Gun Dreams

In our fantasies, a gun ends all arguments in our favor.

When I was nineteen years old, I took a job as a prison guard in the Middlesex County House of Correction. At that time, the prison was an old brick structure that had built sometime around the same time as Fenway Park. My time in jail was boring for four and half days a week and exciting for about four hours. Most of the boring time crept by at the back tower. I was given a walkie-talkie, a gun, and a cup of coffee. So I sat at stared at the back wall of the prison and waited for nothing to happen. Eventually, it did.

The tower had two cardboard windows. My predecessor on the back tower, in the stupor of boredom, had tracked the grackles with his gun. Then, in a moment of irrational exuberance, had pulled the trigger. Two weeks later, after having served his suspension, my colleague returned to the tower and took another shot at the grackle.

I didn’t want to have any part of the grackles, the jays, or the occasional pigeon. I know how well my imagination flies in the stiff wind of boredom. Those windows wouldn’t stand a chance.

The officers at the jail had given me three afternoons of weapons instruction. They taught me to shoot every weapon in the armory, from the hand guns to the riot guns. Three of them stood behind me as I fired at targets in the back acres, behind the corn and the playing fields. My good liberal mind was upset, but my manly heart loved the thumping destruction each gun let loose. Every step was serious, every skill was detailed, and the actual firing was a joy. Firing the weapons, especially the riot gun, was more fun than I could be trusted with. Those afternoons were the only times I fired those weapons. But I thought about them, often.

More than any other piece of machinery, guns feed the imagination. Every other piece of machinery invites, and allows, you to use it. When you hold a hammer, you look for a nail to pound. When you hold a pen, you try to write with it. Even knives want you to cut or shave. Only the gun invites you to use it, but doesn’t allow you to. If I go to Dick’s Sporting Goods, they will let me hit the new drivers, but they won’t let me fire off the shotguns.

Weapons force you to dream. If I owned a .357 Magnum, I would hear Dirty Harry’s words every time I looked at it and I would fantasize about the night an intruder walked into my house so that I could finally use it. Were I a hunter, these dreams would have a certain reality on dank November mornings; I can imagine a hunter falling to sleep at night and dreaming of flights of ducks and showers of birdshot.

What must the owners of semi-automatic weapons dream of?

The shooting range only teases you. Paper targets come racing back on the pulley and you can imagine shooting at the man. A man, standing in a field with the Bushmaster, fires a spray of bullets at his targets and thinks of … burglars? Race war? Zombies?

People sell semi-military weapons with the word “tactical” hanging from the trigger guard like a price tag. A man who buys one of these tactical weapons is invited to of Seal Team Six and the Ranger. To own a “tactical” gun is to imagine yourself sneaking about your own house, hunting bad guys. Perhaps, you imagine joining a group of like minded friends, created a militia, and drilling scenarios where the team must repel an invasion. Tactical weapons would finally have their purpose.

In the Gun Dreams, the world becomes simpler. By owning a gun, particularly a very dangerous one like an AK-47, you put yourself in the center of the world. Control returns to you. Fire a gun in the air and you can get men to listen. Point a gun, and you can get women to act. The gun ends all arguments in your favor. In Gun Dreams.

If you are carrying a semi-automatic, “tactical” weapon, you are in the middle of your own Tom Clancy dream and can’t call yourself an adult. The first rule of adulthood: You can’t believe your own bullshit.

Everyone wants to be the hero. Everyone wants to have that glorious moment when their actions mean something and you can do something that is, without question, decisive and good. Shooting the intruder, holding off the attacking biker gang, taking out the rabid dog that was hanging around Miss Maudie’s all serve that ultimate and decisive moment when action can be done.

I don’t have many problems with people and their private fantasies. I don’t care how people dress up in their houses, what games they play when the shades are closed, and what tools they use for their amusement. If my neighbor wants to imagine himself rescuing his wife and daughters from a biker gang, so be it.

