Thursday, October 8, 2015



          This is hardly news. But it doesn't make the news very often. Instead we hear mostly about the mass shootings, the power of the National Rifle Association, the Second Amendment, regulation and the lack of it, mental illness and guns, the little children who shoot each other, accidentally or not, etc. etc. All that familiar stuff. But the fact of the matter is, we love guns. Love 'em to death. Any culture that has , what is it? 350 million firearms floating around? loves guns. They don't all belong to nutcases. And it has nothing to do with a "well-regulated militia." There's nothing regulated about all these gun owners, who obviously number in the millions. It's ordinary people who love guns, who fantasize about defending their homes, their persons, about cowing the burglars who break in at night, who think guns are a kind of insurance policy against violence. Who think it's about Deadwood, and the guys in the white hats who have an amazing proficiency with pistols fighting it out with their fast draws on that mythical street where these battles happen. The hidden dream life of the American citizen.

          And the culture panders to it relentlessly. Starting with Westerns, then gangster movies, all the way up to space epics, it's always about gunfights, or large explosions filling the screen with fire, the excitement of seeing people killed. And the indifference to it. I don't go to these kinds of movies any more. I find them too disturbing; they don't let me sleep. I know something about guns from firing howitzers during my artillery training, and believe me, they're fun to fire. You can stand directly behind a howitzer, toss off a shell, and watch it ascend to its apogee before losing sight of it. It's beautiful. As a rifleman firing M-1s in training, I reached just below "expert" status, where the challenge is to reach an unnatural level of stillness inside and out to lay down accurate fire. Like anything challenging, it's satisfying to be good at it. It's definitely fun to shoot skeet, where the target is moving clay pigeons, and I've shot animals, too. In my first marriage we had skunks living in a crawl space under our house and I killed them with a .22, six of them, one by one, as they emerged into the yard, then dumped the bodies in the woods. The stink penetrated the house, my business suits, my wife's clothes. I had no regrets, no pangs of conscience about it. My two nephews own guns and one hunts, they're both highly responsible men, and I have no objections to hunting. The one eats what he kills; the other owns a gun for safety, or used to. Hunting and gathering is an ancient human way of staying alive.

          More than that, I write military history for a magazine of the same name, and there's a whole lot of gunfire in military history. So are we going to do away with war because people die, a considerable number of them unarmed civilians? To borrow a line from Hemingway, isn't it pretty to think so.

          It's a savage world. But America is peculiarly savage, more than most other civilized countries, and it's not going to stop until we stop loving guns so much. To do that you have to start with young men. You have to educate the testosterone, admittedly not an easy task. Testosterone is built in. Just as the violence is built into our history. Cortes won Mexico with Toledo steel and horses; we won North America with superior weaponry, too. The West was won with guns, beginning with Massachusetts and Virginia and up and down the East Coast and steadily moving west. The result was a genocide we rarely acknowledge, millions of native peoples wiped from the face of the Earth. That would be another beginning, to acknowledge that primal crime, along with the slavery that politicians wooing the South still try to downplay, to wipe from the history books. This is who we are, this is what we stand for. Good guys against bad guys, as we'd like to believe. That's bullshit. It was murder.

          Another starting place would be training. If you own guns, you should have to go through a regulating process at least as stringent as driving and owning a car, which involves training young people how to use them. Cars are recognized as potentially deadly weapons; so should guns be. In the same way fathers train their sons how to drive, they should be required to teach their sons at least the same level of responsibility in the use of guns. I don't own a gun, but the Army trained me how to handle one, how to take one apart and put it back together again, and how to shoot it. I was good at it and I enjoyed the training. Military people respect guns, respect the dangers involved with them, and are very careful with them.

          We're not going to get guns out of our system. We're not going to be Sweden or Great Britain or France, where gun violence is so small. Recognizing that, maybe we would have a chance of becoming sensible and realistic about the fact and do the obvious necessary things to train people to use them properly, to regulate their use and who uses them, and reduce the level of violence. We need to demystify them. And bring a sense of real human responsibility into our political life, and into American culture.