Wednesday, December 16, 2015

How guns make people stupid

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.

1 John 4:18

When I was growing up, our Mother prohibited us calling anyone 'stupid.'  I am not at all sure why, but I'd speculate this epithet was used against her when she was a child, and she remembered the hurt.  So even though I sometimes use the term now that I'm - shall we say - an elder, I am still more circumspect than many about when and how I apply it.

I know the word gets used in a broad range of ways in an assortment of contexts.  I know some people who use it lightly as a synonym for 'silly.'  Others to mean senseless, or foolish.  Many people whose textual communications I read online refer to people who disagree with them as stupid, and what's wrong with that is fairly obvious.  Less directly, but related to that employment of the term, many people refer to others who are uneducated or use street grammar or are ignorant of particular facts and ideas as 'stupid,' and I find that both fallacious and offensive.  It's just a declaration that 'I am smart and you are not,' which sort of carries its own criticism around inside it.  Maybe Mom had an effect.

When I use the word 'stupid,' it has nothing to do with one's native cognitive capacities nor one's education nor one's class.  I associate stupidity with intentional obduracy, with that dig-in-your-heels, stubborn-assed refusal to do something or not do something when you know better.  Without that element of intent, using the term as an epithet or accusation strips the term of any moral content. Doing something or not doing something "because I can" is a species of stupidity.  None of this may concord with Merriam-Webster or whomever; I just want it be clear how I'm using the word here.

In the headline, I say that guns contribute to stupidity.  Before I make this connection, I need to say a few things about guns.

I grew up with the things.  Our Dad taught us to shoot very young with .22 rifles and .410 shotguns.  He was born in 1906, an excellent shot and a skilled hunter who never ever kept trophies.  He had some rules about guns and hunting:  never kill it if you won't eat it; and never point a gun - real or toy - at another human being.  That's right.  If we got caught pointing toy guns at each other or anyone else, we were in deep shit.  All guns were real; and all guns were loaded; and the guns we had around our house were not intended to be used on human beings.

On the other hand, we were the first generation to be raised on television.  So we were inundated with gunplay via powerful audiovisual storytelling that was predominantly Westerns.  In television and movie stories, people pointed guns at each other all the time; and they shot each other, a lot.  Gunsmoke (get it) ran weekly, and the opening shot for every episode (pun intended) was a deadly quick-draw contest in the middle of a dusty city street.  One of the things that these stories taught us about shooting - aside from the fact that it was the only way, ultimately, to ensure justice - was that God favored the good guys (with guns) with a greater talent for marksmanship than God did the bad guys (this good and bad thing was crystal clear).  Bad guys always missed at the crucial moment, and good guys could drop a bad guy (or a 'hostile Indian') from a cliff two hundred yards away, shooting from the hip with a post-Civil War revolver.  This correspondence between masculine moral superiority and markmanship underwrote the most overt teaching of the show or film - that violence is redemptive; and that - in the end - only violence was capable of delivering redemption.

The exception to the pointing guns at people rule in our house, eventually, was permission to pop over green rubber soldiers - the kind you buy by the bagful - with BB guns.

Then I joined the Army.  There, all we did was practice shooting human beings.  We did our marksmanship qualification on human-shaped targets that would actually fall when you hit them.  And we played war games with blank-adapters on our assault rifles, so we could shoot at one another and get the feel of associating the trigger squeeze and the noise with an actual human (dressed in black 'pajamas' to simulate being a 'bad' Vietnamese).

When I got back from Vietnam, even after I got out of the Army, I often carried a concealed firearm.  Before I get into that, though, we need to get closer to guns - the kind that are meant to be used on people.

In Vietnam, I carried an M-16 assault rifle for a couple of months, then I was assigned an M-60 machinegun. These were not Daddy's .410 rabbit gun or .22 squirrel gun.  When you saw, smelled, disassembled, assembled, cleaned, aimed, and shot these weapons . . . when you felt their solidity in your hands, you also felt the power of life and death.  That M-16 fired a round that left the barrel at 3110 feet per second.  The M-60 has a muzzle velocity of 2800 feet per second, rounds that are linked into belts of 100.  In the nanosecond it takes for these projectiles to pass through a human body, there are effects on that body that are summed up clinically in something called "terminal ballistics."  I won't review these effects except to say that they are devastating, more than merely something that pierces a body, but something that causes a phenomenon called 'cavitation,' and all the messy physics of projectiles that are misshapen or shattered on impact with muscles, organ tissues, bones.

What I brought back from Vietnam was fear, suspicion, and the intimate and visceral knowledge that I could inflict this kind of devastation - that I could end a life - by properly aligning the sights of a firearm and applying pressure with one trigger finger.  I was a skinny little lad with big ears and freckles; but fuck with me and I had the experience and the hardware to utterly erase you.

Anyone who has handled a firearm - say a handgun - knows that when that thing is in your hand, you can not not know the terrible power in that thing, that weight, that peculiar design of a tool that has the capacity, once prepared, to change everything in a split second.  You also ought to know - and feel - how the slightest misapplication can result in terrifying consequences in the same split second.  This is why our Dad didn't even allow us to play-shoot each other.  He didn't grow up with toy guns.  He grew up with guns.

