Will Weaver’s The Last Hunter highlights one of the biggest stumbling blocks to a productive debate about guns in contemporary America.
There’s a scene in Will Weaver’s recent memoir, The Last Hunter (Borealis Books, $24.95), where Weaver, as a fiction-writing grad student at Stanford in the 1970s, throws a party for his classmates—and for his old friend Jack visiting from Minnesota, where Weaver spent his formative years.
During the party, feeling a sudden pang of nostalgia for the hunting trips of his youth, Weaver retrieves his old Remington from under the bed so he and Jack can take a look at it. As you might imagine, the roomful of Ivy League fiction students are disturbed by one of their own transforming, before their eyes, into a gun-wielding bumpkin, and when Jack laughs at their reaction—“it’s only a shotgun”—the situation gets more awkward still. The party, says Weaver:
Quieted as if there had been a power failure. A couple of people slipped out the door; others looked toward it. Several others looked slightly stricken, if not paralyzed.
Eventually, he and Jack are forced to a bar to finish reminiscing—while Weaver’s wife stays behind to do damage control with the remaining guests.
It’s not one of the book’s most gripping scenes—a gut-clenching hunting trip with what the author thinks is a goose easily tops it, as does the sending of a particularly vindictive package to his father—but it’s certainly one of the most efficient. In these two economical paragraphs, Weaver does more than relate an interesting anecdote; he highlights, elegantly, one of the biggest stumbling blocks to a productive debate about guns in contemporary America.
The problem, at least as it appears in Weaver’s party scene, is an unwillingness, on the part of certain anti-gun liberals, to entertain even the possibility of a positive side to guns. In this worldview—and I should offer the disclaimer here that it’s one I’ve often shared—guns are an unmitigated bad, and even a soft-spoken fiction writer showing off a family heirloom shotgun is, clearly, a cause for terror and distaste.
This contrasts with the (I suspect largely imaginary) conservative view that guns are an unmitigated good, and that even someone robbing a liquor store with a hot handgun is a victory for Second Amendment ideals.
As with anything based on such black-and-white over-simplification, of course, compromise is hard to reach when we think about the debate this way—but that’s why Weaver forces us to: he wants his readers to feel the deadlock, as keenly as he does whenever subjected to his liberal friends’ preconceptions. Even as he retains an enduring affinity for the gun and hunting culture that taught him patience, cooperation, and respect for life, he’s surrounded by people who believe that such a culture can’t exist—who expect him, in fact, to hide or even abandon the aspects of his personality that come from it.
And with that fundamental conflict writ large, across a whole society and not just this one man, how could the gun debate be anything but messy?
The sad thing is, in a lot of ways the anti-gun camp and the pro-gun camp are probably on the same page; at the very least they’re in the same chapter. The senseless handgun violence that the anti-gun liberals want to cure is loathsome to most pro-gun conservatives, too, as are the backwoods militias intent on killing federal officials. It’s just that even the moderate pro-gun camp sees these as tiny, negative aberrations in what is otherwise an overwhelmingly positive gun culture, whereas even the moderate anti-gun camp sees them just as gun culture, period.
That’s because the anti-gun camp tend to live in cities, and city-dwellers don’t have the kinds of cultural traditions around guns that Weaver, growing up in rural Minnesota, clearly felt humming all around him. In several of his vignettes—even the ones where his reckless youth are most prominently on display—its clear that his enthusiasm for shooting stuff is tempered by a very strong sense of propriety and safety, one that’s been bred into him from a young age.
It’s an attitude towards guns that Weaver makes seem eminently healthy, but it’s also one that can only come from growing up with guns as a normal part of life. The same sort of process explains why city-dwellers, who grow up surrounded by many different ethnicities and lifestyles—who learn from childhood that these are things to be understood and respected, not stigmatized and feared—tend in surveys to be more socially tolerant than people who live in a town where all six hundred people have almost identical backgrounds.
The same process, in fact, is usually touted by liberals as a cure for discrimination: force people to confront what they think they fear, to learn about it, and that fear goes away. So it seems odd for those same liberals—myself, again, included—to suggest that the best way to make guns safe is to limit the opportunities for people to learn about them in any kind of meaningful way.
Not that I think every New Yorker should be given a free handgun at birth. But I do think we could build on the organic social mechanisms underlying a safe gun culture to develop more inventive artificial controls. For instance, we could design a licensure system whereby anyone wishing to own a gun must be approved, apprentice-style, by a trained mentor evaluating them over several weeks. Or the equivalent of a driving test, where all new gun-owners are required to go out and use their gun, in a controlled setting—not as a way of restricting Second Amendment rights, but as a way of forcing people to understand their full consequences.
Either of those would be more effective than control laws that assume even the most rigorous of background checks can measure—or teach—the responsibility necessary to own a weapon. Because the reason there’s so much gun crime in this country, it seems to me, isn’t only that guns are easily available; it’s that we started giving them away without all the necessary instructions.
I should note that I’m stepping far outside the bounds of Weaver’s modest, 180-page memoir here. Very rarely does he address the gun culture debate so directly, and in general his book is less a pro- or anti-gun tract than it is a quiet, literary reflection on family and belonging.
Evaluated on those terms, by the way, it’s too vague in scope for my tastes, and too uneven in narrative arc. Still, a liberal, literary reader like me, or those Stanford students in the 1970s—and such readers are clearly Weaver’s intended audience—can’t help but wonder about the value of guns as we read his stories, and to harp on the book’s literary merit seems churlish if it can nevertheless force people to reconsider beliefs they’ve held for decades. And in that light, given my experience, I can’t call The Last Hunter anything but a success.
Earlier: Pathological Persuasion