It is impossible to engage in a consideration of contemporary culture’s continuing preoccupation with deadly pursuit without acknowledging the central place of guns in the process. From my first visitations of the pursuit fantasy as a child my pursuers were armed with guns, specifically handguns. The understanding was when they succeeded in cornering me and capturing me, I would be shot. As I grew older I began to imagine acquiring guns of my own, so I could return fire and defend myself.
The prevailing commercial entertainments pitched to boys in the era of my growing up were cowboy dramas. In uncountable variations the cowboy heroes were threatened, defended themselves, and ultimately prevailed over villainous enemies by being shot at and shooting back. Knives and bows and arrows might also come into play in the cycle of deadly pursuit, but guns were the dominant assurance of lethal force. While the destructive capacity of today’s obtainable firearms—Glock rifles and pistols, military assault weapons—has increased dramatically since my boyhood preoccupation with cowboys’ Colt 45s and Winchester rifles, the role of firearms in sustaining the deadly pursuit motif has not changed. The cowboy west has not entirely lost its hold on contemporary imagination, but the deadly pursuit motif is more likely to be expressed today in contemporary, futuristic, or fantasy settings: Mafia sagas, Middle East war stories, gritty police procedurals, espionage thrillers, clashes between noble and malevolent superheroes, star wars. The principals are armed. For some of them—hit men, snipers—their command of their weapons and their marksmanship are their defining characteristic.
In sum, there is no useful consideration of the deadly pursuit motif—and certainly no consideration of moving past it—without a frank appraisal of the place guns have assumed in our civic life. Moreover, as can be seen in the aftermath of recent mass shootings in schools, malls, and movie theaters, even to raise the question of guns’ place in civic life is to create a virtual Rorschach Test onto which are projected stridently opposed convictions on the part of those outraged by what they consider to be the unacceptable toll easy access to guns has taken on our collective quality of life and those who feel that denying or limiting that access is an intolerable restriction of their autonomy, an autonomy grounded in natural law and guaranteed by the Second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.
At present there is not even a guarded willingness on the part of gun control and gun rights advocates to reconsider their respective convictions about the place of guns in civic life. This impasse is not because those who hold gun control or gun rights convictions fail to understand the validity of their opponents’ position; it is because they are unable to feel what their opponents feel. Gun control advocates cite clear evidence that countries that deny or limit citizens’ access to firearms record only a fraction of the homicides and accidental deaths recorded in the United States, where such access is arguably increasing. Gun control advocates are incredulous that such statistics are not more compelling. They are beyond incredulous when, in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of twenty elementary school children and six members of the school staff in Newtown, Connecticut, by a deranged young man whose mother hoped to strengthen her relationship to him by maintaining an arsenal of firearms in their home, guns rights activists advocated, with some success across the country, arming more teachers and school staff.
It is useful to ask why guns rights advocates are unmoved by statistics showing a comparatively high incidence of homicides and accidental shooting deaths where guns are readily available, by the succession of highly publicized mass shootings in schools and public places, by the shooting deaths or attempted shooting deaths of beloved celebrities and public figures, by gang-related shooting deaths that continue apace in America’s big cities. From a gun control advocate’s perspective, and certainly from the perspective of someone who has lost a child or another loved one to gunfire, an unwillingness to restrict the means of such killing seems heartless, monstrous. For them, gun lobby slogans like “guns don’t kill people; people kill people” ring false. In the aftermath of a recent, highly publicized supermarket tragedy in which a two-year-old found his mother’s loaded pistol in her purse, accidently discharged the gun, killing his mother, a writer friend of mine mordantly commented, “I guess guns don’t kill people; toddlers kill people.” From a gun control advocate’s perspective, the idea of arming more people as a means of combatting gun violence seems nothing short of pathological. But gun rights advocates typically do not regard themselves as either heartless or pathological.
In addition to convictions about their constitutional rights and their preferred means to achieve civic safety, gun rights advocates, including gun owners of my acquaintance, have deep feelings about guns that their adversaries do not feel and to which they thus cannot begin to relate. These feelings are, I believe, preverbal and sub-verbal and thus do not enter into public discourse on the societal role of guns. I believe this because I too, from early childhood through early adolescence, was held in the thrall of guns. These were the guns of the western movies and TV shows produced primarily for me and my male friends during the American 1950s: holstered, pearl handled six guns and pump action Winchester rifles toted stylishly by TV cowboys like Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, The Cisco Kid, The Lone Ranger, Palladin, and their like on the big screen portrayed by John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and Randolph Scott.
