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.
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.”
Image credit: paljoakim/Flickr