My Years With Guns

A crime novelist I know once claimed that through the issue of guns you could understand the whole history of the United States. After nearly three years producing the feature documentary Gun Fight with Academy Award winner Barbara Kopple (to be broadcast on HBO in mid-April), I certainly do see guns as much more than steel and caliber. The gun “issue” is woven with the strands of American history. It is also made from politics, culture, identity, passion, power, and, of course, fear.

It was daunting to begin such a project with the mandate that we make a documentary film “about guns.” It is like, as my novelist friend inferred, making a film as vast and complicated as our great and troubled country. And that is, essentially, what we did.

We spent time with hardcore gun activists of all stripes, including many who work tirelessly to protect what they view as their most important right. We interviewed the heads of gun companies and fired weapons with police chiefs in the middle of nowhere. We followed a young man who was shot four times in his French class at Virginia Tech as he turned his horrid experience into something positive. In a Sacramento emergency room, I watched a man screaming in pain as he was rushed into to the Trauma Unit, bones shattered from a bullet. We talked to a paralyzed teenager, a .22 caliber round lodged in his spine, and travelled many days with an individual who was once a leading lobbyist for the NRA. And we spent time with young people in inner city Philadelphia who get sucked into the vortex of gun violence.

Certain truths come out of these experiences, the kind that anyone who even superficially follows the politics of guns, or American politics, knows: the NRA is supremely powerful, intimidates politicians, and simplifies the issue to its advantage; guns and gun rights approximate with the Red State/Blue State divide; and populations in inner cities and those in rural settings often have stereotypes about each other—and different urban populations also hold stereotypes of each other. Guns are a fundamental element of American Life, be it in our popular media culture or in our everyday reality.

But for many decades the issue of guns has fallen into a circular pattern replete with familiar players and a handful of incremental issues bandied about. What the “debate” about guns often misses is the symbolism of what they mean for larger visions of our society and culture. The NRA would agree with this in its own way, as much of the group’s massive messaging apparatus involves making sure that everyone knows guns are “America’s First Freedom.” That, without guns, there is no “freedom” and any regulation on firearms is essentially threatening all other freedoms. For the NRA and the gun rights movement it leads, guns are as American as apple pie, a birthright, and, given the kinds of horrible things that happen in our society, it’s better to have one than not.

The other “side” of the issue is much more complicated and doesn’t benefit from such singularity of emotive messaging. Rather, the gun “control” coalition is comprised of disparate groups with similar agendas but variations in focus—some lobby for specific changes in state laws where they are based, while other D.C.-based groups lobby for incremental laws that seem the most plausible in each congressional term, be it closing the gun show loophole or banning high capacity magazines. Unlike the simple message of the NRA, these groups have the uneasy burden of selling context, that certain guns should be regulated in certain ways in certain places. Absent the support of a massive industry, these groups don’t have the means to keep politicians in line. That’s not to say they can’t make a difference, but to be effective they need not only political will but the will of citizens who—even if they have never touched a gun or known anyone who was shot—see the importance of the larger issue.

That’s because, even if what they say often smacks of misguided obsession, the die-hard gun rights activists convey something genuine. When speaking to them over the last few years, I couldn’t help but get pulled in at times. Aside from the arguable unconditional constitutional right and historical precedent for owning a gun, it was the scenarios of fear that got me. They would describe the phantoms breaking into your home to rape your wife, the thugs lurking and ready to pounce on you, the dystopian visions of the future full of chaos, a breakdown of law and order and how being armed (responsibly, of course) would be the elixir to save us from that unadulterated terror. My mind would wander, thinking, “Well, what if…?” I want to protect my family at all costs; I want to have a fighting chance. But I would then slip back to my reality and ask: Is that how I want to live my life?

Somewhat ironically, when talking to young people in inner-city Philadelphia, many of the same ideas were expressed as reasons for having to own a gun. It wasn’t just about feeling powerful and cool—it was that in these places where chaos, the breakdown of law and order, and fear is an actuality, young people felt no choice but to have a gun. Given that many gun rights enthusiasts live in rural and relatively safe environments, it actually seemed as if these inner-city youth had more justification for their (largely non-political) views. They were experiencing the real pragmatism of gun ownership, but it was hardly a utopian vision.

So, when looking at the overarching theme of guns in America, what does it really come down to? I’d say it’s what kind of society we want to live in. Of course—and herein lies part of the problem—there are very different visions of this in SoHo versus Tucson. I’m not even going to cross the line into the never-ending statistical battle that goes on around guns and gun violence. In some instances guns have saved people’s lives, fended off crooks and killers, and stopped violence. But it’s indisputable that many people painfully die and are gravely injured by bullets every day in the United States. And it’s equally true that there are many people who shouldn’t go near something that has the ability to easily take another life, especially given the lethality of firearms models that are readily available.

A vision of unregulated guns for all is a vision that sows the very chaos that gun rights activists say guns will protect them from. Can we really have a sustainable society if we protect individual rights above all else? Don’t we need to sacrifice something for the greater good of fellow Americans? These are the barbed threads that have loosely stitched together American history: superheated individualism versus the kind of cooperation and consensus that creates laws and promotes equal protection.

Guns are, essentially, the blood and bile of the body politic, an essential part of how we see ourselves as Americans. Even though their presence may never disappear, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask these larger questions and deeply consider how to make ours a society that we can all live in safely. A society that reaches beyond guns.

Contributor

Williams Cole

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