However, to be an adult, we need to be able to see the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. We need to see ourselves as we are, not as we imagine ourselves to be. We are not Army Rangers, Green Berets, or Seal Team Six. The world, dangerous as it is, does not have roving bands of thieves, murderers, and biker gangs set on rape. Further, we are all awkward, panicky, and disaster prone people. The gun is far more dangerous to us, and everyone we love, than it is to some intruder. To walk the streets armed and see yourself as a neighborhood watch, is to see your self shooting “criminals.” If you are carrying a semi-automatic, “tactical” weapon, you are in the middle of your own Tom Clancy dream and can’t call yourself an adult. The first rule of adulthood: You can’t believe your own bullshit.

As adults, we should know the truth. The world is a dark and irrational place where good people die of cancer and bad people drink bourbon into their eighties. We know that pain comes to most peoples lives and tragedy is as random as the rain. You may work hard all of your life and lose your work in an windblown instant. You may not work all that hard and fortune comes to you with a full purse and an empty wallet. We know the hard truths of the world we live in, but we don’t tell the kids.

Children get to play. They get to arm themselves with super-soakers or nerf guns and hunt each other in “Lord of the Flies” abandon. We ask them to immerse themselves in imagination because we see this as a learning stage. We justify the running and jumping as team-building, communicating, and exercise. We don’t ask them to think about the cold black and blue reality of November.

We cross our fingers and tell kind myths. Thomas the Tank Engine is always on time. If you really believe and clap your hands, Tinkerbell will come back. If you behave well, Santa will come.

We want our kids to believe in a fair and honest world where good things happen to good people. If they share their toys, say thank you, and flush, everything will work out fine for them. They won’t wind up kidnapped on a road, gagged on a flower, or shot in their first grade classroom, as long as they follow the rules. For the most part, we are right.

At Sandy Hook Elementary, one teacher hid her children in a closet and had them whisper Christmas carols in the dark while white, nerdy, and angry death prowled the halls looking for more children to kill. That teacher did what we all do; we tell myths and stories to keep the children cheerful while death sniffs for them.

When I think of the massacre, I don’t see the killer walking into the school and turning left for the first grade room. I don’t see the people trying to stop him. I don’t even see the shooting.

I see the room twelve hours later.

We must look in the classroom and see how it is. We must see the calendar bulletin board, with the December birthdays and the days marked in snowmen. We must see the job chart on the wall and the fish-tank in the back of the room. We must see the reading corner and the artwork on the walls and coats hung up on hooks. And Santa. He is waving from a sleigh full of books.

We must see the bodies where they lie under the little desks, next to the chairs, on top of the comfy rug. They are staring. They are still. The police are doing their work. They are going step by step through the crime scene. They take pictures. They measure the angles. They plot out the footsteps. We have to see what must be there. We must imagine the unimaginable.

The world is not safe. And if we keep giving semi automatic weapons to lonely men with violent fantasies, it will grow more unsafe.

I am tired of heroes. I am tired of boys throwing their bodies in front of their girlfriends to save them from bullets. I am tired of teachers getting shot so that they can protect their students. They are heroes because we, as a society, refuse to wake up from our gun dreams.

Guns feed our dreams and our egos. They lull us to a sleep where the world stands at moral attention and grudging fear. We awake to the awful wisdom of Pogo; that “we have met the enemy and he is us.”


Read more about Guns on The Good Life.

Image credit: paljoakim/Flickr

About Robert Barsanti

Robert Barsanti teaches in the Berkshires and is the father of two boys. You can follow his Twitter feed here.


  1. I must say, the true problem you have highlighted in you piece is one of the chief issues in our American society today, Cynicism.

    You talk of this irrational dream-like state, but you have, by your own admission only had limited experience with firearms. Ask most people who have grown up with firearms for hunting, or our infantry contributor who shot by virtue of his job. I myself was a firearms instructor in the military, shooting 4-5 times/week. When it is routine, trust me, there is so little daydreaming about using that piece of iron, and much more of annoyance of the weight of carrying it.

