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.

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.

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.

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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.

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 - heres 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. 

12 comments

  • Indeed. People do kill people. The NRA and Shooters Party's mindless slogan does not hide the fact that ANYONE can under the right conditions use a gun to shoot someone else.

    It's all about the psychology and is why it take so long for the police to check you out for a gun licence. I own a pistol and a rifle. Am licensed of course and I belong to a gun club. I was also in the military and have seen what military weapons can do. No-one bar no-one, needs to own a semi-automatic military rifle except....well....the military.

    Farmers who must shoot pests might possibly have a case but it would still need to be subject to licensing laws.

    The real problem now though is with illegal guns and they are pretty easy to get hold of. The blame for this lies with the maritime unions and corrupt Customs officers who facilitate the importation of these secretly for bike gangs and other organised criminals.

    What is Tony Abbot intending to do about this problem as Gillard and her union backers are quite unlikely to even admit that this happens.

    Commenter
    Petero
    Location
    Brisbane
    Date and time
    July 23, 2012, 8:46AM
    • I remember the first time walking into a K-Mart in the USA and seeing the gun section. It was an eye opener.

      I'm not anti-gun. As an ex Army reservist I was a natural born machine gunner and to the past 17 year old virgin self, firing a machine gun was what I imagined sex to be. It's alluring. But they just don't have a place in a civilised society.

      Gun reform is not about the removal of all guns from society as it is about the control of guns. They do have a purpose, all that's required is that you prove that purpose. The US system of unfettered access to all kinds of firearms is a flawed one which time and time again this flaw surfaces in tragedy.

      The stupid part is statically, the USA is no safer or no more dangerous place. Look at the crime rates and they are not that much different to any other Western nation. You are just as likely to be a victim of a crime here in any other Western nation as you are in the USA. The only difference is the homicide rate. You are far more likely to be murdered in the USA. That stat is rather telling.

      Commenter
      feeze
      Date and time
      July 23, 2012, 8:52AM
      • I see the glorification of fantasy violence in general in mainstream pop-culture as a problem, not just the glorification of firearms in particular. That and the prepopderance of ultra violent games children play now.

        There is a lack of understanding that when you shoot someone, they die. Or if you punch (or get punched) in the head, someone may die when their head hits the pavement (which is like smashing someone's skull with a rock).

        I would recommend in all seriousness military service. I joined the infantry at 18. When people talk about firearms, I recall the stingent safety standards imposed by the Army and tell of the time I was taken to a range to watch the effects of, respectively, a 9mm bullet fired from a Browning Hi-Power pistol into a car door (went stright through and would have killed anyone on the other side); a 30 round magazine of 5.56mm bullet fired fully automatic from an assault rifle into a steel reinforced concrete block (chewed the block to pieces); and a single 7.62mm bullet from a battle rifle fired into a 40 gallon drum of water (flipped it 2 metres in the air, small hole in front, fist sized hole in back which approximates the appearance of an entrance wound and an exit wound in a human).

        After that display, I paid very, very close attention to the safety instructions, have always been supportive of gun safety and am wary of anyone who wants to own a firearm but is not a cop, a soldier or registered hunter.

        Commenter
        Andrew
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        July 23, 2012, 9:04AM
        • Military Service?? Are you kidding?

          So now not only would we have crazy people running around with guns but crazy people, trained in their use to the point of military expertise running around with guns?

          Ridiculous.

          Video Games, Movies, TV shows, the news - these things do not kill people. Yes they may act as a fantasy for an already derranged person to act out or "live" out their plots before actually doing them, but for most people they are just TV shows, games and movies.

          Gun control is -the only- way to ensure that guns are not issued to mentally unstable people (and even then the system would be fallible).

          I remember when Scream came out and there were a few different cases of people getting killed by people wearing ghost masks - this is exactly the same.

          The fact that a derranged person has decided to emulate the deaths of people from a movie they have seen does not place the movie at fault. That person would likely have gone on to kill people some other way.

          The issue here is a combined gun control and mental health one.

          If crazy people can't get guns then that makes it a lot harder to kill people - a man with a knife in a cinema could not have killed and injured as many people as this man did with a gun. Period.

