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Many of my fellow Americans hold in their minds complicatedly divergent views about guns — about guns’ large presence in our culture, about Americans’ right to own and carry guns, about guns’ generative relationship to violent crime, about guns’ responsibility for the deaths of children in mass killings, about accidental occurrences and suicides, and about what it all says about us that we have so many guns but can’t seem to exercise sane control over their use and misuse.
This is not to say that many, many good Americans don’t believe guns are abhorrent and wouldn’t abolish them one and all from our land. And it’s not to say that the National Rifle Association isn’t a domestic terrorist organisation that tacitly supports the killing of children more than it supports reasoned gun legislation. And it’s not to say I think that by writing this now anything about guns-in-America will get better, or that our minds and hearts will soon become less confounded by these matters. As an owner of several guns, I, as much as anyone, hold some of these divergent views. Therefore, what I say here is meant only to lay some certain matters bare, not to advocate whether gun-ownership is good or bad. If I end up defending a point of view or seeking to justify myself, I hope I’ll be responsible enough to own up.
For starters, I don’t care to delve deeply into the matter of whether we Americans do or don’t have a constitutional right to bear arms. In my personal view, different from the late Justice Scalia’s “originalist” view of our constitution, even if our founders did intend there to be a right to hold and bear arms — in 1791 — now is a different world, requiring different, less violent legal strategies to keep the peace. And yet. A right to own guns has been observed by the US Supreme Court, and for the moment is a matter of settled law. Guns of all sorts are mostly legal in the US, whether anyone likes it or not.
For myself — again, a gun owner — I think there is some merit to the rightwing maxim that says “when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns”. Every culture’s origin myth has in its annals many diorama-like, near-archetypal human situations held to be predictive and true, the violation or ignoring of which threatens the culture’s integrity. In much of America, one bit of this primal-ness depicts some completely innocent person being accosted in a darkened back alley by one or more very bad people bent on mayhem, and for the good and innocent party being fully able to defend him (or her) self. Often with a gun. Thinking about the matter again personally, the question arises that if my or my dearest one’s life should be put in harm’s way by just such an evildoer, would I like to have a gun with which to defend her? And me? I think I would.
And yet, in precisely such a hazardous confrontation — in New Orleans, on a dark street near my house one Sunday night 10 years ago — I was not armed when a teenage boy pointed a pistol at my wife and me at close range and specifically threatened to kill us. Had I been armed — and I’ve had the chance to think on this many times, since he didn’t shoot us — the poor kid was so inept at his robbery chops, that I’d have shot him dead as a mackerel. Which would’ve ended his young life at age 16, and ruined mine at 62. For that reason, no matter what other qualifying things I say here, I believe it’s far better that I didn’t have a gun that night and that I didn’t shoot that kid — although I unquestionably would have. Of course, it’s only dumb luck that the little bastard didn’t shoot us.
Carrying a pistol on your person — which the lad in New Orleans was doing that night — isn’t the same as wearing a hat or not wearing a hat. Ask a cop. When my wife was in public office in New Orleans in the mid-1990s, it was at a time of greatly increased drug crime and gun violence in our French Quarter neighbourhood. Our house was frequently broken into. My wife was robbed at gunpoint in our garage. A man pulled a pistol on me in the street. Tourists were often mugged and occasionally murdered near where we lived. I became alarmed for my wife’s safety, since she was often away from our house attending public meetings at night — doing her job. Admittedly, we could’ve moved away, but we felt compelled to stay. We liked our house, our neighbours. I therefore suggested to my wife that she obtain from the police a permit to carry a concealed weapon — the famous “concealed-carry” — thus to arm herself for protection. She, like me, is a lifetime quail and pheasant shooter, is a quite good shot, and knows about guns and gun safety. This, afterwards, she subsequently and legally did. So that for a time, when she was out alone at night, she carried a .38 calibre 5-shot Smith & Wesson Chief’s Special in her jacket pocket. In deference to my own perceived susceptibility to becoming a victim, I did the same. Many people we knew, people of all races and persuasions and orientations, did. I’m sure they’re still doing it.
