The dangerous glamorisation of guns
Shamecca Davis hugs her son Isaiah Bow, who was an eye witness to the shooting, outside Gateway High School where witness were brought for questioning Friday, July 20, 2012 in Denver.
And so it happens again.
Americans awoke Friday morning to the sad news that a gunman, 24-year-old James Holmes, had opened fire at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises, leaving 12 dead and dozens wounded.
The night before, I’d filed a piece about Australian tourists’ fascination with guns - shooting them, posing with them - while travelling in America, and remarked that living here made the idea of guns a little more real.
Moviegoers wait across the street as Aurora Police strung crime scene tape around the parking lots encircling the movie theater last Friday morning.
“Guns” are the full-stop that hovers in the background of any conversation about what to expect when you move to America. Family and friends try not to panic but instead say vague things like “Stay safe!” Of course, you laugh them off, and assure them that everything is fine; you’re more likely to be struck by lightning, you say.
Some months ago, a week after I had arrived in the States, I made good on some plans to visit friends down south. As soon as I got off the train in Lafayette, Louisiana and was met by my pal, I had one request: “Can we please go to the gun show?”
This request wasn’t something completely out of the blue: aside from billboards about Jesus and letting him into your life (the usual), Lafayette was crowded with huge, garish posters that read, simply, “GUN SHOW”.
Australian swimmer Nick D'Arcy and teammate Kenrick Monk posing with guns in a picture on D'Arcy's Facebook page.
The reality of dropping into the deep end of the Second Amendment, however, was something very different. Held in the claustrophobic ambience of the Lafayette Event Centre, nothing could have prepared me for reality of the Gun Show (title case, thanks very much), save to say that I ended up stunned, a little like Neo: “Guns. Lots of guns”.
Yes, there were tables and tables and tables of firearms, from hot pink “ladies’ choice” Walthers to high-powered hunting rifles to antique-style handguns for the sentimentalist in your life. I wondered aloud if I could find a replica of the Iver Johnson .32 that Leon Czolgosz used to assassinate President William McKinley and nobody batted an eyelid.
It’s difficult to describe the deep sense of unease you feel when you see pre-teen boys shopping for assault rifles hand-in-hand with their neckless fathers, or the baskets of candy - five for $2! - that sit alongside a brace of lethal katanas, next to yet another array of shotguns.
And what is a cause for even more unease is how the longer you spend marinating in gun culture, the more rational it feels (“Sure,” I said to my friend, “If I lived down here alone, I’d probably keep a rifle in the house”). And then, once you’ve rationalised it, the more irrational your response becomes: “So, theoretically, could we go buy a gun at WalMart right now and shoot it into the air in a paddock?” I asked my pal. He replied, shrugging, “Yep”.
He was right. I couldn’t have, since I’m a non-immigrant, but he could have: in Louisiana, where we were, no permit or license is needed for any adult to purchase or possess a rifle, shotgun or handgun. My friend could have picked up an armful of the bloodcurdling shotguns on offer at the Gun Show, a few dozen rounds of ammo, and walked straight out of there.
In Colorado, the same is true (except you do need a permit to concealed carry). Holmes bought all his guns - an AR-15 assault rifle, Remington shotgun, .40 Glock handgun, and another 40 cal Glock handgun - legally, because you can walk into a gun store - here’s an example - and purchase an assault rifle.
Having lived here for a while, I do understand the appeal of the Second Amendment (though I settled for a baseball bat under the bed). What I will never understand is how and why assault and semi-automatic weapons are so readily available. These guns aren’t mere objects of protection, they are designed with a sole purpose: to kill. (Whether they’re designed to kill animals or humans depends on which side of the political fence you sit.) Who buys an AK-47 and plans to shoot at the feet of an intruder to scare them off?
It’s something that seems to fascinate Australian travellers. I know plenty of Aussie tourists who’ve made a beeline for either the gun show or a shooting range on their trips to America, and recently Australian Olympic hopefuls Nick D’Arcy and Kenrick Monk got into hot water after posing with shotguns on a trip to the U.S. Hell, I posed with one - a hot pink Walther handgun - at the Gun Show in Louisiana back in April.
So what is the fascination? Most of the young Australians currently travelling the U.S. on their gap years grew up in the aftermath of the 1996 gun buyback scheme: it’s unlikely they’ve ever seen a gun, much less held or shot one. Many Aussies are surprised to discover that shooting ranges actually exist in Australia.
The “I shoot and I vote” bumper sticker is a chucklesome anomaly on Australian roads; in the States, where in 2007 it was reported that there were 90 firearms for every 100 U.S American citizens (more recent estimates suggest the ratio is more likely to be 1:1), guns are a fact of life. Three of my friends in L.A. alone have had guns pulled on them or been a witness to an armed robbery (one has experienced both).
The flipside of this is that lots of Americans I speak to about guns are fascinated by the relative lack of firearms in Australia, and particularly the 1996 buyback, and the striking images of piles of semi-automatic weapons being disposed of. Already in the aftermath of the Aurora shooting, the 1996 buyback has been raised as an example of how extreme gun reform can be successful in lowering the rates of gun violence in a country.
And while they probably wouldn’t visit Australia simply to walk around marvelling at the lack of guns, it does go some way towards illustrating that the Aussie tourist’s fascination with firearms isn’t necessarily an indicator of anything more sinister than the allure of the other.
The reality of guns in America is something else altogether, and “sinister” is certainly a word I’d use to describe it. Or perhaps just “a reality”.
About a year ago, back home, I bought myself a wooden, hand-carved AK-47 pendant attached to prayer beads, not because I wanted to glamourise guns, but in fact the opposite: I couldn’t think of something more emasculating, in the context of phallic gun culture, than a dainty bit of wooden jewellery inspired by religious iconography.
Perhaps that’s semantics, and I’m sure many of you will argue that it is, but I certainly felt a lot more comfortable wearing it in Australia (which I did, a lot) than I have since moving to America, where the necklace remains hung on my wardrobe door.
And maybe that’s the key: when guns are something that only exist in a faraway place that you may only visit once, it’s easy to play around with the idea of gun culture and see a sick Glock as an object bordering on parody. “It wouldn’t happen in our town,” goes the logic, and for the most part, that’s correct. Thanks to the 1996 and 2003 buybacks, it is considerably less likely to happen in your town.
If, however, your town happens to be in that faraway place, and the person next to you on the street corner could be carrying a concealed weapon, it all feels a lot less like a funny holiday photo opportunity.
America is a wonderful, maddening place, but I wouldn’t be living here if I didn’t love this country. In fact, I’m here for the same reason that Christopher Nolan expressed in his statement following the Aurora murders: the movies. “I believe movies are one of the great American art forms and the shared experience of watching a story unfold on screen is an important and joyful pastime,” Nolan wrote. “The movie theatre is my home, and the idea that someone would violate that innocent and hopeful place in such an unbearably savage way is devastating to me.”
There’s a sequence in Frank Miller’s 1986 comic The Dark Knight Returns - a huge influence on Nolan’s trilogy - in which a lone gunman opens fire at a movie theater; Batman is later blamed for the killings. In the desperate grasping to make sense of the Aurora tragedy, some have already wondered whether it inspired Holmes’ rampage.
But the simple fact is that Batman - nor the idea of masked vigilantism, or rap music, or video games - isn’t the reason this happened. As the NRA types like to say at moments such as these, “guns don’t kill, people do”. Yes, but people use guns to kill people.
And they’ll keep doing so as long as they can walk into a store and buy one, thanks to those god-given rights of this God blessed country.