    Moreover, you state “I am tired of heroes. I am tired of boys throwing their bodies in front of their girlfriends to save them from bullets. I am tired of teachers getting shot so that they can protect their students. They are heroes because we, as a society, refuse to wake up from our gun dreams”. I have to say, for all of the Good Men Project readers, you are the SHITE we are trying to elevate above. To sit in your armchair and criticize those who stand up fr others, those whom give their lives for justice and righteousness, is to stand WHOLLY CONTRARY to why we are here together.

    I do not mean this as a personal attack, as I myself have (after a painful divorce) settled into the comfort of a Cynical and self-centered life. I merely mean to bring it forward to you that true meaning is only found in contribution to others.

    J. Reed

  2. And in the fantasies of gun-hating faux-liberals, we can simply wish guns away!

    But in the real world, guns exist. The only question becomes who gets to own them – the criminals and the government (and given the latter’s behavior over the last few years, why should we really separate the two?), or everyone?

    This isn’t an ‘us or them’ situation. This is a ‘us, or them and us’ situation.

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    And I don’t think they dreamed of “being heroes”, but of more innocents not killed.

    • @richard- I have no idea what you mean…
      The quickest way that less people would have been killed in that situation would have been someone parking a bullet in Colin’s cranium immediately after he started shooting…
      Nothing heroic about that.. It would have been akin to pulling a fire extinguisher off the wall & dealing with a problem. Or clearing your streets after a hurricane….

      • Richard Aubrey says:

        I was remarking that the writer of the original piece would have you believe that such thoughts as taking care of business on the LIRR were male heroic fantasies, not problem-solving.

        • @Richard— Don’t know where you come from- but in my world I’d say the majority of men fantasize about the oppurtunity to do something heroic, score with the prom queen & get a ticker tape parade at some time in their lives….
          So I guess I’m in line with Robert on this one….
          If you want to tell me this is not so- let me shout BS right now…
          That’s why we send our sons to karate rather than step aerobics.

          • Richard Aubrey says:

            I’ll try again. The writer of the article claims that guys want guns so they can be the heroes in some fantasy. I claim bullshit. That’s his deal.
            I claim that guys who think about, among other things, the LIRR, wish they’d been there, armed, so they could have taken care of a problem, saving innocent lives, not so they could be heroes in some fantasy. Taking care of that and walking away anonymously, while highly unlikely, would be perfectly satisfactory for most guys.

            • I believe you have a distinction without a difference. I don’t know what the distinction is between a gun dream and a wish. I wish I had a gun on the LI RR is a Dirty Harry fantasy.

              Forgive me for observing that if you had a gun on the train, there would have been more dead. (Go back to see the recent shoot out at the Empire State Building)

              Thanks for reading

              • The Empire shooting had panic and carelessness of Cop-arrogance written all over it. I have yet to meet a cop who can hit the broad-side of the proverbial barn (seriously).

              • @Barr- as someone put it I am a practitioner of arcane Red Neck Arts…
                A neighborhood where I have a gun, chainsaw, welder, jumper cables and a snow blower is definitely a safer place.
                I often take the train Furguson shot up and there would have been at least one more body, the night it occurred I was working in my shop and finally asked the 3rd person who called & said “Good you’re home” what the hell was up. Me or him, I can state that with confidence.
                I have hip checked a purse snatcher into the jail ward at the hospital (and at the urging of a lawyer passerby split before the cops got there) broken up a robbery at a bodega and stopped what would probably have been a rape.
                I’ve put down feral and car smashed dogs, broken backed bunnies and sick livestock.
                I don’t get on an airplane without 3 lethal weapons on me.
                I no longer carry a pistol or revolver.

                • Richard Aubrey says:

                  You ever think of rolling one of those thin seat-back magazines up really, really tightly? I did some fencing, and I think I’d really rather have one of those mags than a box-cutter. I mean, they simply will not collapse if thrust is along the long axis. Or Time, now that there’s so little of it left. Newsweak would have done in its last couple of years, except touching that piece of filth was against my religion. Now I don’t have to worry.
                  I have carried a coping saw handle for over forty years. Good grip and a pointed threaded end. Had customs and cops in five countries look at it and shrug. It’s not a weapon, see?

