When the Thrill is Gone
“I had a cousin when I was a child,” a friend, an expert in human behavior, is saying. “One day we went to visit his family and he pulled me aside. He said, ‘C’mere. I’ve got something to show you.’ And he pulled me into his bedroom and said, ‘Look.’ And he pulled out a gun.”
The friend’s eyes narrow for emphasis, telling the story. He leans forward, a little furtively. He is in his 60s now, but some things stay with you: The sleek weight of the metal, the curve of the trigger, the bond of that secret, almost unspeakable feeling. “The experience,” he said, “was exactly as if he’d shown me a dirty magazine.”
He tells the story–in this season of church shootings and hospital shootings and freeway shootings and alleged dirty cop shootings–by way of getting to a particular punch line. And to the extent that another word can be borne about firearms and those who abuse them, I believe that it’s one of the most underreported aspects of the gun debate:
“Guns,” he said, “are a vice. Just like liquor or pornography or tobacco.” They give people–even nice people–a kind of rush. And, with weapons, the more the person is interested in power and worried about weakness, the more intense that rush feels. This is one reason gun control continues to be an uphill battle, even in the face of relentless gun violence.
I share this take because I know the truth in it. I grew up around guns, in one of those oh-so-romanticized parts of the country where everyone hunts. The schools gave days off for deer and bear seasons; some boys didn’t shave until they’d shot their first buck.
Guns were all over, and whether it was a rifle or a shotgun or somebody’s dad’s pistol, the power of holding a loaded weapon for the first time always brought something out in people that would make them avert their eyes, or suddenly have to take aim at something invisible on the horizon, or blush and clear their throats.
Later, they’d go out of their way to insist that they kept guns only because beef was expensive. Or, guns were an investment. Or, they were “traditional.” Or, dope fiends might break in. But the reasons, legitimate and less so, always came later, after the sense of power and relief and security had coursed through their systems. Just as the reasons not to quit smoking always come after that first, bracing jolt of nicotine.
This is the underbelly of the gun issue, and it doesn’t get much exposure; the debate always hews nervously to the safe zone of the rationales. (Is the crime rate down because of guns or in spite of them? Are massacres in hospitals and churches really the price of forestalling a police state? Did the Founders intend an unconditional right to bear arms when they wrote the 2nd Amendment, or just the right to join the National Guard?)
Unaddressed is the less comfy question, the one that cuts through to the modern pathology of guns: Why–in a time of peace and plummeting crime rates and cheap beef and very few truly remote houses–have so many people armed themselves?
Never mind why a law written 200 years ago for colonial farmers would allow guns–why do people continue to crave the things? This is one of the safest, richest, most open democracies on the planet. Some 200 million guns are floating around in it. Why? What inner imperative are they addressing? What lust? What imagined inequality?
Why do gun owners’ claims that they’re defending the Constitution always sound so much like the protestations of those Playboy subscribers who “only buy it for the articles?” Why does it seem fitting that alcohol and tobacco should be grouped with firearms under the same federal regulatory agency? Why does the love-hate relationship between the NRA and law enforcement always bring the phrase “takes one to know one” to mind?
These are not idle questions. California now has some of the toughest gun laws in the nation, but no one will ever accuse it of cracking down too soon. The arsenal is hip deep and–short of a repeal of the 2nd Amendment–it’s hard to imagine a solution to the public health crisis that that arsenal has created unless the thrill of guns, like the thrill of bathhouse sex or drag racing or teen smoking, is seen for what it is.
And this fascination with guns is no mystery, really, though every shooting yields another round of speculation about “society” and “the reality of evil” and similar moral pretense. Guns hook those souls who are secretly afraid that they might be weak, and who despise weakness, and who can’t feel right without something to quell that shame-soaked sense of being lesser. Guns are a vice, and vice is its own punishment.
Shawn Hubler's column runs Monday and Thursday. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. She’s a sweet person who wields a mean pen. Give her her props.
Illo by Daniel ben Avrám