Thursday, January 31, 2013

WALTER KIRN'S FIFTY SHADES OF GUN

I've been reading Walter Kirn's New Republic essay "What Gun Owners Really Want," which comes with Josh Marshall's recommendation. Aimai, in the last post, said a lot of what needs to be said about it. I'll add that I'm tired of gun owners' demands that I privilege guns' effect on their neurochemistry over the safety of everyone else in the country -- not just the thrill of the shooting but the delicious in-group joy of being part of the He-Man City Slicker Haters' Club.

Aimai and Josh quote one passage about the visceral effect of gun use (the divide between gun users and non-users is "like the gulf between those who've had sex and those who haven't or those who smoke and those who've never lit up"; shooting "cuts patterns in the self"). But there's more soft porn in Kirn's essay, of a vaguely BDSM variety, although it's hard to tell whether Kirn or the gun is the top:
They push back when they're fired. That's the elemental fact involved, the deep Newtonian heart of the whole business. They kick at your will in the instant they also project it, reminding you that force is always two-sided. It's a shock the first time, an insult to the senses, but once you've learned to expect it, absorb it, ride it, recoil becomes a source of pleasure. You're up on your board turning turbulence to flow. You want to do it again, again -- again! -- and the urge becomes part of your body, your nervous system. It feels as though it was always there, this appetite, this desire for a small, acute struggle that you can win. Win consistently. Repeatedly.

Semi-automatically.

When I shoot at the range, I don't feel personally powerful but like the custodian of something powerful. I feel like a successful disciplinarian of something radically alien and potent....

We're not talking rights here; we're talking instincts. It's not the gun that the so-called "clingers" cling to and don't like the thought of anybody screwing with. It's not even the power of the gun. It's the power over the power of the gun.
Need a cigarette, Walter?

Now, the main point of Kirn's essay is that we effete snobs who've never shot guns look down on gun owners with contempt. I'll grant that. I think a lot of gun owners have legitimate arguments for owning guns, and I even think the pleasure of shooting is mostly benign.

But it has to be balanced against the danger to society. Kirn, even though he favors some gun restrictions, wants you effete libs to swing all the way from contempt to uncritical acceptance -- he doesn't just think your criticisms are excessive, he thinks you're not entitled to them at all. You've never shot a gun! You just don't understand!

The tell is that he wants to exclude anyone who misuses a gun from his gun fraternity:
In Aurora, Colorado, last August, on assignment for this magazine, I stood at the edge of a movie theater parking lot where twelve people had been shot dead the night before and 58 others had been wounded. The shooter (I dislike this term; it seems too procedural, too flavorless; I still prefer the harsh, judgmental "killer") had been armed with a shotgun, a pistol, and a rifle.
No, Walter, you don't dislike the term "shooter" for a mass murderer because it's "flavorless" -- you dislike it because you want to banish James Holmes into a category far, far away from the one you're in. He's not a "shooter"! I'm a shooter! He's nothing like me! He has nothing to do with me!

Kirn loves the gun culture -- therefore, if James Holmes did something bad with guns, everything but the gun culture must be at fault. Kirn is, ultimately, Wayne LaPierre with a better prose style, blaming the culture exactly the way LaPierre does:
When the time to lay blame for the massacre arrived, it wasn't Americans' easy access to firearms that I found myself deploring, but a depraved, unbalanced culture of splatter-fest games and other dark entertainments. I blamed the potential for gruesome fame nurtured by the Internet, as well as a mental health system that's not a system.
Kirn goes on to sneer at "YouTwitBook -- our virtual town square where actual bodily harm is not a threat and aliases, masks, and hoods are common." It's the culture that's evil! It's the Internet's fault! It's anything but guns!

You and I see crazy people with guns killing unarmed and less-armed people. Kirn sees a siege that's mutual:
The hour of reckoning had come, particularly for gun owners like me who'd never thought clearly about where we stood, only that it was somewhere between the militants and the innocents -- a dangerous spot, since both sides felt attacked.
"Both sides felt attacked"? Um, the innocents are attacked with actual guns, and actually die. The gun militants are attacked with words. But to Kirn, these attacks are equivalent.

But what do you expect? The neural effects of shooting guns are, for Kirn, complemented by the neural effects of being art of the paranoid gun culture:
Guns can turn you into an insider even if you're an outsider by nature, recruiting you into a loose fraternity of people who feel embattled and defensive....
Kirn and an acquaintance apply for concealed-carry permits, and an instructor encourages fear -- which Kirn thinks is perfectly appropriate:
The instructor ... briefed us on the gun laws of states more tightly wound than ours. Special caution was urged when traveling through Nevada, where even an unloaded gun locked in a car trunk might land its owner in hot water. The presentation was neutral on the legitimacy of such regulations and restrictions, but its unmistakable, unvoiced premise was that we were entering hostile territory, a world poised to trip us up. The only solution was rigorous self-discipline, a heightened sense of vigilance and caution that those without guns didn't need to cultivate.
This is how religious cultists are taught to think, isn't it? You are special. And they're all out to get you.