But what my wife and I came very quickly to experience was a complex download of empirical and unexpected human data. For one thing, when you’re carrying a loaded pistol — in your pocket, in a holster, or stuck under the belt of your trousers — you’re never not thinking about it. Hats really are different. Carried on one’s person, a gun is preoccupying and foreign. It’s heavy. It can alter your gait. It interferes with your consciousness of your self. You’re now dangerous. Plus, as an appendage added on to who you are as you go into your day, a gun causes its bearer to see the world differently. A well-lit city sidewalk full of innocent pedestrians becomes a scene — a human grouping one of whose constituents you might need to shoot. Something good in your self is, by this means, sacrificed. And more. In a sudden, unwieldy hauling-out of your piece, or just by having your piece in your pocket, you can fumble around and shoot yourself, as often happens and isn’t at all funny. Or you might shoot some little girl on a porch across the street or two streets away, or five streets away. Lots and lots of untoward things can happen when you’re legally carrying a concealed firearm. One or two of them might turn out to be beneficial — to you. But a majority are beneficial to neither man nor beast. Boats are said, by less nautical types, always to be seeking a place to sink. Guns — no matter who has them — are always seeking an opportunity to go off. Anybody who says different is a fool or a liar or both.
Ultimately, and after not much time, we quit carrying a gun. It was simply too dangerous — and too stupid.
America is getting nuttier and nuttier. Every election cycle I notice how less governable it seems. Now the thuggish Donald Trump or the gargoyle-ish Ted Cruz may be our next president. What’s that about? Congress basically doesn’t work any more. Hundreds of our citizens were killed or wounded in mass shootings last year. Thanks to President Barack Obama and a lot of other right-thinking people, relations between blacks and white Americans (frictive, violent and unjust for centuries) are now prominently and more accurately in our view, and are improving. But white, undereducated men (the core group of handgun owners in our country), are living less long, are suffering increased alcoholism, drug abuse and stress. Black Americans know this experience very well in their own history. These white men don’t feel they’re keeping up with either their parents’ generation or with the people they normally compare themselves to (often African-Americans). Nine per cent of these men are unemployed. They’re cynical — with some reason — about their government. They feel too many things in the country aren’t going their way, and that they can’t control their lives. They fear change. Yet they sense the change they fear may have already occurred. Crime and gun violence are actually down in the US. But gun ownership is up. The NRA would say the latter statistic occasions the former. Me . . . I just say it feels dangerous over here.
I don’t cite these facts to engender undue sympathy for any particular American demographic slice. I personally do have some empathy for these white men, as well as for black teenagers mercilessly murdered by white police officers. And for lots of other people, too. I’m a novelist. Empathy is kinda my job. My version of liberty in the American republic is consonant with the view held by the cunningly named US appellate judge Learned Hand; which is, that the spirit of liberty is that spirit which is not too sure it’s right. What I feel, though, is what many Americans feel now — people I agree with and people I decidedly don’t — namely, we sense we’re approaching a tipping point in our liberties, a point at which good is being intolerably held hostage by not good, a point we need to back away from while we still can.
Not long ago I was invited to deliver a (for me) highly paid lecture at Texas A&M University, in the south of the US. I gladly agreed. I make a bit of a living doing such things. But at almost the same time — it was this winter — news media in the US reported that the state legislature in Texas had just ratified a statute permitting students above the age of 21 to carry concealed firearms on to campuses in all Texas public universities, venues that included both college classrooms and public meeting spaces. My lecture about writing novels would conceivably be attended by young people with loaded guns under their letter jackets or squeezed into the waist band of their yoga tights. I needed to give this some thought.
Of course the whack-jobs in the Texas legislature believed they were just “protecting against” mass shootings of the sort that at least seem, inordinately, to occur on college greens nowadays. The model for this bold assumption is that if everybody could come to school locked and loaded, then the outlaws wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of massacring a lot of people. As a theory, it has a certain blunt logic, especially for people who fantasise infantile, action-figure scenarios as their primary thinking uplink.