In 1982, when I was selected for membership in the Army's counter-terrorrist unit, I was specially trained as a gunfighter.  Not an infantry grunt, but a precision shooter of pistols, submachineguns, and sniper rifles.  Deep deep gun culture.  We fired thousands upon thousands of rounds in practice, and we were conversant in the variety of gun technologies. And something else happens when you practice this ("practical," they called it) shooting; when you quick-draw, change magazines, rapid-reload, discriminate 'targets,' hit sequence targets, shoot with precision from a series of positions, learn the art of the 'double-tap," and so on and so on.  You realize that you are not merely a man with a gun, and all that we have already described, but that you are a man who can effectively fight other men with guns at close range and survive.  Practice it long enough, and you will want to actually do it.

That's precisely what many of today's 'gun nuts' do.  They idolize, fetishize, obsess about . . . guns.  And they spend untold amounts of money to practice, practice, practice.  I'll tell you a little secret about many of them who are white guys and members of the National Rifle Association (because I have in the past been among them, accepted as one of them because I am a white guy):  their predominant shooting fantasies are about shooting black people, especially black men - of whom they harbor an immense fear.  But with a gun, one need not fear, because one has the power of life and death literally at one's fingertip.  Bang!  Threat eliminated.

I recently heard a news story that revealed that in my state of Michigan, there are now more than 400,000 people with permits to carry concealed firearms.  Most of them are men, and most are white, and many of them live in a fantasy where they will - like Marshall Dillon on Gunsmoke - get their chance to prove themselves (as Men) and deliver justice by killing another human  being with their guns.

[For the record, there are more and more women nowadays - mostly white women - who are falling into the same fantasy, and who are practicing, practicing, practicing with guns.  But it's still far more essential to certain constructions of masculinity.]

As someone who used to carry, I can say that - when I was armed - I would go anywhere I wanted, whenever I wanted, respond to anyone any way I wanted, be as rude as I wanted, as inconsiderate as I wanted, and meet those little non-verbal challenges that strange men throw at each other because it's a man-thing any way I wanted, and respond to rudeness and idiocy (to which I could choose not to respond) . . . because I could.  There it is!  The criterion for stupid.  I have a damn gun, and I know how to use it.  I can put two rounds in your thorax in less than a second.  I can erase you.

I used to claim it was for self-defense; but for quite a few years now, I've gone unarmed and miraculously survived.  I do avoid certain people and places, i.e., drunk people (the most dangerous of animals) and places with a lot of drunk people.  These were the people and places that most often put me at risk back in the day.  I don't do that any more just 'because I can.' I am also deferential, courteous, and friendly (when possible) with strangers; I don't do the dominator-stare-down thing with other men.  Common decency/common sense stuff, that you can abandon - stupidly - when you pack heat.

The memes for gun nuts are pretty stupid, too.  Gun people already know, when they post things like this . . .

. . . that their ammunition can penetrate walls when they miss, pass from one (intended) body to the next (unintended) one when they don't, ricochet around the house and into the kids' bedrooms, and that in the event that someone breaks in while they are home, they are likely to lose the gun to the assailant.  Moreover, and far more likely than an armed confrontation with an invader, having guns around the house increases the probability of suicide, accidental shootings, or one family member shooting the other during a drunken argument.

Few things jump as high on the stupidity-meter as openly carrying a gun.  Because most of us are understandably not comfortable knowing that some total stranger - who may have the judgement of a six-year-old for all we know (open-carrying has already cast suspicion on you) - has the power of instant life and death on his hip in a grocery store where people are pushing their baby-strollers.  The guys who do that are doing it 'because they can.'

The portable power of life and death means there are lots of things you can do simply "because I can."

The reality is, this fixation on guns is rooted in irrational fear, not of actual dangers - but of two other kinds of fear really:  fantasy dangers (often racialized), and fear of being too effeminate.

God bless you all, and may we try to avoid things that make us stupid.


  1. All the problem-solving abilities you might have degenerate into what you see through a pair of gunsights. Pretty small slice of the pie....

  2. Sending this along to share with my buddies, hopefully they'll read it.

  3. While i respect your serving our country. You are out of touch with reality about law abiding citizens & their reasons to own firearms. You also claim that NRA members have a fantasy about shooting Black people.
    Most gun crimes in America are committed by Blacks with illegally obtained guns. Look at Detroit... Chicago.. & Los Angeles crime figures to verify this fact. With crime's imperative to own firearms more now than ever. The only thing that is stupid is your bogus article.

  4. Um, no. No NRA members I know fantasize about killing black people (and I wouldn't hang out with them if they did, either). The attitude described in the paragraph about "when you were armed..." is exactly the opposite of the correct attitude; someone with that attitude has no business carrying a weapon of any sort, and the attitude would be grounds for voluntary manslaughter if someone used deadly force.

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  7. John McCarroll just demonstrated Jason Jackson was wrong about NRA members not fantasizing about killing blacks. As someone who is from WV and lives in eastern WA deep in trump country and who has been stabbed in the heart by a black man in SF ,i still dont carry a weapon despite being surrounded by gun nuts everytime at the grocery store in rural WA because i'm not a pansy and i understand statistics. the terrorists and the dangerous black man are much more likely to be in the city so why are all the gun nuts in rural areas? most dont hunt. ..its just their fear manifest.

    1. Law Abiding citizens don't buy guns for the purpose of committing crime. They buy them for hunting or to protect themselves..their family & their property from criminals with illegal guns.
      There will always be a few idiots who will make stupid comments about what they would fantasize about doing with their guns..but it's just cheap talk. The vast majority of legal gun owners obey the law.

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  9. What I get from this is that the government isn't good at weeding out people who shouldn't be in the enforcement class.

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