TPM’s Josh Marshall has written a very good post on the gun debate.
What makes the post very good is that he recognizes something which everyone in the gun debate knows but no one says: this debate is as much, if not more, about tribalism than it is about policy. Pro-gun control people, in the main, simply don’t like guns. They don’t like them because they don’t know them. They don’t like them because they symbolize things they don’t like. They don’t like them because they don’t like the kind of people who do like them.
And vice versa, of course! Gun people are a tribe too, and they don’t like the non-gun people.
And, Mr Marshall says, that’s fine. Or at least, it is what it is. I’m a non-gun person, hear me roar!
This is very good, but it’s not what drove me to write this post. Mr Marshall also recounts an anecdote. The anecdote is meant to highlight why he doesn’t like guns, but I draw a very different meaning from it.
Here it is:
I also have a random and kind of scary experience from childhood. I’m probably or 4 or maybe 5 years old. We’re visiting someone’s house in St. Louis where we lived at the time. I’m off in some part of the house away from the parents playing with the little girl my age in the family. And I see a gun. Looks like a rifle or shotgun (I was too young to know which.) I pick it up, aim at the little girl and jokingly go ‘pow!’. And when I say ‘go pow!’ I mean I said ‘pow!’
But that’s when things got weird. Basically all the blood ran out of this little girl’s face at once, which was totally weird to me. And she said in something like shock, “that’s a real gun.”
Now let’s see how Mr Marshall interprets this memory:
The point, though, is that it was totally outside of my experience that a gun I might find in someone’s house might be a real — possibly loaded — firearm as opposed to a toy. The fact that I didn’t pull the trigger when I said ‘pow!’ was just dumb luck. (…) How would my life have been different had I pulled the trigger? (…) I’d have been a murderer at age 4 or 5.
It’s fascinating that Mr Marshall after all these years and adulthood still doesn’t interpret the little girl’s words correctly, and still doesn’t know what a 5-year-old gun-person knows.
The girl didn’t say “The gun is loaded,” or “You could have killed me,” or “Watch out with that thing.” She said “That’s a real gun.”
The number one thing you learn growing up in a gun household is that you do not touch a gun without an adult present, and you do not point it at anything (you’re not willing to shoot).
If the girl’s parents were halfway responsible gun owners the gun was unloaded and with the safety on, and the girl was never in any danger. And the girl probably knew it. The reason she went white in the face was because Josh (unknowingly) broke a taboo. Gun people don’t point guns at each other and go “pow”—even if the gun is unloaded and it’s totally safe. You just don’t. Even at 5. I did it once and I learned my lesson.
The reason Josh’s friend went white in the face isn’t because she was in any danger, the reason she went white in the face is because he did the gun culture equivalent of asking How much for the little girl? at a fancy restaurant. If I took someone shooting, I think I’d be less aghast if he grabbed my wife’s tits than if he took a handgun with the slide pulled back (that means, visibly unloaded and therefore harmless) and went “Pow! Pow!”
An anti-gun person hears this story, and thinks “Because of a gun a little girl could have died, therefore guns are terrifying.”
A gun person hears this story, and thinks “Boy, anti-gun people are really ignorant.”
Now, I write this in the spirit of Mr Marshall’s post: I’m not trying to lecture him or call him an idiot or whatever. I just want to use this to highlight how the two cultures are different and how they see things differently.
I’m sure there’s people who keep their guns unsafely with kids around (shudder), and heck maybe Mr Marshall’s friend’s parents were one of them and he really did almost kill a girl.
But if there’s one thing to take away from this story, it may be this: if we’re going to live in a society with guns, probably we should teach our kids about them. Just like we teach them about venereal disease. I’m a father, and the idea that one of my kids might grab a real life rifle and play around with me fills me with a mix of bafflement and anger. I remember very well the first time I saw the rifle above my grandfather’s bed and was instructed in absolutely no uncertain terms never to touch it without an adult present. In the same department as “Putting your fingers in the power socket.” Now I’m an adult and I’m sure I could just ask to take it shooting, but whenever I see it I still feel the pang of awe and foreboding, so strong was the taboo.
The point is, when I grew up guns were a part of life, and so I was taught about them, and therefore I was safer around them.
Gun-people usually stop here and say “Therefore, people who criticize gun rights are just ignorant. Let’s move on.”
That’s not my point. (My own stance on gun rights is closer to Jeffrey Goldberg’s and Garry Wills’ than Wayne LaPierre’s.) My point is more straightforward: if we’re going to live in a country with 300 million guns, regardless of the law, perhaps we should learn (and we should make our kids learn) about them, and at the very least how to be safe around them. That means, possibly, including in school. That means recognizing that talking about guns might require knowing about them.
That might also mean that if we’re going to be a gun-rights country, that should put heavier burdens on all of us—gun-owning and non-gun-owning—than it currently does.