But, I thought: how often do these mass campus shootings actually happen? And how congenial is an armed student body to the larger aims of a great multiversity? If at least one goal of a university is providing a haven in which to learn, what about the need to keep unarmed students safe from their armed classmates — who might not be so expert in the use of firearms? What about the university’s goal of free and unfettered inquiry? Of critical thinking? Of agreeing to disagree without prejudice? What could be more of a fetter than a snarling, armed, possibly half-drunk frat-boy, sitting next to you in your Problems in Democracy class, who doesn’t like what he’s hearing about General Beauregard and the civil war, and suddenly needs to express himself more vividly? Is this armed guy the problem or the solution to the problem? And what about poor college professors (one of whom I am)? What about their work conditions, their level of stress? Their freedom? And the janitors and the secretaries and the co-eds enjoying their barbecue out on the college lawn, who find themselves in the line of fire emanating from the lecture hall because li’l Johnny-from-Lubbock just couldn’t stand this crap another minute and happens to have the lethal and legal means to put a stop to it? What are we encouraging here? What in the world? Somebody needs to mess with Texas. Give it a brain transplant. It isn’t good to have students with guns on college campuses. I own guns. I know. Regretfully I wrote a note to A & M’s president declining to be his guest — I hope, without prejudice to myself.
The reason it’s so hard to get a straight line on Americans’ attitude toward guns — and on ourselves — is not just that we Americans don’t do a lot of issue-related thinking over here. It’s also because we’re accustomed to deluding ourselves and to neither hearing nor telling the truth about many of our more important motives and interests. Probably those cultural and national myths I mentioned are also required to contain a large amount of untruth to remain serviceable. In the US we’re accustomed to believing we’re “exceptional;” that our battered democracy should be a model for all other cultures; that invading Iraq twice was a necessary and good idea for the Iraqis; that President Obama has sold the country down the river simply by providing healthcare for vast numbers of our citizens. There are a lot of these “truths”. These are just some of the less zany ones.
About guns, the real truth’s even harder to sort out. The NRA argues it’s best to arm everybody, including infants, because Americans are always in jeopardy of having our rights and weapons taken away, Charles II-style, so we need guns to defend ourselves — a cause proclaimed and proclaimed and proclaimed with the force of moral self-evidence. The idealised rationale for this argument would seem to be that in a humane world there’d be no need for firearms at all. Only ours isn’t that way so we need to have plenty of firepower to force people to be nice — Donald Trump’s favourite word.
What I sense, however, to be guiltily underlying this claim for moral high-ground about owning guns is something more penile than humanistic. Gun ownership and the intransigence with which it’s defended and promoted in the US is just one more guise for a grab at political power. A dubious belief that many American liberals hold about the NRA is that many, perhaps most, NRA members are far more moderate than the organisation’s public pronouncements make it seem. Why, liberals wonder, don’t the forces of good just wrest control from the loonies? Better angels are once again puzzlingly letting themselves be held hostage. Why don’t these NRA moderates just do what’s right? It’s another of those fuzzy truths we semi-believe and console ourselves with, and which render us strangely but self-satisfyingly passive — and complicitous.
Americans don’t have saner gun laws because most Americans, including those citizens who puzzle over better angels, don’t want saner gun laws. If we wanted them enough we’d have them — like healthcare and rural electrification. There’s something about disarming ourselves that must just make us feel naked and impotent and in jeopardy of we know not what. That’s part of our origin myth, too.
Me, I’m for saner gun laws. I’ve voted for saner gun laws and will do it again. If guns were banned in the US, I’d give mine up and worry about outlaws on a case-by-case basis. When some crazy fool walks into a public school and shoots down a bunch of innocent children, how I feel is trapped in my own country, like a man going down on a torpedoed ship. But when I try to think about what I can personally do to put a stop to this lunacy, my first thought is to take a pistol and shoot whoever’s responsible for making such travesties acceptable. Show them the terrible error of their ways in terrible terms they will understand. I probably won’t do that. But I think you can see our problem now.
Richard Ford is a Pulitzer Prize novelist and Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University in New York City
Photographs: Getty Images; Alastair Casey