Kirn is a bright guy, but the gun culture has made him stupider. He's completely lost sight of the meaning of a plain word:
To civilize, I think, is the key verb. It's a crossover word, with a cultural legacy and a practical, specific meaning -- to order; to, yes, "regulate" -- that the gun-owning mind responds to and respects.
"Civilization" comes from the Latin civis, meaning "city"; when you talk about civilization, you're talking about society. Angry gun owners in America don't believe in society -- they believe in a war of each against all, or "them" against all the rest of us. They don't consider the unarmed to be full citizens. They don't consider societies that aren't gun-saturated to be part of world civilization.

American civilization must include all of us, and must find ways we can all live together. The gun culture is openly hostile toward that aim. It accepts only dominance or a posture of opposition. It does not play well with others. And that's Kirn's culture, which he insists you stop criticizing.

6 comments:

Victor said...

Cigarette, my ass.
He needs to hose himself down, and go to the doctor and get a shot against STD's - Shooting Transmitted Diseases.

This was my favorite part:
"...recruiting you into a loose fraternity of people who feel embattled and defensive..."

Uhm, no hint of anti-social behavior there, huh?
No, not in you.
And not in that "loose fraternity" you decided to join.

The cure is easy.
If you want to feel less embattled and defensive, then don't go around getting your jollies shooting-off your pecker-substitutes and boasting about it in public.
STFU, and shoot.

If I ever saw one of these gun fethists out in public, I'm the one who'd feel embattled and defensive!

Oh, but that's right - I'm not entitled to that feeling.

Only gun nuts are.

And you know what?
They may be right.
I'm not the one who's paranoid!
Just worried and frightened...

The New York Crank said...

So, uh, Kirin raises some excellent points which have just caused me to alter my position on weapons.

Starting right now, I think anybody ought to be permitted to carry a loaded weapon of any kind, anywhere — with the proviso that he or she is also wearing tight leather jockey shorts, a leather skullcap, and (if the carrier is a she) a revealing bustier.

Zip-on bra cups and genital coverings optional. Glossy rubber costuming may be substituted for leather. Chains, handcuffs and goth jewelry encouraged and by law must be sold in gun shops.

Very crankily yours,
The New York Crank

aimai said...

Steve you've got a stronger stomach than my own. I just couldn't bring myself to read the entire essay. Thank you for doing the full teardown.

MCA said...

I said this in aimai's post thread, too, but Kirn's entire premise is crap. Playing the cello, skydiving, tennis and computer programming also have pysiological effects, changing your brain and the way you interact with the universe. Those hobbies also spawn publications, blogs and informal fraternities that lead to fellowship amongst enthusiasts. They're no different from range shooting a Bushmaster, other than that they don't involve instruments designed specifically to kill human beings.

Gun owners feel defensive and paranoid? Tough shit. You should have picked a different hobby. One not related to mass killings in any way, however ancillary. Your chosen pursuit serves no greater purpose in society, and inherently puts the rest of us at risk. You are therefore selfish and deserving of contempt, not more empathy, for engaging in it so passionately.

Sarah C. said...

Thank you for this. I've been going nuts these past few weeks with how even the pro-gun control pieces have to start out with homages to guns and trying to be so nice to the "law abiding gun owners" of the country." Whereas I think the vast majority of these rabid gun owners are mostly crazy and definitely selfish because they've decided that their own fun is much more important than anything else, including the lives of innocent children. And frankly, I don't see the point of respecting people who think that.

aimai said...

I want to pick up on this point Sara C makes about gun ownership as a public act, and as a selfish public act. There are lots of pleasures in this world--among them, for example, swimming pools. You could write most of the Kirn piece over and substitute the word swimming pool for gun and it would still make (more or less) sense. Swimmers live in a special world. Their reflexes and their muscles are trained to do different things, blah blah blah.

And yet we have many regulations that pertain to swimming pools in social areas and communities--the notion of an "attractive nuisance." The owner is held liable for accidents that occur with his pool (drownings etc...) and is often required to demonstrate that he has locked the pool up so that toddlers and neighborhood children can't get into it.

I've got no problem with "law abiding gun owners" except that they act like they are not part of the social compact at all--that their ownership of guns and their lax control over their own guns (theft, accident, negligence, gun sharing and swapping) and their insistence that gun purchase be seemlessly aligned with desire makes them no different from people who spit or defecate in public. Something can be lawful and appropriate in one setting and highly dangerous, distasteful, in another.

If "law abiding gun owners" want to be respected they need to start admitting that a significant fringe of their community is, in fact, irresponsible. Irresponsible with their own guns. Irresponsible with respect to law and public policy on gun ownership and display in public areas.