For several reasons, including the fact that gun violence touched my family while I was very young, I've always had a strong aversion to guns. The statistics related to handgun fatalities in various nations with or without handgun restrictions appeared to me to be pretty compelling. I was, in some paradoxical way, glad to have a choice in the matter, but my attitude towards gun ownership was summed up by the scene in Alan Parker's Mississippi Burning where Gene Hackman's character says, "A gun don't mean jack unless you are willing to use it." My single greatest moment of reservation about moving to North Carolina came during my first visit to the public library, which had a picture of a gun on the front door inside a crossed out circle. Ummm, okay. So I now live in a state where people have to be told it's a bad idea to take a concealed weapon to storytelling hour?
Over the course of the last few years, I've had a bit more interaction with what I'll call the "gun culture." I've come to realize that there are certain circumstances (hypothetically) where I think I would use a gun. I was also curious. I wondered what it would be like to fire a gun. Would the experience be so traumatic or distasteful that it would reassert the antipathy I've always felt? Plus--and this was the more germane point--I knew if I ever were called on to use a gun, I wasn't exactly sure if I would know how to load it, to look for if there was a safety, how to aim, what to do. I decided it might be a good idea to get someone I know who was more familiar with guns to show me how to use one.
My friend graciously took me out to shoot twice. Once to a sporting range to fire shotguns at clay targets and once to an indoor range to fire a handgun. I don't feel the need to repeat everything I've said about those two experiences. Another mutual friend has written about it here, and his thoughts, especially as they relate to the cognitive dissonance of firing handguns as opposed to shotguns, resembles many of my own. As with any new experience, the first time was the most disorienting, my hands were shaking holding the shotgun, but as of yet, subsequent practice has only lessened the surreal quality of the experience; it hasn't desensitized me to it entirely. I doubt it ever will, or should. Nor has my aversion completely subsided. When my friend showed me a new handgun he bought, handed it to me, even with it not being loaded, the weight of it in my hand gave me a feeling of intense anxiety, a knot in my stomach that came from me trying to wrap my head around the fact that this object in my hand had the potential quickly, easily, perhaps even carelessly, to end a human life. That some action as seemingly minute as flexing my index finger could have consequences so devastating and powerful is still hard for me to deal with. The experience of holding a gun has never yet given me a "rush." The feelings I get are somewhat closer to nausea.
Why do I bring this up right now? Because, also like so many experiences, the experience of firing a gun and educating myself about guns, has had unforeseen ripples and consequences. I suppose one stereotype that I was unconsciously struggling with is the assumption that greater experience with guns and their handling would tend to make one more cavalier about them and hence more likely to abuse them or make a mistake in handling them. There are examples of the former in places with strong gun cultures. I was in a neighborhood pawn shop the other day and the sales guy was bragging about his shotgun that "you could throw whatever junk you want into it and it will spit it out." The idea of loading a shotgun with non-standard ammunition to "see what happens" struck me as about as wise as drinking a mystery liquid to see if the taste helps you identify it. But I digress...
I was watching Superbad the other day. It is a Judd Apatow produced comedy that is sort of a cross between Porky's and Martin Scorsese's After Hours. Three high-school student try to secure alcohol so that they will be invited to a party and perhaps earn the attention and appreciation of some girls. One uses a false ID which lands him in a liquor store as it is being robbed, and a major subplot of the movie consists of his interactions with two moronic police officers who drag him around town on various detours before dropping him off at his party. At one point, the officers are called on to answer a disturbance at a local bar. When the suspect tries to run away, the teen boy gets entangled with him and stops him. As the two officers come running up, they praise their acquaintance for stopping the fleeing suspect, and in what is meant to be a hilarious bit of comedy that shows their ineptness, one uses his gun to point at the boy. He is waving his gun around and using it as a finger to point at things.
This scene, oddly, nearly made me ill. Yeah, I know, it's a comedy and we are supposed to understand that these guys are boobs, precisely because anyone, even someone with no experience with guns, knows not to behave as they do. It's not that I felt like someone was going to watch this scene and say, "Oh, I guess it's okay to point a loaded gun at someone" any more than I think someone would watch Forgetting Sarah Marshall and say, "I always thought herpes was transmittable even if the person who had it was not having a flare up, but the guy in the movie said differently, so, what the heck..." It's not, in short, that I think that people doing things in movies that are highly dangerous acts in real life will necessarily promote the same behavior in real life, it's just that....well...I'm not exactly sure what is supposed to be funny about it. Later the two officers, both intoxicated, have a shooting contest using a stop sign on a public road as a target. Hilarious, huh?
I've met one or two gun owners and users that I find pretty scary, perhaps even bordering on fanatical. Most of the people that I've met in my more recent dabblings in a foreign (to me) culture, though, if they've been fanatical about anything, it has been about gun safety. "Never point a gun at anything you don't intend to shoot." "If you want to go out with us or shoot with us, you must observe and abide by the safety rules at all time." "Gun jokes are a bit like bomb jokes at the airport...they aren't funny."
I guess one point that I'm trying to make is one that has surprised even me. Greater exposure to some people who have experience with guns hasn't made me more cavalier about guns...if anything, it's made me more cognizant of the disconnect between how gun use is portrayed in the media and how often that portrayal isn't always an accurate one and certainly isn't a comprehensive one. Say what you will about people who fire guns for sport--most of them (that I've met) have enough respect for the destructive capabilities of a gun to understand that a pair of drunken cinematic cops waving a loaded gun in someone's face and shooting up traffic signs is not gut-wrenchingly hilarious.
Most gun owners and users that I've met might look at Superbad and argue that they are not the (only) ones that need to be lectured on how dangerous guns are, that they are not (necessarily) the ones that need to be reminded that an idiot with a gun endangers not just himself but others. They might argue that they are certainly not the ones that need to be reminded that the destructive capacity of guns is very real.
And hey, if the popularity of Superbad is any indication, they might actually have a point.