Given strong views and justified suspicions held by my mother and father, it was made clear that under no circumstances was I allowed to own or shoot a gun that fired anything like a real bullet. My almost tearful appeals to have at least a pellet rifle or a Daisy BB gun were curtly declined. “We live in a neighborhood,” my mother would say. “Where would you shoot a gun?” My father was more impatient and more direct. “What do you want to do,” he would say, “shoot somebody’s eye out?” Given the clarity of the family policy, my passion for pistols and rifles—partly esthetic, partly something like (if not actually) libido-- was necessarily diverted to toy facsimiles, the closer to the real thing the better.
Between my fifth and tenth year, I was rarely without a set of mother-of-pearl handled cap guns, holstered and tied down around the thigh of my chaps with a string of rawhide. The charred smell released when the hammer of my cap gun met the tiny bead of gun powder embedded in each paper cap transported me out of my suburban neighborhood northwest of Chicago into a wilder, earlier realm. In my reveries before sleep, I would take cover in a comfortable ditch or behind just the right formation of rock and exchange cap gun fire with unseen, cap gun wielding enemies similarly concealed. In that hazy mental territory between imagining and dreaming, my cap gun would morph into a real gun, and I would feel myself newly arrived in a condition and a place where I had always wanted to be.
Between my tenth year and early teens I found ways to skirt my parents’ firm no-have, no-use gun policy. Some friends had been given BB guns, and when out of view of grown-ups, we set up bottles and cans and fired away. A few blocks from where I lived paved streets gave way to double rutted tractor paths leading into vast sweeps of cornfields and grassy meadows. My friends and I referred to this undeveloped territory as “the fields,” which I pictured extending westward in an unbroken sweep to Colorado where it erupted into the Rocky Mountains. In my after school and weekend hours my friends and I roamed the fields, climbed trees, built temporary forts. In the course of such outings we would occasionally cross paths with older boys my family and neighbors had told me to steer clear of because they were given to various delinquencies, including vandalism. Two of these boys, brothers, carried pellet rifles when they took to the fields, shooting at birds and squirrels and improvised targets.
I longed to have such a gun. Imagining the heft of it under my arm created a dizzying, almost erotic sense of empowerment, transforming every chirping bird on a limb, every zig-zagging rabbit into a target. I remember one chilly afternoon sitting along the bank of a little creek with a group of my friends, when the older brothers, bearing their rifles, sat down and joined us. They had not been very nice to us in the past, and I was a little uneasy about keeping their company. They were not beyond hurting us. Our talk turned to their rifles, where they got them, birds and animals they had killed. The elder of the two brothers shared a scenario he had been thinking about in which he might break into somebody’s empty house and shoot everything up, shoot every lighting fixture and standing lamp, shoot the pictures on the wall, shoot the television screen. I was simultaneously repelled by what he was saying—my parents’ darkest nightmare—and fascinated. I could feel the anarchic allure. I could see everything inside a house being a target, everything aimed at and spectacularly shattered.
The brothers left us to look for birds, and my friends and I followed at a distance. I watched as one of them pumped his rifle and fired into the tree line. The dark silhouette of a small bird dropped to the grass. Without deliberation we moved to view the kill. Years later, because I could not put it out of my mind, I wrote down what happened next, an episode recorded in a memoir I called Seeing Things.
We ran to [the fallen bird]. Incredibly tiny, bat-like, its legs drove its injured torso around in a circle. There was a dark red hole at the base of the bird’s neck, in which a glimpse of metal pellet could be seen. The gray bird seemed to be skewered to the earth by the pellet. Its bright black eye saw nothing. The bald little legs would grow still, then start spasmodically, driving the damaged torso around the hub of its pain.
“Your turn,”[one of the brothers] said to me. “Kill it.” He pumped the rifle and handed it to me.
“Kill it, and it’s your bird.”
He guided the barrel of the rifle so it rested on the bird’s pulsing head.
I looked into the tree line and squeezed the trigger.
“Bye, bird.” Their laughter hung in the cold like pain. One of them made a show of crushing the little carcass underfoot, and they moved on, toward home. They let me carry the rifle.