          Commenter
          Adrian
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          July 23, 2012, 11:39AM
        • Gotta disagree with you @Adrian, in a way.
          Single movies aren't to blame, you're right. But there is a common theme in many movies which almost becomes propaganda in the way it is repeated ad nauseum. And that theme is that violence is good for solving disputes, can make you attractive to the opposite sex, and is to be glorified and admired.
          Media is one of the strongest forms of socialisation we have, so that who we are is shaped by what we are exposed to (the other key sources of socialisation are family and school). If you grew up watching only Star Trek re-runs and reading Philip K Dick then your perception and view of the world may be different than someone else who grew up watching Schwarzenegger movies and reading Frank Miller comics. It's not to say Schwarzenegger is to blame, or Batman, or Jason Bourne, or Christopher Nolan. It is to say that we have a culture whereby violence is glorified and viewed unrealistically. Fight scenes in movies go on for minutes with the combatants facing things that in a real context would leave them concussed, or much much worse.
          I do not agree that better mental health treatment is one of the answers because that assumes that everyone who thinks violent thoughts is mentally ill. I do not agree.

          Commenter
          Heisenberg
          Location
          Townsville
          Date and time
          July 23, 2012, 2:21PM
        • I'm all for mandatory military service as it could give teens some real skills beyond just shooting. I'm all for teaching young people the correct/safe way to use firearms but mil service could be so much more than that.

          Give teens a fork licence or a heavy vehicle licence and a two year trade cert that they can complete during mil service and then when they get out of miilitary service they can go to uni or wherever. They'll always have that skill to fall back on.
          Young people need to learn to serve their country and this would be a great way for a federal government to train Australians without the states getting in the way.

          The bigger our reserve capacity, the less need for multi-billion dollar hardware-. I'm tired of Aus pissing hundreds of billions away on machines when we could achieve effective deterrence with gov't controlled civilian armories just like there are in a few Scandinavian countries.

          Oh, and let's not forget the whiskey au go-go held the record for many years for the most casualties- the weapon of choice there was fire, not buillets. Hmm, and 9/11 was achieved with box cutters.
          Yes, guns can make it easy but If people really want to kill many, they'll find a way with or without guns.

          Commenter
          Alex
          Location
          Finley
          Date and time
          July 23, 2012, 5:08PM
        • Hang on a sec, Adrian. Andrew might have a point.
          The generation that went through conscription and National Service turned out to be the most stable, most industrious and most wealth-producing ever.They went through the armed forces knowing how to use guns and what they do, and what they can expect when they in turn get fired at.
          Our generation, and my kids', only see invincible characters fire guns, and they then show up in the next movie.

          Commenter
          Spike
          Date and time
          July 23, 2012, 7:42PM
      • My partner and I joined a gun club in Melbourne just a few months ago, primarily for sport and skill, partly curiosity and also with the idea of having access to firearms, should a civil law situation ever break out, when personal protection may be required on a regular basis.

        I have been so impressed at the regulations and guidelines in Australia for how difficult it actually is to obtain a licence, and the checks involved. Your visits to firing ranges are registered with VIC police, you need to receive safety training and attend certain amount of supervised instructional shooting range trips to be able to apply for both club membership and your licence, and then you need to show you are keeping up your practice by attending the range every few weeks so that you are skilled in safe gun use.

        Each person must also undergo a police check when applying for a licence, the rules for storage facilities for a weapon at home are stringent and monitored and the instructors and rules at the ranges are sensible, logical and no-nonsense.

        I appreciate that in Australia it's legal and possible to own and use a firearm, but with a set of restrictions that ensure you are fit to do so. I don't see any reason this shouldn't be the same in the U.S. and find it ludicrous that it's so easy to purchase a gun and create the kinds of tragedies that we keep seeing. Couple this with the hype and insanity that the often self-absorbed American culture can create in inbalanced individuals and you have a bad combination. No-one should be trusted with an automatic killing machine without regulation.

        Commenter
        Anita
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        July 23, 2012, 12:12PM
        • I think we have gone way to far with licencing, our gun crime is with illegally obtained firearms, used for illegal purposes. The rules are so onerous that many people who would like to participate in shooting as a sport are put off completely. The process of licensing is expensive, complicated and prohibitive in the extreme. I cannot spare the time to visit a range as often as licencing requires, does this mean I am not a fit and proper person to own a weapon? Ridiculous! And gods help you if you go to the range too often, you'll have a copper on the doorstep asking questions!

          Commenter
          james
          Location
          lane cove
          Date and time
          July 23, 2012, 3:02PM
      • The culture of violence in America does make you seriously stop and wonder.

        The shooting was in a crowded cinema showing a violent movie PG13 and the youngest victim was a 6 year old girl.

        What kind of society takes 6 year old kids to movies like that ?

        How many young kids of that age are watching gun/shooting/violent/horror on TV and Video at home ?

        Commenter
        doug
        Location
        reality
        Date and time
        July 23, 2012, 1:20PM

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