              • Richard Aubrey says:

                Barr. Not likely. I’ve spent more time on the range than those cops have, at government expense. Qualified with most of the weapons in the rifle battalion, back in the day.

            • If I may; I don’t think this fantasy-hero outcome is the case. And I won’t say for-certian, as I still can’t identify my real motives for charity.

              I have no visions of standing before the news cams discussing how I dropped the mad-dog with one hollow-point .357mag to the cranium. So I think; Absent the “visions” of such, I don’t think I would be motivated by that.

              I’ve carried guns professionally and personally my entire 18yo+ life. I’ve drawn about 4 times, and I’ve never fired a single shot in defense (or offense).

              I just don’t know anyone who verbalizes such stuff either. I’m willing to be there are some youngsters out there with such fantasies, but not more mature heat-packers.

            • Thank you @Richard. I’m obtuse sometimes… Yes I agree.

  4. I’ve long wondered whether the men on the LIRR car with Colin Ferguson fantasized about what might have happened if they had a gun.
    Waiting for the cops certainly didn’t work.
    And yes men dream- who amongst us haven’t looked at the top end of the speedometer & wondered how or why we might take it there?

  5. Pieces like this always make me so sad.

    I support gun rights simply because I want to live among people I can trust. For me it’s not about “defending my home” or “protecting myself,” it’s much simpler: I want to trust the people I live among not to kill me.

    I’m a short man; I know full well that there are many members of my society who could choose to kill me if they wished simply because they are a foot taller than I am and have twice my weight. Yet I would rather trust them to simply not kill me than demand that they be regulated.

    For me, guns are little different. It’s easy to point at lost lives and say “Look at the cost of gun ownership!” But what of the cost in lost community when we tell our neighbors what we will and will not trust them with?

  6. And what of the police, TSA, FBI et al and THEIR guns? What do THOSE guns do to THOSE guys?

    Its just a fantasy?

  7. Prof Barsanti: Have you ever attempted to buy a firearm in Massachusetts in the past 20 years? Right now it takes approx 1 year of endless red-tape and persona-perfection to get a ticket to even buy a rifle.

    **** “Guns feed our dreams and our egos. They lull us to a sleep where the world stands at moral attention and grudging fear. We awake to the awful wisdom of Pogo; that “we have met the enemy and he is us.” ****

    No….Guns make the 20-50 minute police response time in my two-horse town a non-issue. They give me and my children something more than “HOPE” that the bad guy does not just decide to kill us. The make the prospect of a home invasions (as are the order of the day in US towns like Syracuse, Chicago, Rochester, South Bronx, etc 300X) a non-issue.

    An armed populous is key to the obstruction of tyranny. It was not to give us black-powder muskets to hunt deer. But you already know this, don’t you!

    • Lord Boofhead says:

      What Tyranny are you and the other ‘hero’s with military grade weapons protecting folks from? The Tyranny of little children living out their lives? The Tyranny of a year with fire arm based murder in single digits?

      You sir are not a hero, you are a coward.

      • OK…I’ll bite (and buy you dinner too)… Why do YOU suppose the Second Amendment was included into the Bill of Rights?

        **** “You sir are not a hero, you are a coward.” ****
        Oh….but I give such warm hugs. And you can’t hug yer kids without arms….or something like that….LOL.

      • I don’t know, but when you can have SWAT teams swoop down in eight different cities at once just to get rid of some pesky hippies protesting the fact that rich people get everything they want, I don’t think you can just blithely dismiss this kind of shit. When you have cops getting away with murder CONSTANTLY — when they shoot unarmed men in the back and then scream ‘I WAS SCARED!!!!!’ to get out of it — you don’t get to pretend that we live in a perfectly glorious and peaceful country.

        Just because your upper class, almost certainly lily-white @#$ doesn’t see these problems don’t mean that they don’t exist. They mean that you’ve chosen to turn a blind eye because you don’t honestly give a damn. You got yours. #$%^ everyone else.