This troubling episode was no doubt a factor in cooling my ardor to own and to shoot guns, but there were other factors. As I entered my teens, practical matters came to dominate my interior reveries. I still drifted off into occasional fantasies, including gun fantasies and the older fantasy of deadly pursuit, but less often. It became hard to picture any plausible scenario, including a large enough and rugged enough landscape, in which I might be gladly and excitedly armed. A more pressing concern was that I would be included in the right group of friends at school. I was also preoccupied with forging satisfying attachments to girls I liked. Owning and operating guns had no place in these scenarios. I had also begun to surrender to the allure of competitive sports: tracking against bright sky the trajectory of a spiraling forward pass and the gratifying thunk of hauling it under my shoulder pads as I ran down field; the smack of my fast ball—strike!---into the fat cushion of the catcher’s mitt; longing throughout dreary school weeks for the release of Saturday morning basketball games, with uniforms, stripe-shirted referees, the satiny, sweaty race up and down gym floors the color of butterscotch, penetrating the blurry thicket of defenders for a banked lay-up, from the far perimeter of play launching a desperate shot, intuiting its thrilling swish.
By mid-adolescence guns, which had so recently beckoned with an almost erotic force, had ceased to beckon at all. Practically, I was still appropriately fearful of firearms, in that I did not want to be shot and killed by one, but I had lost all desire to own a gun or to fire it. Moving past my gun obsession carried with it no special dread or moral censure. As a younger man I cannot remember disapproving of guns or much interest in them of any kind. Only decades later, when I was professionally established as a teacher, would the schoolyard shootings at Jonesboro and Columbine beg a consideration of better laws and policy.
It took only a little dedicated reflection on my part to realize that, with only a minor adjustment of my own youthful circumstances, I could have accidentally, perhaps even intentionally, become a boy shooter and killer. I did not suppress such impulses as a boy, but I did manage to grow through and past them. This is a crucial distinction and one that might help gun control advocates better understand the gun rights adversaries they vilify.
Henry David Thoreau, now lionized for his principled pacifism, knew better. He had owned and discharged weapons. He had hunted in his youth. In his maturity he reflected, “We cannot but pity the boy who has never fired a gun; he is no more humane, while his education has been sadly neglected.” In my own case I don’t know how “sadly” my education would have been neglected if I had not been exposed to guns at all, but I am certain that, as in other critical, if perilous, stages of my early development, the way out was through.
My own boyhood obsession with guns led ultimately to a desire to understand it. For several years I had wanted guns so badly that, while not an especially difficult or disobedient boy, I was impervious to parental and civic prohibitions. If and when I could get my hands on a gun, I did so. But because I managed to grow through the process, by grace not injuring others or myself, I was able to see that my gun obsession was not really about guns. I had projected onto various firearms a more primal yearning, very possibly a call from my evolutionary past. About this realization I wrote a poem.
I dreamed of rifles
On the wall, ownable, heft in my hands,
The shoulder fit of the oiled stock,
An eye down the dull blue barrel.
Cocking one with a clink, I could feel it
Tense inside, over-ready.
Finger joint cool on the trigger’s curve,
Fondling, refitting itself,
A certain tickle of control;
The firm pull would be final.
Once there was a rifle, a toy.
A blue tin facsimile.
But I could cock it,
Set a spring and shoot
Hard corks across the living room
Or at the line of plastic crows
Clipped upon a wire rack.
Cork-struck, they dropped
And clicked like plastic on the hardwood,
A slight recognition
In each tinny kill.
So few guns would shoot.
Lightweight pistols lined with flimsy springs
Launched plunger-headed plastic darts
Puckering onto a pane of glass.
Maybe. Maybe at first.
Then the flash and bone of western guns,
One wide morning in a summer field,
I draw suddenly on something in the treeline
And shoot. A cap cracks the clearness.
The sweet char of its powder
Reminds me of something,
And I pass between the sun and form
Of an old mythic bird,
Dead again in the grass.
Again its stillness startles—
Bone-beaked, feather edges fine as snakeskin:
Prey. I am pre-Indian
Standing over pre-Eagle.
Before bison or bow
I was sinew and spear,
A sense of skull, of flank, of tender throat,
The cat’s night eye,