrapping it. And if you think you need a gun to protect your farm from coyotes or shoot deer, calm down. Those guns are safe. There is no possible scenario in which it will ever become difficult for you to purchase the kind of firepower you will need to kill deer and coyotes in Montana. If you think jack-booted thugs are going to come for your shotgun, you are wrong. They don’t want your shotgun.
A handgun, on the other hand, is a gun which is designed to shoot people, and an assault rifle is a gun which is designed to shoot lots of people, very fast. In what circumstance would it actually be desirable for anyone to own these things? Why do you need a gun that’s small enough for you to carry and conceal everywhere you go? You don’t need a handgun to shoot squirrels, and you don’t want one; I’ve eaten squirrel meat, and you have to spit out the occasional shotgun pellet, because you need a shotgun to shoot squirrels, because they’re really darned small. You also don’t want a handgun to shoot deer or coyotes or anything else; you need a long barreled gun that you can easily hold steady enough to shoot accurately. And you don’t need or want an assault rifle for hunting animals; hunting animals is a matter of being quiet, waiting, and being quiet while waiting, and then shooting accurately at the single moment when you have the opportunity. The ability to fire dozens or hundreds of rounds in a matter of seconds is not useful. It’s hard to get close to animals because there aren’t many of them around; you don’t need a hundred rounds to kill one deer.
Killing animals gets our foot in the conceptual door, though, because a lot of people who own handguns and assault rifles imagine that they will use them to kill human animals. Jack-booted thugs, rapists, muggers, black people… whoever it is that the owner of a hand-gun imagines themselves shooting—or the owner of an assault rifle—chances are good that they’ve found a way to think of that human being as less human than other humans beings. Killing white kids in Connecticut is not okay; we can all agree on that. Killing a black teenager in a hoodie, in a white suburb? Killing an intruder in your home? Killing a racist police officer? Killing an ATF agent who has come to put a microchip in your brain and take grandma off to a death panel? We have a whole range of aphorisms that naturalize these acts of homicide. Stand your ground. A man’s home is his castle. By whatever means necessary. The tree of liberty is watered with the blood of tyrants. Etc. Thou Shalt Not Kill, except when an aphorism tells you it’s okay. The suspect made a suspicious movement, and I discharged my service weapon five times
After all, I suppose there are situations where the use of a gun to kill another human being is defensible or socially necessary, just like there might be situations where we need to use torture to find out where the ticking time bomb is. Maybe. Mostly, though, there really aren’t. Mostly we tell these kinds of stories because we want the guns for other reasons, just like “torture” is almost never really about getting information. And while there might be these isolated occasions—even if we concede their existence—it’s pretty clear to me that the occasional example, the occasional justified need for using a gun to kill another human being, is no basis for a generalized social right to have guns all the time. It just isn’t. The argument makes no sense at all, but people who use those lines aren’t making arguments. They are invoking the magic spell that licenses them to be able to kill.
I think we mostly already know this. We know that the rhetoric is mostly all bullshit, and that most gun owners just like the feel of a metallic cock in their hands. Deep down, even gun owners know it. Having that desire doesn’t make you a bad person; it just makes you what you are, American man or whatever else. But being ashamed of that desire, and taking refuge in something that someone else said that sounds good, well, that’s all it is: masking a real but shameful desire with a socially acceptable rationale. And I’m not speaking for “other people,” here; I’m speaking about me, what I know about myself, and what I know about the people I went to high school with.
The problem is that understanding that it’s all bullshit doesn’t actually accomplish very much, does it? We are built out of bullshit. We lie to ourselves and about ourselves all the time; it’s bullshit all the way down. And those people that “cling to their guns,” as Obama carelessly put it? Well, that’s just another phrase we can use to misunderstand the problem, and lie to ourselves about what it is. Those people cling to their guns in the same way I cling to bad television when I’m stressed out, the same reason a former smoker chews gum, the same way a scared liberal clings to the notion that a good control law would do the trick. Our desires are powerful, and our fears are big and scary things that we don’t control, can’t even begin to regulate. We can only respond, and try to respond in healthy ways, but we shouldn’t pretend that we’re more rational than we are. Especially the day after a bunch of kids died and we thought about that happening to our kids, or to the children of people we know, people like us.
Two days ago, I was pretty okay with any kind of gun control that our political process could produce. Fuck guns. I don’t want one. I’m afraid of them. I’ve fired a few guns, a few small ones, and I was afraid of those guns.
Guns are a fetish object, a social relation crystallized into an object you can hold in your hand. Holding a gun makes me a man. Holding a gun makes me Clint Eastwood. Holding a gun makes me a hunter. Holding a gun makes me an American, a patriot. Holding a gun makes me a white man who can kill black people. And my desire for all of those things gives the gun that kind of power. My fear makes me need a gun, my desire makes me want it.
“Gun control” is also a fetish object. That’s why so many of us reached for it as soon as we heard about what had happened. We were scared, and it’s reassuring to hold it in our mouths. Doesn’t make it right or wrong; it has nothing to do with that. And if I could wave my wand and make them all disappear, I would; when there’s a candidate that wants to ban them, or tax them out of existence, I’ll vote for her. But if you’re with me on that, you probably already were too. And as Matthew Cheney pointed out—the last time this happened—gun control is a kind of utopianism, the idea that if we got rid of the objects themselves, the desire for them, the need for them, and the culture that is built around them and makes them necessary, that all of that would go away.
But it won’t, will it? The problem is so much bigger that that. You don’t end hunger by banning food. You might eventually end nicotine addiction by banning cigarettes, but that won’t do much for the cravings in the short term. I feel like sometimes it’s the bigness of the problem that scares us the most, and so a solution that feels practical becomes the only response we can imagine. But when people have guns to protect them from black people and the government, a black president is not going to have much luck trying to repeal the 2nd amendment.