        • ***When you have cops getting away with murder CONSTANTLY — when they shoot unarmed men in the back and then scream ‘I WAS SCARED!!!!!’ to get out of it — you don’t get to pretend that we live in a perfectly glorious and peaceful country.***

          So you want the cops to be the only ones with the gunz? I’m lost.

      • Why does the gen public get to create new and vicious personae that will never be seen or heard from again, and registered users get sanctioned? Seems FUBAR to me.

  8. Peter von Maidenberg says:

    “If I go to Dick’s Sporting Goods, they will let me hit the new drivers, but they won’t let me fire off the shotguns.”

    The problem is that guns are dicks when they should be sporting goods.

  9. Great article. I just wish we lived in a world where it didn’t have to be written. Sadly, the NRA and their proponents think that adding more guns would solve a problem. I think it would make it worse.

    When the movie theater shooting occurred, they imagined the room full of armed audience members rising up and shooting him. I imagined one person shooting him and another person, in the confusion, mistaking that “would be hero” as the gunman and shooting him. And a third person shooting at the second person and so on. Some would even miss and hit innocent bystanders. Sadly, some people keep the simplistic view that one gun cancels out another gun evenly with no messy collateral damage.

    After Sandy Hook, the NRA suggested training/arming guards for schools. (We won’t discuss right now how they’re suggesting Federal appropriations to go to the NRA to train these guards and how profiting off of this sounds sleazy.) Let’s suppose this came to be. Let’s say we put an armed guard in each of the 100,000 public schools in the US. That guard would likely have a holstered handgun, not a drawn and ready assault rifle. That guard’s usual day would be paroling for a threat that didn’t materialize. The would-be-killer would still have the element of surprise and superior weaponry. How long does it take to unholster and fire a handgun? How long does it take to fire a few rounds from an armed and ready assault rifle? Who’s likely to win this firefight? And, if the guard loses, will the NRA push for assault rifle-armed guards in every school? Where does it end?

    • A properly trained person with a pistol would be able to make ready his/her weapon in a few seconds, if the guard was not the first target he/she would be able to draw in time probably to start returning fire.

  10. Richard Aubrey says:

    You describe your fantasies clearly.
    Your ascription of them to the rest of us needs empirical evidence, which is lacking.
    I suppose you could say that a carpenter has fantasies about his hammer. Anytime anything needs hammering, boy, he’s on the spot, the go-to guy. The hero. The guy with the martial arts training. Or the first aid kit in his car.
    I was in the infantry. Shooting was a chore. My manly heart was sufficiently manly that I didn’t need reinforcement from government-supplied propellant. Land navigation was more interesting. That was before GPS took all the fun out of it.
    So, who’s more common, you who rejoiced in shooting or me who did it as I did close-order drill or polished my boots? And who has a problem needing to be addressed?
    Also, I think you mistake planning–what do I do if an intruder shows up–with fun fantasies. Not the same. Really.

    • Lord Boofhead says:

      You are the one who has the problem.

      a) You think that there is nothing to snuffing out another human’s life, its just like polishing your boots after all. Rather than being appalled by the violent urges that lurks within all men somewhere no matter how deep, instead you justify them. The first sign of a psychopath…

      b) You are trying to justify your ownership of military grade firearms with fantasies about ‘armed intruders’ who are more a myth than a reality and the few that exist are armed with guns stolen from idiots like you. You are Delusional.

      So you’re a Delusional Psychopath, please take you guns to the nearest buy back ASAP…

      • Richard Aubrey says:

        Lord Boof.
        You got your facts wrong. SURprise. I said nothing about killing people. The writer of the piece spoke of shooting targets and the rush he got. I spoke of shooting and the rush I didn’t get. So, for starters, you screwed up there.
        The appalling schtick–look at me, I’m appalled, ain’t I great–is kind of lame. Is a pre-war Enfield “military grade”?
        You’d be appalled to know what I do have in case of intruders.
        My guess is that armed intruders, or intruders who aren’t armed, are not mostly a myth, on account of so many of them get caught and sent to jail, or shot by the owners who are delusional psychopaths.
        You need a chill pill, sport.

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