The tragic events at Sandy Hook reminded me of a couple of lines from Chris Rock’s HBO special in 1999, ‘Bigger and Blacker’, just after the Columbine massacre. First:
’You don’t need no gun control. You know what you need? We need some bullet control… I think all bullets should cost $5,000… ‘Cos if a bullet cost $5,000, there would be no more innocent bystanders.’
’Everybody wanna know what the kids was listenin’ to… Or what kind of movies was they watchin’. Who gives a fuck what they was watchin’? Whatever happened to crazy?… Fuck the record. Fuck the movie. Cra-zy!’
Once again it was a mentally unstable young man with all-too easy access to guns and ammunition. The NRA has absurdly blamed the media, movie industry and video games for the tragedy, but what Rock said 13 years ago is just as applicable now.
I remember the first time I ever held – and fired – a real gun. It was in 2006, during the basic training for Air Force Officers Candidate School, and the weapon in question was an M16A1, the standard issue for US Forces in the Vietnam War and still used by many services worldwide. It was as controlled and restricted an environment as you could ever wish for when shooting: snarling instructors in every lane; classmates squatting over your shoulder, counting every shell popping out from the chamber; you couldn’t rapid-fire, or burst-fire; and the rifle was chained to a ring on the ground so as to limit the angle of fire only to the target 50 yards away in front of you. Even then, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmingly apprehensive at the sheer destructive power being unleashed from my fingertips. This impression only solidified when we moved onto pistol practice. Handguns have much greater immediacy than rifles: angle of fire can be adjusted much more easily and quickly, whether on purpose or otherwise; you feel the recoil a lot more; and you bear the whole weight of the weapon in your hands. Holding out the K-5 in front of me, firing off round after deafening round, every bullet carrying the sort of ruinous force that a human body can never apply by itself, I felt almost faint. I became acutely aware of the danger I presented to myself and others lining up to my sides, and also more than uncomfortable at the thought that my classmates represented the same. One mistake, one slip, one moment’s complacency, and I or someone I knew, cared about, spoke and laughed with everyday, could be crippled for life or killed. As I progressed with my national service for the next three years, participating in regular refresher target practices, I grew more proficient at working with firearms, and perhaps even confident at reacting to various situations – reloading, jamming, disassembly, etc – but I never once lost the sense that I was handling something formidably dangerous, with the potential for destruction that no person should be able to carry so easily.
Based on personal experience, I find it difficult to imagine any normal member of a civilized society at peace handling a live gun for the first time reacting in any way other than reticence and intimidation. Guns make infernal amount of noise every time they’re fired. The rounds I used for the M16 had tips as sharp as ice-picks. There are a few extremely disconcerting seconds after the trigger is pulled, when the recoil knocks your arms back and you suddenly, briefly, feel powerless over the lethal weapon you’re holding. Your mind races, thinking of every possible scenario where things can go wrong – what if you think you’ve fired all ten rounds, walk back to your platoon only to find that it was nine and you have a live round in the chamber? What if an idiot classmate on your right messes up a reload and, looking at the side of the gun with the muzzle pointed to his left, presses the trigger by accident? What if someone drops the gun and it goes off? What if?
The point is, even accounting for the user’s experience or expertise, there’s very little that’s sexy or glamorous, or even very safe about having guns. A gun is just a horribly, horrifyingly dangerous small hunk of metal, and you never forget it for a microsecond when you have it on your person. There’s a fascinating article from Dan Baum (via Kottke.org), a registered concealed gun carrier, in Harper’s Magazine, and while I started off expecting to completely disagree with him, I found many of his points spot on. The heightened sense of awareness, the exhausting feeling of responsibility, the loss of imaginative state of mind – they’re all true, as is the observation that having a gun makes you feel less safe, not more. The shooting practice during basic military training, with its multi-layered safety mechanisms and trained safety officers observing mistakes, misuse or misbehaviour with hawk-like eyes, didn’t make me feel completely safe, so goodness knows how I would feel with a gun in the street.
A loaded pistol is the possibility of a life ending in a moment’s mishap, miniaturized into something smaller than an iPad. I’m not American and cannot presume to write about what the US should or should not do on gun control in light of Sandy Hook. I do know, however, that a gun is a paralyzingly scary thing, and the idea of ordinary civilians being able to possess one without, at the very least, proper training in the right environment after thorough mental screening is a mortifying one.