A few weeks before I turned 30, a man on the Bowery in New York City held a gun to my head and demanded to know why I had been spying on him. I had seen him for the first time approximately 10 seconds earlier, when he came out from behind the dumpster. Years of movies and strip-mall Tae Kwon Do lessons had prepared me for this situation, and I assumed that I would whirl around and snatch the gun from his hand at any moment. Strangely, though, all I did was hold very still and hope that the crazy person would not impulsively move his index finger and end my life forever.
I grew up with guns. My father is an avid trap shooter, and my great uncle collected more than 300 rifles and shotguns. I put firearms under the broader category of sporting goods, and I suspect that you feel the same way. If you grew up in a small town, guns are what people use to hunt and shoot targets and avoid conversation with your great aunt. They are equipment for hobbies, like airplane glue and chef's knives.
Guns do not become a tool for more quickly and efficiently killing human beings until you get to a city. Once you reach a certain population density, deer move away and someone is always wandering through your target range. At that point, a gun becomes primarily an instrument for stopping a crime, committing a crime or having a horrible accident. In the city, as in a play, just seeing a gun makes you feel like something bad is about to happen.
What a gun means, in other words, is local. The news is national, however, and the national news has recently included multiple arbitrary murders committed by people with guns. In the two weeks since my last column, which was about a funny statue of Jesus, one man opened fire on a mall in Clackamas, Ore., and another shot 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.
Both men were disturbed loners who committed senseless acts. Both men also carried AR-15 semiautomatic rifles. Which of those facts you consider salient probably depends on where you are and what a gun is to you. If you regard guns as sports equipment, the news is a harrowing testament to how heartless and atomized American society has become, and how little we do for the people atomized by it. If you regard guns as tools for more efficient killing, it is proof that we have made them too easy to get.
Both perspectives are right, and yet each insists that the other is absurd. A Facebook meme falsely attributed to Morgan Freeman urges the reader to "help by donating to mental health research instead of pointing to gun control as the problem." It is true that crazy people with guns are a mental health issuemuch like crazy people with tightly clenched fists, only more so. Yet as far as we know, neither shooter was diagnosed with a mental illness, and to claim that guns had nothing to do with what happened in Clackamas and Newtown is to take the absurd position that Adam Lanza would have killed 26 people had he walked into Sandy Hook Elementary with a baseball bat.
To pretend that tighter gun control will fix the problem of people like Lanza, however, is to mistake the symptom for the disease. For whatever reason, contemporary America has produced an inordinate number of people who arbitrarily kill strangers in public. That is a damning indictment of a civilized society. It is the kind of problem that demands clear-minded examination and honest debate, and that is precisely the conversation that we have proven ourselves unready to have.
We would rather think in symbols. My guns are the last bastion against an overreaching government that fears individual freedom. Your guns are a fixation ready to trade human life for some absurd notion of cowboy ruggedness. None of them is what it is: a machine that fires a small metal projectile in a straight line over a very long distance, hard.
A gun is only that machine when it is localwhen we take it down from the rack to go shoot trap, or when a stranger presses it against our face under a scaffold. The local gun is a simple instrument; the closer it gets, the more we understand exactly what it is for. Only the national gun has become an insoluble argumentone that conflates my gun and your gun, my town and your city, Lanza's weapon and my sport.
As we take up that argument again, we might remember that there is not much street crime in Missoula and not much hunting in Connecticut. We might remember that we are talking about the same nation but not the same places, where our idea of a country with guns in it applies differently to every gun in every hand. As facts go, that is the least difficult one we have had to come to terms with in the last two weeks.
Dan Brooks writes about politics, consumer culture and lying at combatblog.net.